The Burning of Columbia: "They have brought it on themselves"

Ruins of Columbia after 1865 fire (Source: Historic Columbia Foundation)
Ruins of Columbia after 1865 fire (Source: Historic Columbia Foundation)
Union General William T. Sherman
Union General William T. Sherman

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - On February 17th, 1865, soldiers in an army weary of four years of war took their vengeance out on the state of South Carolina by starting a fire that destroyed one-third of the Capital city of Columbia. The origin of that fire has been the subject of argument for nearly a century and a half.  

"It's very clear from those firsthand accounts what happened," said Columbia businessman Frank Knapp, who researched and produced the 2003 documentary Sherman's March: Final Revenge. Its video and text also include detailed sources and bibliographical notes.

"The facts told the story," said Knapp. "It was so clear.  It was so black and white."

"The Union Army was not very happy with South Carolina and they made no bones about the fact that they would like to exact some revenge on the Palmetto State for starting the war," he said.  "They talked about it the whole time they were marching here from Savannah."

Knapp's research included diaries and letters from soldiers, prisoners, and citizens; military accounts and reports from journalists. He said they all reported the same thing.

"It was long after the Confederates left and long after the Union Army took control of the city," said Knapp.  "The fires were intentionally set."

The Confederates placed bales of cotton down the center of Main St. intending to burn them so the Union Army couldn't get them.  A book written by Marion Lucas called Sherman and the Burning of Columbia suggested the Confederates lit the cotton before they fled, and cited one person who claimed the fire was burning before Union troops entered the city.

But Knapp said he found reports saying the remaining confederates fled before the cotton was torched.

"If you break the will of the Confederacy by destroying it's homeland, they will fold," Knapp explained Union General William T. Sherman's strategy.

One-third of Columbia burned, despite assurances from Sherman that no private property would be damaged. Only factories, mills, railroad and government buildings that aided the Confederacy were to be destroyed.

"When Sherman came into town, he gave the same assurance," said Knapp. "That not to worry, that nothing was going to happen to the city."

When the Union army arrived, most of the people left in Columbia were women, children and old men.

What started as an orderly march into Columbia eventually got out of hand as the officers left soldiers to themselves.

"It was a combination of very drunken soldiers, ex-prisoners of war, some former slaves," he said.  "It was bedlam in the city.  It was a party.  The alcohol was flowing."

Wrote US Army Private John C. Arbuckle in his diary: "This city was full of whisky and wine, and the colored people who swarmed the streets set it out on the sidewalks by the barrel….bottles and demijohns were passed liberally to the troops passing through the city to camp quarters."

After dinner on February 17th, upon seeing what his men had done to the people of Columbia, Sherman commented, "They have brought it on themselves."

"Sherman didn't take any responsibility for it, but he also knew the potential of that happening," said Knapp.

Eventually, Sherman and his generals issued orders that the soldiers fight the fire, but on a windy night in February, it was too late.  They managed to save the buildings of the University of South Carolina, then called South Carolina College, because they were being used as hospitals.

According to Knapp, it wasn't until midnight that a brigade of Union troops was sent into the city to arrest disorderly soldiers and citizens.  About 2500 men were arrested, including officers. Several drunken soldiers died in the flames.

Although nearly 150 years later, it appears Columbia has emerged from the ashes, Knapp disagrees.  But that's a story for another day.

Click here to see Sherman's March: Final Revenge and read its bibliography.

Tom Elmore's book A Carnival of Destruction was also used as a source for this story.

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