The Fall of Columbia

February 16, 1865 – Lead units of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the West reached the Congaree River, across from the South Carolina capital of Columbia.

Finally recognizing that Sherman’s prime target was Columbia, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard (commanding the region) notified General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee that the city’s fall could not be prevented. General Joe Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry rode into town and, according to a southern reporter, “proceeded to break into the stores along main street and rob them of their contents” on the premise that the Federals would soon pillage the city anyway. As Wheeler’s troopers rode off, General Wade Hampton conducted the final Confederate withdrawal from Columbia.[1]

The next day, Columbia Mayor T.J. Goodwyn and three aldermen surrendered the city to Federal forces. Arriving at midday, Sherman assured Goodwyn, “Go home and rest assured that your city will be as safe in my hands as if you had controlled it.” A white flag appeared on the City Hall steeple, and with bands playing and flags flying, Federal soldiers marched from Main Street to the Capitol Square.[2]

Federals had a special hatred for Columbia because the southern secession had begun in this city in 1860. Several troops gathered in the new state capitol building and held a mock session of the “state legislature” to return South Carolina to the Union. Hampton’s Confederate cavalry had gathered cotton bales to burn them, but they retreated before finishing the job. As Federals robbed civilians, looted, and drank, fires started. By nightfall, flames engulfed Columbia.[3]

The Burning of Columbia | Image Credit: Bing Public Domain

The Burning of Columbia | Image Credit: Bing Public Domain

Sherman responded by employing Federal troops to fight the fires and arrest disorderly soldiers, but many were reluctant to act. Ultimately 370 soldiers were arrested, two were killed, and 30 were wounded. Hampton contended that Sherman, after promising Columbia’s safety, had “burned the city to the ground, deliberately, systematically and atrociously.”[4]

Sherman blamed Hampton for “ripping open bales of cotton, piling it in the streets, burning it, and then going away… God Almighty started wind sufficient to carry that cotton wherever He would.” Conceding that drunken Federals may have spread the fire, Sherman acknowledged in his memoirs that he had quickly blamed Hampton without evidence to demoralize southerners into abandoning the Confederate cause. Sherman stated, “Though I never ordered it, and never wished it, I have never shed any tears over it, because I believe that it hastened what we all fought for—the end of the war.”[5]

When the fires died down around 4 a.m. on February 18, two-thirds of Columbia had been destroyed in the worst destruction inflicted on any city during the war. Fire ravaged 84 of the city’s 124 blocks, destroying many fine homes including Hampton’s. Sherman added to the ruin by destroying all buildings, railroads, and material considered potentially useful to the Confederate war effort.[6]

Southerners viewed the fate of Columbia as a symbol of Federal depredation and atrocity. They quickly began rebuilding their destroyed city.[7]

—–

  • [1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-63; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 446; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16569-16588
  • [2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16588-16608; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16627-16667; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 448; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639-40
  • [3] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213-14; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639-40; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16588-16608
  • [4] Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-63; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16627-16667
  • [5] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16627-16667
  • [6] Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-31; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16627-16667; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639-40; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-63
  • [7] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639-41; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61
Advertisements

Tagged: , , ,

One thought on “The Fall of Columbia

  1. […] ordered Hardee to evacuate, and Davis finally deferred to Beauregard’s judgment. On February 17, as Federals occupied Columbia, Hardee commanded the evacuation of the city that had symbolized the Confederate cause throughout […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: