Fall of the South: The Burning of Columbia



For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the second installment of the series.

February 17-18, 1865: The Burning of Columbia

After leading his army on its famous march through Georgia to the sea in November and December 1864, laying waste to thousands of square miles as they advanced, in January 1865 General William Tecumseh Sherman rested his army in Savannah and received fresh supplies from the Union Navy, letting Confederate commanders guess what his next move would be. At last in February 1865 he headed north into the Carolinas, intending to crush the remaining Confederate forces between Georgia and Virginia and eventually join forces with Ulysses Grant’s army laying siege to Petersburg, Virginia.

The cradle of the rebellion, South Carolina was held in special contempt by Sherman and his men, who blamed the state for the Civil War and now felt it their right and duty to mete out a harsh punishment—even harsher than the one they delivered in Georgia, if that was possible. The terrible climax of Sherman’s march through South Carolina was the burning of the state capital, Columbia, on the night of February 17-18, 1865.

As Sherman’s army of 65,000 men approached the capital, the state government prepared to flee along with thousands of panicked residents, terrified by reports of Union depredations in Georgia and the southern part of their own state. One observer, Emma LeConte, described the chaotic scene in her diary:

The Government is rapidly moving off stores—all day the trains have been running, whistles blowing and wagons rattling through the streets. All day we have been listening to the booming of cannon—receiving conflicting rumors of the fighting. All day wagons and ambulances have been bringing in the wounded over the muddy streets and through the drizzling rain, with the dark gloomy clouds overhead… Nearer and nearer, clearer and more distinctly sound the cannon—Oh, it is heart-sickening to listen to it!

On February 17, the only defenders, a small force of Confederate cavalry, withdrew from the city and Sherman’s Union troops marched in unopposed. With most of the remaining inhabitants cowering in their homes, the streets were filled with of thousands of freed Union prisoners of war and former slaves, while Sherman’s troops soon helped themselves to any liquor they found, only adding to the chaos. One Union officer, Major Thomas Osborn, recalled, “when the brigade occupied the town the citizens and negroes brought out whiskey in buckets, bottles and in every conceivable manner treated the men to all they would drink.”

What happened next remains a subject of debate to this day. Sherman claimed that he never ordered the city’s destruction, and in fact explicitly ordered his artillery not to shell the city before it was occupied in order to protect lives and property. Union officers also blamed the Confederate commander for piling bales of cotton in the streets to be burned before retreating. However many of the city’s residents recorded seeing Union soldiers deliberately setting fire to buildings with torches—and Sherman’s failure to prevent his men from gaining access to copious quantities of alcohol seems negligent, at best.

Whoever was to blame, as darkness fell on the night of February 17, 1865, flames were seen rising from several areas in downtown Columbia. Now chaos descended as Union soldiers, freed slaves, and criminals looted in a drunken frenzy. LeConte painted the scene with vivid imagery in her diary:

By the red glare we could watch the wretches walking—generally staggering—back and forth from the camp to the town—shouting—hurrahing—cursing South Carolina—swearing—blaspheming—singing ribald songs and using [such] obscene language that we were forced to go indoors. The fire on Main Street was now raging, and we anxiously watched its progress from the upper front windows. In a little while however the flames broke forth in every direction. The drunken devils roamed about setting fire to every house the flames seemed likely to spare…

Their efforts were aided by nature, as a strong wind had begun blowing that afternoon, fueling the flames that leapt between the town’s many wooden buildings. LeConte continued:

The wind blew a fearful gale, wafting the flames from house to house with frightful rapidity. By midnight the whole town (except the outskirts) was wrapped in one huge blaze… Imagine night turned into noonday, only with a blazing, scorching glare that was horrible—a copper colored sky across which swept columns of black rolling smoke glittering with sparks and flying embers, while all around us were falling thickly showers of burning flakes. Everywhere the palpitating blaze walling the streets with solid masses of flames as far as the eye could reach—filling the air with its horrible roar. On every side the crackling and devouring fire, while every instant came the crashing of timbers and the thunder of falling buildings. A quivering molten ocean seemed to fill the air and sky.


Many observers remarked on the disaster’s spectacular quality. Another woman, S. A. Crittenden, later recalled: “We stood in the observatory and saw these fires… kindle, one by one, along the horizon’s verge. Soon they flashed out of the darkness, nearer and nearer, rose higher and higher, spread wider and wider, until nearly the whole city became one seething sea of billowy fire.” While these women obviously viewed the burning of Columbia as a tragedy, for his part Osborn found it beautiful:

One cannot conceive of anything which would or could make a grander fire than this one, excepting a larger city than Columbia. The city was built entirely of wood, and was in most excellent condition to burn… The flames rolled and heaved like the waves of the ocean; the road was like a cataract. The whole air was filled with burning cinders, and fragments of fire as thick as the flakes of snow in a storm. The scene was splendid—magnificently grand.

By the time the wind finally began to subside around 4 a.m., roughly a third of Columbia, including all the downtown area, had been completely destroyed, leaving some 30,000 residents homeless.

Some of these would join the growing column of refugees, black and white, following in the wake of Sherman’s army. At the same time huge numbers of freed slaves and dispossessed whites were simply roaming the countryside looking for food and shelter. Although some Union troops tried to help, there was little they could do as long as fighting continued, and their need for supplies often put them at odds with freed slaves. One former slave, Harriet Smith, lost everything: “I was present when the Union Army came and took all our provisions—they took everything they could lay their hands upon—I saw them take all my bacon—they did not spare either white nor black—The articles were all taken openly in broad daylight.”

Another freed slave, Robert Falls, recalled the chaos and confusion: “I remember so well how the roads was full of folks walking and walking along… Didn’t know where they was going. Just going to see about something else somewhere else. Meet a body in the road and they ask, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Don’t know.’ ‘What you going to do?’ ‘Don’t know.’” In the same vein Ezra Adams told an interviewer: “Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain’t nothin’, ’less you is got somethin’ to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin’ on liberty is lak young folks livin’ on love after they gits married. It just don’t work.”

Despite the bitterness of defeat, occupation, and the loss of their property, at least some former masters were kind to their former slaves. One freed slave girl, Hannah Plummer, remembered:

Marster told father and mother they could have the house free and wood free, and he would help them feed the children, but mother said, “No, I am goin’ to leave. I have never been free and I am goin’ to try it. I am goin’ away and by my work and the help of the Lord I will live somehow.” Marster then said, “Well stay as long as you wish, and leave when you get ready, but wait until you find a place to go, and leave like folks.” Marster allowed her to take all her things with her when she left. The white folks told her goodbye.

See the previous entry here.