February 14, 1865 – By this time, Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies were moving directly toward the South Carolina capital of Columbia.
Sherman reported that he was advancing “without wasting time or labor on Branchville or Charleston.” The troops advanced in two wings, with Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee on the right (or east) and Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia on the left.
Part of Sherman’s force reached the Congaree River, the last major waterway separating the Federals from Columbia. The men discovered some undefended fords and began building bridges to cross the river. General P.G.T. Beauregard, the overall Confederate commander in the region, finally realized that Sherman was targeting Columbia and not Charleston.
Beauregard traveled from Columbia to confer with Lieutenant General William Hardee, commanding the Confederates around Charleston. Beauregard wrote, “The holding of Charleston is now reduced to only a question of a few days. Its loss does not jeopardize the safety of the State of South Carolina, but the loss of its garrison would greatly contribute to that end.”
On his way back to Columbia, Beauregard stopped at Florence and wired General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee that Hardee would evacuate Charleston immediately and withdraw his troops to Chesterville, north of Columbia. Beauregard then forwarded intelligence received from Major Generals Carter L. Stevenson and Joseph Wheeler, commanding Confederates at Columbia, that the “enemy has appeared in their front and driven their pickets across Congaree, at railroad bridge near Kingsville. They consider movement on Columbia serious.”
Beauregard saw this as all the more reason for Hardee to abandon Charleston because if Columbia fell, Hardee would be isolated and easily destroyed. He wrote to Hardee, “Commence immediately movement as arranged, and if practicable, average 20 miles a day.” Hardee forwarded a message from President Jefferson Davis urging him to save Charleston “for future use, and save us the pain of seeing it pass into the hands of the enemy.”
Beauregard quickly replied to Davis: “I have far from sufficient force to hold the enemy in check in the field… Hence I see no good reason for deviating from the plan already decided upon; on the contrary, I urge its immediate execution.” Beauregard returned to Columbia that night and notified Lee that all of Sherman’s four corps were “moving on this place, two of them pressing our troops back on south side to within about four miles of the river.”
Confederate reinforcements from the Army of Tennessee were expected to arrive in Columbia at any moment, but these totaled no more than 5,000 men from the depleted corps of Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham and Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart. This would give Beauregard less than 20,000 men to oppose Sherman’s 60,000 veterans.
Beauregard directed Stevenson, whose Confederates were falling back north of the Congaree River, to “construct works on this side to keep enemy’s batteries as far from city as possible.” Columbia “must then be held as long as circumstances will permit to give time to our re-enforcements to arrive.”
The next day, residents began evacuating Columbia as Sherman’s Federals inched closer through thick morning fog. Stevenson’s batteries opened on them, but the fog caused many gunners to miss their marks. By late afternoon, a large Federal force had outflanked Stevenson’s men, forcing them to fall back. Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry made a desperate charge across an open field, but it did nothing to stop the irresistible Federal wave coming toward the capital.
The bulk of Sherman’s force arrived directly opposite Columbia on the 16th. Captain Francis De Gress ordered artillerists to unlimber two guns and start shelling the town. Sherman rode to the sound of the firing and, as he later wrote, “I instructed him not to fire anymore into the town, but consented to his bursting a few shells near the depot, to scare away the negroes who were appropriating the bags of corn and meal which we wanted, also to fire three shots at the unoccupied State-House.”
Sherman then directed Major General John A. Logan’s XV Corps (of Howard’s army) to “occupy Columbia, destroy the public buildings, railroad property, manufacturing and machine shops; but will spare libraries, asylumns, and private dwellings.” Sherman’s remaining three corps would bypass the city and continue to North Carolina as planned.
A brigade was dispatched to find a river crossing, and the Federals found one on the Broad River, northwest of Columbia, before its confluence with the Congaree. By the end of the day, two divisions of XV Corps were poised to enter the capital first thing next morning. Sherman wrote:
“The night of the 16th, I camped near an old prison bivouac opposite Columbia, known to our prisoners of war as ‘Camp Sorghum,’ where remained the mud-hovels and holes in the ground which our prisoners had made to shelter themselves from the winter’s cold and summer’s heat. The Fifteenth Corps was then ahead, reaching to Broad River, about four miles above Columbia; the Seventeenth Corps was behind, on the river-bank opposite Columbia; and the left wing and cavalry had turned north toward Alston.”
Earlier that day, Beauregard, unable to wait for reinforcements any longer, ordered Columbia evacuated. Troops and residents hurried out of town, leaving behind bales of cotton sitting in wagons; there was no time to carry out the order to burn them before the Federals arrived.
Joe Wheeler’s 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, Hampton conducted the final Confederate withdrawal from Columbia. Both Columbia and Charleston were now doomed.
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