`One drunk colonel`: the last stand to protect Columbia

`One drunk colonel`: the last stand to protect Columbia
Gen. William T. Sherman (Source: Library of Congress)
Gen. William T. Sherman (Source: Library of Congress)

CAYCE, SC (WIS) - 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 of 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 February 15.

Elmore has written several books about South Carolina's Civil War history, including Columbia Civil War Landmarks and a Carnival of Destruction: Sherman's Invasion of South Carolina. Elmore took us on a tour of some of the more significant sites in the history of the Union Army's invasion of the area.

"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.

"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.

This story is the first in a series describing the events surrounding the Union Army's occupation of Columbia in 1865 and the burning of the city. For more detailed information of the Union march through South Carolina, and to see other significant sites, consult Elmore's books listed in the story above. 

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