February 17, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals captured the South Carolina capital of Columbia.
On the morning of the 17th, elements of the Federal XV Corps crossed the Broad River, the last barrier between them and the state capital. Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, commanding the Confederate rear guard out of town, directed Mayor T.J. Goodwyn and three aldermen to surrender the city to the oncoming Federals. The men rode out in a carriage bearing a white flag and met with Colonel George Stone, commanding the leading Federal brigade.
Goodwyn asked Stone what terms he was willing to offer, and, according to Stone, “I refused anything but an unconditional surrender which, after a few words, he consented to and unconditionally surrendered the city of Columbia.” Stone climbed into the mayor’s carriage and later wrote that when they came across Confederates resisting the Federal advance:
“I at once called a corporal and three men, who happened to be near me, and put the mayor and aldermen in the corporal’s charge, and… took about 40 of my flankers and advanced on the cavalry. The corporal was instructed that in case one man was killed or wounded he should at once shoot the mayor and his party.”
There were no further casualties. Sherman arrived in Columbia around midday and 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.
Stone and his immediate forces raised the U.S. flag over the State House, and when they came out of the building, they were met by pandemonium. Large quantities of liquor were available in the city, as Charleston merchants had shipped it there believing it would be safe from confiscation. Stone wrote:
“When I rejoined my command, (I) found a great number of the men drunk. It was discovered that this was caused by hundreds of negroes who swarmed the streets on the approach of the troops and gave them all kinds of liquors from buckets, bottles, demijohns, &c. The men had slept none the night before, and but little the night before that, and many of them had no supper the night before, and none of them breakfast that morning, hence the speedy effect of the liquor. I forthwith ordered all the liquor destroyed, and saw 15 barrels destroyed within five minutes after the order had been given.”
Meanwhile, Hampton’s cavalry withdrew, leaving Columbia at the Federals’ mercy. Before leaving, the Confederates had started setting fire to cotton bales to keep them out of Federal hands, but they left before finishing the job. According to Confederate Major N.R. Chambliss, “the city was in the wildest terror. The army had been withdrawn, the straggling cavalry and rabble were stripping the warehouses and railroad depots, and the city was illuminated with burning cotton.”
Regardless of whether Federals or Confederates started the fires, by nightfall flames engulfed Columbia. Sherman later wrote:
“The fire continued to increase, and the whole heavens became lurid. I… received… repeated assurances that all was being done that could be done, but that the high wind was spreading the flames beyond all control… The whole air was full of sparks and of flying masses of cotton, shingles, etc., some of which were carried four or five blocks, and started new fires. The men seemed generally under good control, and certainly labored hard to girdle the fire, to prevent its spreading; but, so long as the high wind prevailed, it was simply beyond human possibility.”
Sherman employed Federal troops to fight the fires “and arrest all soldiers and disorderly persons.” But because Columbia had been the birthplace of secession, vengeful Federals were reluctant to act. Ultimately 370 soldiers were arrested, two were killed, and 30 were wounded. Hampton later alleged that Sherman, after promising Columbia’s safety, had “burned the city to the ground, deliberately, systematically and atrociously.”
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.” However, Sherman acknowledged in his memoirs that he had quickly blamed Hampton without evidence to demoralize southerners into abandoning the Confederate cause.
Historians have alternately blamed Hampton’s cavalry and drunken Federal soldiers for starting the fires. Others have cited escaped Federal prisoners of war, residents, criminals released from the city jails, or vengeful slaves. Perhaps they all share the blame. Sherman concluded, “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.”
The gale-force winds eased up around 3 a.m., and the fires started dying down an hour later. By that time, Columbia had suffered the worst destruction inflicted on any city during the war. The blaze ravaged 84 of the city’s 124 blocks, destroying many homes including Hampton’s. Major General William B. Hazen wrote:
“The sight when day opened was most saddening. An oppressive stillness prevailed. The solid portion of the city was in ashes… Crowds of homeless women and children were gathered in the public square… The city where secession was first proclaimed was turned to ashes. I have never doubted that Columbia was deliberately set on fire in more than a hundred places. No one ordered it, and no one could stop it. The officers of high rank would have saved the city if possible; but the army was deeply imbued with the feeling that as South Carolina had begun the war, she must suffer a stern retribution.”
Sherman added to the ruin by ordering the destruction of all buildings, railroads, and material considered potentially useful to the Confederate war effort. This included about 10,000 rifles, 10,000 artillery shells, and 500,000 rifle rounds. Twenty soldiers were killed when the powder magazines were accidentally detonated. The railroad depot was also destroyed along with 20 boxcars and 19 locomotives.
Southerners viewed the fate of Columbia as a symbol of Federal depredation and atrocity, and they quickly began rebuilding their wrecked city. At the same time, Sherman’s Federals prepared to continue laying waste to South Carolina as they headed north.
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