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Historical Society Column - May 4, 2015
Aspects of Shermans March concerning who burned Columbia
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When the 15th and 17th Corps of Sherman’s Army entered Kershaw District on February 23, 1865, at Peay’s Ferry on the Wateree River west of Liberty Hill, then crossed the district in three days, and were poised to exit it on Lynches River at Young’s Bridge, Tillers Ferry and Kelly’s Bridge, locally the war was all but over.

High water on the Lynches slowed them down more than Confederate forces. However, there was a small skirmish fought at West’s Crossroads in the present day Cassatt community between General Butler’s Cavalry and elements of Sherman’s 15th Corps on February 25, 1865.

This was one of only two skirmishes of any size fought in the Kershaw District during the Civil War. The other was at Boykin’s Mill between some local militia and General Edward E. Potter’s forces on April 15, 1865.

If one reads the accounts of these two events, the figures for killed, captured and wounded vary depending on which side reports them.

Recent of these columns have reported a few statistics concerning Sherman’s March through the district which he developed and published. The war has been bisected, dissected and studied for the past century and a half by historians and others, but the statistics for captured, killed and wounded have never been completely agreed upon.

The same is true for many other aspects of the war. However, varying statistics, numbers and interpretations of them are most prevalent concerning one topic of the Civil War in South Carolina: “Who burned Columbia?” A review of this matter follows which is based on reports by both sides of the conflict and some scholarship on the topic.

Who burned Columbia?

Sherman and several of his officers published their reports on the burning about six weeks after the city burned. Much later these reports were published in the War of the Rebellion Records. Sherman blamed the burning of Columbia on his claim that General Wade Hampton left smoldering cotton in the streets of Columbia and high winds spread the fire after the general conflagration began on the night of February 17, 1865.

For three weeks after the burning, William Gilmore Simms, South Carolina historian and foremost antebellum literary figure in the state, circulated around Columbia and collected information on the buildings burned, the businesses located in them and other information about the burning. He published this information in the Columbia Phoenix, a newspaper he edited and Julian Selby published beginning on March 21, 1865. His article, ”Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia,” was published serially in the first nine issues of this paper and later in 1865 in book form.

Columbia doctor Daniel Hazel Trezevant published a small pamphlet in 1865 on the burning. In 1867, a group of prominent citizens called the Carroll Committee explored the topic.

In 1872, the Mixed Commission considered claims of a few British citizens saying Sherman burned cotton belonging to them when Columbia burned in 1865. The commission ruled this occurred during a war and Sherman had no personal responsibility. These British citizens were awarded no money. Gen. Sherman, several of his officers and a number of South Carolina citizens testified before this commission. Sherman “waffled” on some of his testimony at the time.

In 1930, U.S. Sen. Coleman Blease of South Carolina attempted to present claims for repayment for property destroyed in Columbia but his efforts were fruitless. Blease, Simms, Trezevant, and the Carroll Commiittee all concluded Sherman’s Army burned Columbia.

In 1978, Dr. Marion Brunson Lucas, a native of Ward, graduate of the University of South Carolina and professor of history at Western Kentucky University, wrote a book in which he reported what historical sources revealed to him about the topic. His book, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, is filled with statistical information and percentages based on his findings and his interpretations of them.

An assessment of sources Lucas studied indicates he was thorough and sources which have been discovered since he wrote his book would not substantively change his conclusions.

His findings and interpretations have not settled the question of who burned Columbia, however. His work is viewed by Sons of Confederate Veterans groups and others as revision history. One stated, “It would not surprise me if Sherman might even blame the burning of Columbia on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.” A recent book, Flame and Blame by Patricia G. McNeeley, fully explores Sherman’s practice of blaming others for burnings done by his army.

Lucas describes Sherman’s taking over the town from Mayor Goodwyn, Sherman’s trip through town and his selection of Blanton Duncan’s home as his headquarters. Lucas listed all the fires that occurred on February 16th and during the day of the 17th, including some that occurred out of town such as the burning of Millwood, the home of Gen. Wade Hampton. Lucas listed Sherman as having 12,000 Union troops in Columbia on February 17th, 4,500 of which were the Provost Guard. They were detailed to provide security for property and to preserve order.

Lucas points out many of the 5,000 slaves in Columbia that Sherman had now freed were roaming the streets and looting businesses. He indicates about two dozen freed Yankee prisoners were in town and a very few former local civilian prisoners were on the streets of Columbia. He points out many of the Union soldiers were drunk.

In the mix of 15th Corps activities on the afternoon and evening of the 17th was “securing food,” as Lucas puts it, by a part of them. They were foraging as they had done since leaving Savannah. They were the infamous “bummers” who often were a law into themselves. With most of this group of about 12,000 concentrated in a five block wide strip stretching for a mile from the State House to Boundary Street (Elmwood Avenue), Sherman had created a recipe for disaster.

Shortly after the first fires began just after dark on the 17th, the drunken soldiers, freed slaves, freed prisoners and some others participated in the sack of Columbia. A riot ensued as some were setting fires while others attempted to put them out. The high winds took over. Finally, late in the night, additional troops were brought in and the riot stopped after two men were killed, 30 wounded and 370 arrested. About one-third of the buildings in the city had been burned.

Lucas took Simms to task, saying he exaggerated the number of burned buildings a little. Lucas was guilty of a serious oversight by only using the number of buildings burned as the sole criterion for measuring the effect of destruction on the city and state. Burning the State House was a crushing blow to the state. Burning a mule stable was not. Burning Columbia’s business district was more crushing than an equal number of residences.              

Sherman did; here’s why

1. When Sherman took over Columbia, martial law was then in effect. Whatever happened thereafter was Sherman’s responsibility. He was in charge of the city.

2. Many of his men got drunk. He did not control his men until the city burned.

3. He freed the slaves, but did nothing to control them. He assumed no responsibility for them during his entire march.

4. He personally struck no match and set no fire and did not order the city to be burned. He knew his men wanted to burn it and he placed the notorious 15th Corps, the “fire brands” of his army, in the city.

Editorial note: Columbia did not burn between 1786 and 1865 and has not burned in the 150 years since Sherman left town.