Scars from the Burning of Columbia live on 150 years later - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

One hundred and fifty years ago this week was the beginning of the end of the Civil War in South Carolina -- and it was all due to the mission of one man whose mere name still brings vitriol to sons of the south: Gen. William T. Sherman.

Sherman's march through Columbia would help change the course of the war and the Confederate Army in Columbia was near powerless to stop it. 

The Confederate Army's plan was to dig earthworks, or trenches, all around Columbia to protect the Capital City from the General William T. Sherman's Union advance.

The job didn't get done in February 1865. What's left of the few earthworks that did get built in defense of Columbia are still standing today. The mounds provided protection for Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Congaree Creek.

No more than 2,000 Confederate troops were left behind to protect Columbia. Most of them were boys and old men facing a Union army of more than 67,000 seasoned veterans. The confrontation came at Congaree Creek off the Old State Road in Cayce.

"There were too few in numbers and with the incompleteness of the earthworks, the Union troops were able to flank out the Confederacy and chase them out the road and back towards Columbia," said historian Tom Elmore of the brief battle on Feb. 15.

"The Confederates fled, went down the Old State Road back towards Columbia, what is now the Gervais Street Bridge, burned the bridge, beat it into Columbia," he said. "The only reported Confederate casualty of this was, and I quote, 'One drunk colonel.'"

The night of the 15th, the Union army camped between Congaree Creek and Columbia. The earthworks can be seen today from the Timmerman Trail on the SCANA property. Don't bother to dig the mounds for relics. Archaeologists have removed objects of historic significance.

The next day, Sherman's wing of the army approached the Congaree River bridge burned by the Confederates the night before. From the bridge landing on the West Columbia side, Union artillery was set up pointing toward the capital.


At 1PM we were ordered forward. Passed a line of Rebel fortifications not wholly completed, also several vacant camps of the enemy. Again struck the main Road along which we moved along some distance, and there formed in line of battle on right of the 1” Div. in front of the city, on west side, nothing apparently between us and the City, but the Congaree River.

-The Diary of Carroll M. Bills, an officer with the 39th Iowa Infantry


"It's from here, this area, that the shots that hit the State House were fired from," Elmore said. "Several went inside the building where, when they renovated the building in the '90's, they actually found the unexploded cannonball. And also, they used for target practice the spire of the First Presbyterian Church, which was the tallest church here in Columbia at the time."

The State House was under construction at the time and didn't have a roof. Iron stars mark the damage on the State House today where it was hit by artillery shells. 

Sherman sent another wing of his army to Lexington to polarize the town's population as he approached to Columbia. 

After weeks of rain, the Congaree River was too swift and deep for the Union Army to cross at the Columbia Riverbank. So the army marched upstream to the Saluda Factory, whose ruins still stand in what is now the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden. Before burning the building, sharpshooters were posted in the windows to cover the army as it crossed the Saluda River on pontoons. The Confederates burned the bridge there before the Union soldiers arrived. Soldiers crossing the Saluda took fire from a Confederate artillery battery stationed near what is now Greystone Boulevard.

En route to the Saluda Factory, Union troops passed the site of Camp Sorghum, a prison camp where Union officers were held. They saw the holes the prisoners dug into the ground for their only protection from the elements. About one-third of the prisoners escaped.

"They would follow the Saluda River all the way into North Carolina, remember there was no dams back then, and they would go into the Smoky Mountains, cross over with the aid of Union guys, into Tennessee, where the Union army occupied that state," Elmore said.

Two months before the Union arrival, the prisoners were moved to a more secure site at Camp Asylum at the State Mental Hospital on Bull Street in Columbia. 

Slow-going across the Saluda River forced Sherman to spend the night of February 16th on the west bank of the river, on property that is now part of the zoo. It was the last night of the Old South in the City of Columbia. 


In the early part of the evening fires broke out in the city and at 12 (Midnight) the entire city seemed to be erupted in flames.

-The Diary of Carroll M. Bills, an officer with the 39th Iowa Infantry


Feb. 17, 1865 is the day that made Columbia a symbol for the decline of the Confederacy. It is the day one-third of the city was destroyed by fire.

Early in the morning, the Union Army crossed the Broad River near the current Broad River Bridge.

-Video of Crossing-

"They were kind of in a hurry," historian Tom Elmore, who has written several books about Columbia's Civil War history and Sherman's march through South Carolina, said.

"Sherman wanted to try to cross the Broad River that day and get into Columbia, and he especially wanted to do it and beat the Confederates at burning the bridge."

But in the afternoon of Feb. 16, General Wheeler burned the bridge before even some of his rear guard could get across. Sherman had to wait another night to enter Columbia.

-Video of Gervais Street-

Union engineers worked all night to lay their pontoons, and the Federals crossed the Broad River on Feb. 17.

That morning, Columbia Mayor Thomas Goodwyn, rode out to meet Sherman's advance guard arriving by River Drive. He met Col. Stone at the intersection of River Drive and Beaufort Street.

-Video of Surrender-

Goodwyn and the Confederate leaders were aware that people from Charleston, assuming Sherman would go there, sent their alcohol to Columbia for safekeeping.

"So we were one giant liquor cabinet," Elmore said.

Knowing the ratio of women to men in Columbia was 40 to one, and many of the city's 14,000 residents were defenseless, Goodwyn surrendered the city.

"The mayor asked for terms of surrender," Elmore said. "Stone told them the surrender had to be unconditional."

A monument now stands on the site where this meeting occurred.

From there, the Federals marched down River Drive to Main Street, where they were greeted by former slaves offering them alcohol in celebration of their liberation. They marched along streets lined with bales of cotton that were set out by the Confederates to be destroyed before the Union Army could seize them.

"They had taken the cotton out of the warehouse, put it out on the curb, like we would put our garbage out to be picked up, with the intention of taking it out to the countryside to be burned, but no wagons or horses were available," Elmore said. "So it was just left there, and orders were issued do not burn the cotton."

That destruction didn't occur before the Yankees arrived, and pieces of cotton floated through gale-force winds.

Alcohol. Cotton. Wind. Three elements that, when combined, led to the destruction of Columbia. The rest, as we know it, is history.

-Video of Burning-

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