The Burning of Columbia

The ruins of Columbia, as viewed from the State building, after February 18th, 1865.
The ruins of Columbia, as viewed from the State building, after February 18th, 1865.

Unable to hold off Union troops, the Confederate army evacuated Columbia, South Carolina, allowing General Sherman to occupy the city.  On February 17th, Governor T.J. Goodwyn surrendered Columbia to the Union.  In his surrender letter to Sherman, Governor Goodwyn asked on behalf of the citizens of Columbia for “the treatment accorded by the usages of civilized warfare,” requesting “a sufficient guard in advance of the Army to maintain order in the City and to protect the persons and property of the Citizens.”

Unfortunately, a series of fires in addition to the looting of store fronts resulted in a high level of destruction throughout the city, regardless of the Governor’s requests.  Too late, several Federal soldiers attempted to extinguish the devastating fires, leaving an unknown, but large, portion of the city in ruins.  There is still a great debate on who exactly started the conflagration first: the retreating Confederates or the advancing Union.

Emma LeConte, a 17 year old resident of Columbia, (of course) blames it on the Union, and wrote a lengthy, in depth account of the chaos that enveloped Columbia the night of February 17th:

Saturday afternoon, Feb. 18th.
– What a night of horror, misery and agony! It is useless to try to put on paper any idea of it. The recollection is so fearful, yet any attempt to describe it seems so useless. It even makes one sick to think of writing down such scenes – and yet as I have written thus far I ought, while it is still fresh, try even imperfectly to give some account of last night. Every incident is now so vividly before me and yet it does not seem real – rather like a fearful dream, or nightmare that still oppresses.

Until dinner-time we saw little of the Yankees, except the guard about the Campus, and the officers and men galloping up and down the street….I do not know exactly when Sherman [arrived], but I should judge about two or between one and two p.m. We could hear their shouts as they surged down Main Street and through the State house, but were too far off to see much of the tumult, nor did we dream what a scene of pillage and terror was being enacted. I hear they found a picture of President Davis in the Capitol which was set up as a target and shot at amid the jeers of the soldiery. From three o’clock till seven their army was passing down the street by the Campus, to encamp back of us in the woods.

Night drew on. Of course we did not expect to sleep, but we looked forward to a tolerably tranquil night. Strange as it may seem we were actually idiotic enough to believe Sherman would keep his word! – A Yankee – and Sherman! It does seem incredible, such credulity, but I suppose we were so anxious to believe him – the lying fiend! I hope retributive justice will find him out one day. At about seven o’clock I was standing on the back piazza in the third story. Before me the whole southern horizon was lit up by camp-fires which dotted the woods. On one side the sky was illuminated by the burning of Gen. Hampton’s residence a few miles off in the country, on the other side by some blazing buildings near the river.

The Burning of Columbia, in the eyes of William Waud for Harper's Weekly
The Burning of Columbia, in the eyes of William Waud for Harper’s Weekly

I had scarcely gone down stairs again when Henry told me there was a fire on Main Street. Sumter Street was brightly lighted by a burning house so near our piazza that we could feel the heat. 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 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. They were fully equipped for the noble work they had in hand. Each soldier was furnished with combustibles compactly put up. They would enter houses and in the presence of helpless women and children, pour turpentine on the beds and set them on fire. Guards were rarely of any assistance – most generally they assisted in the pillaging and firing. The wretched people rushing from their burning homes were not allowed to keep even the few necessaries they gathered up in their flight – even blankets and food were taken from them and destroyed. The Firemen attempted to use their engines, but the hose was cut to pieces and their lives threatened. 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. The Library building opposite us seemed framed by the gushing flames and smoke, while through the windows gleamed the liquid fire.

Then too about this time even the Yankees seemed to have grown weary of their horrible work – the signal for the cessation of the fire – a blast on the bugle – was given, and in fifteen minutes the flames ceased to spread. By seven o’clock the last flame had expired. About six o’clock a crowd of drunken soldiers assaulted the Campus gate and threatened to overpower the guard, swearing the buildings should not be spared.

Columbia, the morning after.
Columbia, the morning after the fire.

O, that long twelve hours! Never surely again will I live through such a night of horrors. The memory of it will haunt me as long as I shall live – it seemed as if the day would never come. The sun rose at last, dim and red through the thick murky atmosphere. It set last night on a beautiful town full of women and children – it shone dully down this morning on smoking ruins and abject misery. [Aunt Josie] thought with us that it was more like the mediaeval pictures of hell than anything she had ever imagined. We do not know the extent of the destruction, but we are told that the greater portion of the town is in ashes. – Perhaps the loveliest town in all our Southern country. This is civilized warfare! This is the way in which the “cultured” Yankee nation wars upon women and children! Failing with our men in the field, this is the way they must conquer!

Further Reading:

Goodwyn, Thomas Jefferson.  Letter of Surrender to Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, 17 February 1865.  Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn Papers, University of South Carolina.

LeConte, Emma.  Diary, 1864-1865. Manuscript 420.  Collection of UNC Chapel Hill.  Digitized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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