During the last weeks of the war, South Carolina’s capital paid a bitter price for being the cradle of secession.
Major General William T. Sherman’s march to the Sea drew to a close during the last weeks of 1864, bringing an end to a bloody, bitter year of war in the Western theater. After the fall of Savannah on December 21, Sherman and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant pondered their next move. Grant wanted to consolidate the Federal armies for a final push against General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, which he initially suggested they do by transporting Sherman’s forces north by sea. Given the logistical challenges of a largescale naval transport, however, Sherman believed he could reach Virginia just as quickly by marching overland. He also saw an opportunity to continue assaulting the Confederacy’s economy and its will to fight. Grant ultimately agreed.
As 1865 opened, so did the next phase of Sherman’s operations. Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee (XV and XVII corps) would once again constitute the Right Wing of Sherman’s combined force, and begin its offensive into the heart of South Carolina with a ferry landing at Beaufort in mid-January and a march of some 25 miles inland to occupy Pocotaligo. Howard’s objective was to move toward Columbia, the capital, while also appearing to threaten Charleston on the right. The Army of Georgia (XX and XIV corps), under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, constituted Sherman’s left. Its advance would begin from Hardeeville, S.C., on the northeast bank of the Savannah River, and it would maintain the option of threatening Columbia on its right or Augusta, Ga., on its left.
The approach to Columbia took the better part of a month, and was not without its share of foraging, burning and skirmishing with Rebel cavalry. Felled trees and destroyed bridges also had a minor delaying effect, but primarily the swampy low country terrain, abundant with flooded rivers and streams, slowed the Federal advance. By mid-February, the Army of the Tennessee was gathering on the banks of the Congaree River, poised to enter the city many Yankees considered to be the spawning ground of secession.
The following is an excerpt from Steven E. Woodworth’s book Nothing But Victory, reprinted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf Publishers.
As the army approached Columbia, it passed through countryside that was more thickly settled—and had more houses to burn. “The whole country seemed on fire at times,” wrote an Illinois soldier, who surmised that the inhabitants of Columbia “could plainly see the columns of smoke rapidly coming nearer day by day, and anticipate the retribution about to overwhelm them.”
Sometimes the countryside really was on fire. A thick belt of pine woods extended across the army’s path south of Columbia, containing many turpentine-making establishments. Some of the first troops through these woods, perhaps the foragers or bummers, had set them afire, apparently as a lark. Those who came behind had to make their way through or around the burning woods as best they could. “At one place, a short distance from the road had been stored several hundred barrels of rosin,” recalled Private Charles Willison of the 76th Ohio. “This caught and the roar of its burning could be heard long before we reached the scene, creating such a dense smoke as to obscure the sun.” The infantry scattered through the woods looking for nonburning routes to the other side, and Willison thought it was nothing short of miraculous that the ammunition wagons had not blown up. The tar smoke left the men looking like coalheavers.
Confederate cavalry, supported by artillery, continued to skirmish briskly with the lead elements of the army, disputing every bridge, causeway or swamp crossing. On the night of February 15, Confederate artillery on the north bank of the Congaree River bombarded the camp of the army’s lead divisions. Only a few men were killed and wounded but “the annoyance was great,” Maj. Gen. William B. Hazen recalled. “We were all driven to dig holes in the ground to lie in, and the shrieking of shot in the darkness just over us was unpleasant beyond expression.” Daylight on February 16 found the Rebels gone. The Army of the Tennessee followed, reached the banks of the Congaree and gazed across at the city of Columbia on the far shore.
The Congaree was wide here and looked difficult to cross. Indeed, the engineer officers gave the opinion that the army’s pontoon train was not adequate to span it. The river was formed by the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers just above the city, so Sherman ordered Howard to cross the Saluda about a mile above Columbia. Howard brought up artillery to silence the Confederate guns that were firing at the army from the edge of Columbia itself. The Union gunners succeeded in that task, as well as in scattering some cavalry and suppressing looters who were emptying a depot of food supplies that Sherman very much wanted for his own troops.
As Rebel sharpshooters continued to fire from the buildings of the town, the Union artillerists kept up their bombardment. “I was amused to see the gunners knock the chimneys off of buildings,” wrote Sergeant John Bannan of the nearby 4th Iowa. On orders from Sherman, Major Francis De Gress’ gunners put a couple of 20-pounder Parrott solid shots into the statehouse. Then someone suggested that they “throw a few shots at the arsenal,” which was more than a mile away. De Gress lent his field glass to one of his gun captains and pointed out the arsenal. The sergeant scrutinized the building and remarked, “I can knock the chimney off.” There were several chimneys on the building, so an officer designated a specific one as the target. The sergeant carefully laid his piece, fired, and several seconds later the chimney toppled.
Howard then had Hazen, who commanded the 2nd Division, XV Corps, send a brigade several miles above the town, where a bridge spanned the Saluda, to secure a crossing there. To no one’s surprise, the Rebels had burned the bridge. Hazen’s men found some small boats and a larger one that could take horses; with these a regiment of infantry and a few horsemen, including Hazen himself, got over the river, drove off the Confederate pickets and made a dash for the covered bridge over the Broad River. The Rebels, however, had prepared the bridge with tinder and turpentine and lit it at the first sign that the Federals were across the Saluda. It was a roaring blaze by the time Hazen’s party arrived.
For the moment, that stopped the Union advance. The engineers soon had a pontoon bridge over the Saluda, and on February 16 the rest of Hazen’s division, as well as Maj. Gen. Charles R. Woods’ 1st Division, XV Corps, marched across it into the peninsula formed by the convergence of the Saluda and the Broad. That evening Woods alerted Colonel George Stone, commanding his 3rd Brigade, to have his troops ready to cross the river at or before first light. Stone’s men—five regiments of Iowans—spent a chilly and unpleasant night on the southwest bank of the Broad River with orders not to light any fires.
Stone hoped to enter Columbia by daybreak on February 17, but the engineers had difficulty getting his brigade to the northeast bank. They had three pontoon boats available and hoped to ferry the brigade across. First, however, they had to get a rope across the fast-flowing river to guide the ferrying operation, and this they did not succeed in doing until 3 a.m. when two daring officers carried the rope across in a skiff guided only by the light of the campfire of a Confederate picket post on the far shore. At 3:50 the first boatloads of troops—the 31st Iowa— crossed to the far bank and set up a perimeter. Colonel Stone was among the first across and found that his troops were on a crescent-shaped island about 25 yards wide and 200 yards long. Separating it from the northeast shore were only a few shallow, fordable channels defended by Confederate cavalry. Stone deployed his brigade on the island and mounted a successful assault. His men charged through the side channels of the river, holding their rifles and cartridge boxes above their heads, and drove off the Rebel horsemen.
Stone halted to allow Colonel William B. Woods’ brigade to begin crossing. As soon as it did, Stone took up the march again toward Columbia. About a mile from the city he met a delegation in a carriage bearing a flag of truce, approaching from the other direction, composed of the mayor and two aldermen who had come out to seek terms for the surrender of the city. Stone’s reply was reminiscent of Grant’s at Fort Donelson two years and one day before: “I refused anything but an unconditional surrender.” Since the Confederate cavalry was helpless to prevent the fall of Columbia, the officials had little choice but to accept. As the mayor, aldermen, Stone, a few staff officers and a 40-man escort approached the city, they found about 15 of Stone’s advance skirmishers being driven back by a battalion of Rebel cavalry who either did not know or did not care that the city had been surrendered. Stone threatened to shoot the officials, but his escorts, together with the handful of advanced skirmishers, drove off the cavalry.
Stone’s brigade resumed its march into Columbia. Stone and Captain William B. Pratt of the XV Corps staff hurried ahead and raised the U.S. flag of the 31st Iowa Regiment over the statehouse. As soon as the engineers had finished constructing a pontoon bridge over the Broad River, the rest of Woods’ division marched into Columbia in column of fours.
Whether they were the first U.S. troops to enter the city and whether the flag of the 31st Iowa was indeed the first to wave over the South Carolina statehouse was a matter of much dispute after the war. Very early that morning, while Stone’s brigade was still working on its river crossing, Brig. Gen. William W. Belknap, who commanded the Old Iowa Brigade in the XVII Corps, dispatched a party of 18 men of the 13th Iowa under Lt. Col. Justin C. Kennedy, accompanied by two staff officers, in a small flatboat that he and his men had spent most of the night modifying especially for that purpose. They crossed the Congaree much closer to Columbia, in more danger from the rapid and treacherous current than from the Rebels. “We put our overcoats on the edge of the boat to keep the water from coming in,” recalled Iowan Thomas Oldham.
Ashore on the other side, they drove off some Confederate skirmishers and then pushed inland until they encountered a horse and buggy, which they immediately commandeered. The three officers, two color-bearers and a couple of other soldiers piled in, and off they went toward the statehouse. A couple of blocks from their goal they exchanged shots with some horsemen, who promptly fled. Then Kennedy and his men hoisted the national colors over the old statehouse and their blue regimental flag over the new one. Kennedy’s men and their flags were visible to much of the XVII Corps across the river, and the men cheered heartily.
Unaware of Kennedy’s extracurricular adventure, Stone’s troops marched into the city proudly, believing themselves to be the first Union soldiers to set foot in the capital of the first state to secede. They halted along the main street, stacked arms and stood looking around at the wealthy and tasteful seat of government of South Carolina. They also saw the long piles of cotton bales in the middle of the street, still smoldering from fires lit by South Carolina General Wade Hampton’s cavalrymen as they evacuated the city. Once again the Confederates were burning cotton to prevent it from falling into the hands of Sherman’s Yankees—who could do nothing with it but burn it. At some point after the horsemen rode off, the local fire company turned out with a rather dilapidated fire engine to try to extinguish the long ridge of blazing fiber in the middle of the city’s principal thoroughfare—as well as numerous other streets—which was not only a waste of valuable cotton but also a serious fire hazard to the rest of Columbia. They were still trying when the soldiers arrived, with the fire far from completely extinguished.
Aside from the long burning heaps of cotton in many of its streets, Columbia was not looking quite itself that morning. Confederate stragglers and civilians had, between the departure of Hampton’s cavalry and the arrival of the Union infantry, done a good deal of looting. Fires had destroyed or damaged several buildings. Stores and shops were broken open, and papers, rags and various litter lay scattered on the floors, in the open doorways and on the streets and sidewalks. A stiff wind scattered the loose papers down the streets and festooned fences, trees and bushes with loose cotton. To Howard it looked like a grove in his native Maine after a snowstorm.
To Stone’s brigade fell the duty of taking possession of the public buildings and providing provost guards to keep order. The rest of the XV Corps marched through Columbia with Sherman and Howard in front of them, colors flying and bands playing, being careful to march on the windward side of the long ridges of burning cotton, which were still emitting thick, choking smoke. Blacks and some whites along the streets cheered Sherman as he passed. The XV encamped a mile or two beyond Columbia. The XVII had to wait its turn at the bridges behind the XV. Its lead division marched through the city at about nightfall and camped near the XV, but the other two divisions halted before passing through the city and camped on the outskirts.
Among those wandering the streets that afternoon were several dozen recent Union prisoners of war, escapees from a camp for captured officers just outside Columbia who had been hiding in the city since their escape. Instantly recognizable by their tattered clothes, usually bare heads and feet, and gaunt, almost skeletal appearance, the former prisoners had an agenda. One of them approached several members of the 31st Iowa and told them, “If you do not burn the city, we will.”
Among those who were happy to see the arrival of Union soldiers in Columbia were the slaves. As always, they received the Federals joyfully, eager to see them appropriate or destroy the property of their erstwhile masters. This day the interest of many of the soldiers seemed to be in getting drunk, and the slaves obligingly guided ever-growing numbers of stragglers to the cellars and warehouses where large stocks of alcohol were to be found.
The slaves were also among those handing out liquor to the men. As the soldiers of Stone’s brigade lounged in the street, civilians—black and white—approached, offering them liquor. When Hazen marched in at the head of his division somewhat later, liquors of various sorts were being “passed along the line in buckets and tin pans, and in one instance in a large tin boiler such as is used on kitchen stoves. Many men in the ranks,” noted the strict disciplinarian Hazen, “were already drunk.”
As Sherman rode into the city with his staff, Howard noticed that not only were the newly freed slaves cheering lustily but the Union soldiers lining the streets were cheering with unusual enthusiasm. A soldier wearing a plug hat and a long, ornate dressing gown over his uniform stepped gravely down off the sidewalk and approached the general, lifting his nonregulation headgear. “I have the honor (hic), General, to present (hic) you with (hic) the freedom of the (hic) City.” Members of Sherman’s escort lost no time in arresting the man. Sherman grinned and rode on.
Subtly, almost imperceptibly at first, military control of the streets was growing perilously weak. Stone was away from his brigade for about an hour on his excursion to raise the flag over the statehouse. By the time he got back, many of his men were drunk. They were tired, he wrote, and many had not had time to eat and thus were drinking on empty stomachs. It was the only way he could account for the amount of intoxication in his com mand in such a short time. He might have had another explanation if he had been present to see the prodigious amounts of liquor some of his men had been consuming. “Officers were flying around trying to stop it,” recalled Lieutenant Samuel Snow of the 25th Iowa. Snow and a detail he led destroyed some 20 barrels of liquor. Other officers were also having barrels of whiskey rolled out into the street and the heads of the barrels knocked in, allowing the liquor to pour out onto the street. “Some of the boys were trying to save some of it by dipping it out of the gutter,” recalled Captain William Duncan.
The streets quieted down later in the afternoon, and nothing looked seriously amiss in the hours before sunset. Howard gave orders to post provost guards, and inspected many of the sentinels, questioning them about their orders and checking their sobriety. He noticed a number of drunken soldiers and gave orders to Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who was back at the helm of the XV Corps, to have the culprits arrested at once. Then, as fatigued as anyone else from the hard campaigning and constant skirmishing of recent days, Howard went to his headquarters, a commandeered house in the city, and tried to get some sleep.
Several fires had already occurred around the city, but Stone’s troops, those who were sober at in various buildings least, quickly put them out. Gradually, however, the pace began to accelerate. Around sundown, which came at 6:09 p.m., Hazen noticed several fires in “a clump of isolated wooden buildings a little to the north of the principal hotel.” The buildings themselves looked to be beyond saving, but Hazen thought the fire could easily be stopped from spreading farther. Additional fires broke out over the next two hours. Meanwhile, the day’s stiff breeze from the south and southwest was gradually picking up into a howling windstorm devoid of rain.
Stone’s brigade was overwhelmed by 8 p.m. Many of his men had continued doing their duty faithfully throughout the day, but some significant portion of the brigade was hopelessly drunk. This left the command critically shorthanded in the face of a challenge that might well have been too much for it even at full strength. Untold numbers of stragglers were pouring into the city from the camps of the XV Corps, northeast of the city, and the XVII southwest of it. Stone even thought some of these nocturnal bummers came from Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division. All manner of civilians were roaming the streets, including large numbers of newly freed slaves. Nobody knew where the former prisoners of war were at this hour, and to make matters worse, someone had opened the city jail and all the inmates were now at large in the city. The fires had never really died inside the heaps of cotton in the streets, and under the stiff breeze they were now blazing merrily. Fire spread rapidly to nearby buildings.
Twice during the early evening hours Stone sent his division commander, Charles Woods, requests for another regiment or two as reinforcements. By 8 p.m. fires began to spread out of control. At about 9 p.m. Howard, whose rest had been very short-lived, decided that Stone’s brigade had become inefficient and ordered Woods to relieve it with the brigade of his brother, Colonel William Woods. For Stone’s Iowans, at least those sober enough to know about it, the order was a humiliating reversal from the glorious flag-raising a few hours before. Stone ordered his regiments to march out to the divisional camps north of town, but he himself remained in the city throughout the night, trying to fight the fires.
It might have been scant consolation to Stone to know that William Woods was faring little better. Hazen met him shortly after he took over the city and suggested that he turn out his men and pull down some buildings to create a firebreak. With evident frustration, Woods replied that “he could not get men enough together to do any good.” That statement raises the suspicion that Woods’ brigade was in no better shape than Stone’s. They might not all have been drunk, but most seemed to have their own agenda that night, and saving the capital of South Carolina from burning was definitely not on it. A soldier of Woods’ brigade, William Baugh of the 76th Ohio, wrote that he and his comrades attempted to use one of the town’s fire engines to fight the fires but someone cut the hose. “The soldiers were bound to burn the secession place,” he wrote, “and they done it.”
At about the same time, or possibly a little later, Charles Woods dispatched Colonel Robert F. Catterson’s brigade into the city. Theodore Upson of the 100th Indiana was part of Catterson’s brigade. “A good many of our men were drunk,” he later recalled. “Our first business was to gather them up and get them out of the way.” Upson and his comrades spent the rest of the night helping citizens of Columbia escape from the flames with as much of their property as possible. “All we could do was to hustle them out and if they had any little valuables help them get them to a safe place,” Upson wrote. “Where we could get blankets we gave them without asking to whom they belonged. Some of the women we had to carry as best we could, and the little children too.”
All across the city, where soldiers had been detailed to act as guards at private residences, most of the sentinels remained faithful to their duty throughout the night, alternately fighting fires and protecting property from their drunken, off-duty comrades. An Iowa soldier found himself without a post when the house he was guarding burned down. He attached himself to another house where several ladies were staying who had been frightened by drunken soldiers on looting expeditions. The Iowan spent the rest of the night fending off would-be intruders, breaking his rifle over the head of one of them, and left the house and its inhabitants intact in the morning. Mrs. Campbell Bryce credited the faithfulness and energy of her two guards with saving her house from the flames, and she saw to it that they were well fed in the morning.
The drunken, rioting stragglers were bent on plunder but were neither vicious nor especially violent. A few male South Carolinians who attempted to interfere got knocked down for their trouble, but beyond that the residents suffered no personal violence. Harriet Ravenel wrote that a “stream of drunkards poured through the house, plundering and raging” but admitted that they were “curiously civil, and abstaining from personal insult….They generally spoke to us as ‘Lady,’ and although they swore horribly, they seldom swore at us.” Another Columbia woman noted, “The Yankees were just as gentlemanly as rough men could well be.”
Howard spent the night, along with Logan, Charles Woods and other generals, in trying to contain the fire and save the affected civilians. It was, he later wrote, “one of the most terrific scenes that I have ever witnessed.” Burning buildings on all sides illuminated the soldiery, the riffraff and the frightened civilians running in all directions. In several places Howard noticed knots of soldiers protecting civilians from the released banditti and possibly from their own straggling and inebriated fellow soldiers. Several hundred soldiers of Brig. Gen. William T. Clark’s brigade, of John E. Smith’s division, XV Corps, obtained permission to go back into the city to help fight the fires.
Around 3 a.m. Logan ordered Hazen to send another brigade into the city. Hazen dispatched Brig. Gen. John M. Oliver’s brigade. By this time William Woods’ troops in the city were already beginning to get control of the situation. The 40th Illinois formed ranks, fixed bayonets and started sweeping the streets. Still, Oliver and his men found work to do when they got to town. “Called out to suppress riot,” Oliver tersely reported; “did so, killing 2 men, wounding 30, and arresting 370.” The wind also died down at about that time, allowing the troops to finally halt the spread of the fire. About one-third of the city had burned, primarily the business district.
After it was over men began to discuss the causes of the Columbia fire, and the argument went on for as long as the participants lived. Private Edwin Kimberly believed the smoldering cotton, fanned into a blaze and carried over the city by the high wind, was the source of the conflagration. Logan and Hazen felt it was the work of drunk and disorderly Union soldiers. Sergeant Major John G. Brown of the 55th Illinois, one of the regiments in Hazen’s division, thought it was the recent prisoners of war seeking revenge for their mistreatment and the deaths of many of their comrades in captivity. Charles Woods, commander of the division to which Stone’s brigade belonged, believed the fire stemmed from the burning cotton, perhaps aided by the common criminals who had been improperly released from the town jail the previous afternoon—as well as drunken slaves and soldiers. His brother, William Woods, who commanded the brigade that relieved Stone’s, heard from “respectable citizens of the town” that the fire was “first set” by the local black population, and given the former slaves’ frequently expressed desire for revenge against their onetime masters and their glee at the burning of large structures, he readily believed it.
Eyewitness testimony is sufficient to establish that the smoldering cotton on the streets did flare up under the high winds and set fire to a number of surrounding buildings. The location of the destruction suggests that this was the primary source of the fire. Eyewitnesses among local civilians claimed to have seen both soldiers and recent jail inmates deliberately setting fires. No doubt members of the Army of the Tennessee were among the incendiaries. However, it is also clear that the majority of the soldiers either remained in their camps or struggled throughout the night to fight the fires or corral the riffraff.
Some members of the Army of the Tennessee were sorry that Columbia had burned. “I do pity the women and poor little children that so many are made homeless and without anything,” wrote Private Jefferson Moses of the 93rd Illinois. “O, what a pity for them.” Others were pleased, but none were going to lose any sleep over it then or later. “Little comment need be made respecting the manner of, and responsibility for, the burning of Columbia,” wrote Sgt. Maj. Brown some years after the war. “It only paid the just penalty for its treason. It was among the first to cry out for the war, and at length reaped its reward.” Lieutenant Ensign H. King of the 15th Iowa agreed. “South Carolina, the nation state of John C. Calhoun, the hot-bed of treason, the first state to Rebel, the most defiant aider and abettor of the Rebellion, pays this small price for her crimes,” he mused in his diary the day after the fire. “To our mind, the punishment is but commensurate with the crime.” Reflecting on the night’s long and ultimately futile firefighting efforts, Brown wrote, “The seal of destruction had been set upon the city, and it was doomed.” It was almost as if Columbia had burned by divine decree that night. “God only knows how much of this is in accordance with his will,” concluded King.
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.