17 thoughts on “February 17, 1865: The Burning of Columbia

  1. Talmadge Walker February 17, 2015 / 10:20 am

    Helped to keep Hampton in a foul mood after the war, but he was there already.

  2. C. Meyer February 17, 2015 / 1:52 pm

    On a personal note, it signaled the end of my Great-Great Grandfather’s enlistment. He would catch the steamer Gen. Lyons which was heading North, sadly the ship sank with many soldiers onboard, luckily for me he survived.

    In a larger sense I don’t think the burning had any impact on the war other than as an attempt to rid the state of Secessionitis.

    • Peter March 22, 2015 / 10:03 am

      What was your grandfather’s name please?

  3. John Foskett February 17, 2015 / 3:38 pm

    For me, the significance is that it proves the wisdom of what Gershwin put into lyrics – “the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.” Cue our colleague Al Mackey and his discussion of Marion Lucas’s book on the burning of Columbia:


    Next up – April 2, 1865 and who burned Richmond….

  4. Christopher Shelley February 17, 2015 / 3:43 pm

    This gets out of my field, really, so I merely offer an educated guess. I think its significance is that it solidifies the myth of Sherman the Barbarian in the memory of Americans–north as well as south, judging by the use of the word “our” in the headline above. It was certainly part of my “memory” until I began to read more deeply no the subject. But other than myth-making, I agree with Corey.

  5. Bob Nelson February 17, 2015 / 4:04 pm

    I think the historical significance was/is minimal other than its importance as a piece in the “Sherman was a barbarian” legend. As for the facts, remember there were standing orders in the C.S.A. to burn cotton else it fall into Federal hands. When Farragut approached New Orleans in 1862, he found the wharves and some of the warehouses ablaze because of it. Similar scenes were enacted in Memphis after the fall of Fort Donelson. Regardless of Wade Hampton’s later protestations that he didn’t start the fires, I have no problem believing that some of his troopers or Columbia merchants fired some cotton and that the fires were spread by high winds. But I give more weight to the later testimony of David Conyngham, Orlando Poe and Henry Slocum regarding the fires — i.e. that Federal soldiers exacerbated the situation.

    “As soon as night set in,” Conyngham wrote, “there ensued a sad scene … Pillaging gangs soon fired the heart of the town, then entered the houses, in many instances carrying off articles of value … I trust I shall never witness such a scene again, drunken soldiers rushing from house to house, emptying them of their valuable, firing them … officers and men reveling on the wines and liquors … Generals Sherman, Howard, and others were out giving instructions for putting out a fire in one place, while a hundred fires were lighting around them.”

    “The burning houses,” Poe wrote in his official report, “lighting up the faces of shrieking women, terrified children, and frantic, roving drunken men, formed a scene which no man of the slightest sensibilities wants to witness a second time… [B]urning cotton, fired by retreating rebels, and the presence of a large number of escaped prisoners, excited the intoxicated soldiers to the first acts of violence, after which they could not be restrained.” Slocum also blamed the alcohol. “A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other,” he later wrote in a piece for The Century Magazine, “is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night.”

    No doubt the truth will never be known.

    • John Foskett February 18, 2015 / 10:05 am

      Your analysis seems correct and I think that the truth is very likely that both groups were involved. The Rebs were abandoning the place and had no interest in letting the Yankees get their hands on the cotton, etc. And once some of the Yankees got their hands on some liquor, what could be more fun than helping the flames spread. The truth is almost certainly not the Lost Cause/ Sherman the Boogeyman fairy tale that became enshrined down South. Next up: Richmond and Fire.

  6. Mark February 17, 2015 / 6:19 pm

    Wasn’t it Confederate war policy to burn all the cotton before it could be captured? Weren’t some cities on fire before Union troops entered. Or is that true?

    I always find that amusing that the Confederates would burn anything of use before capture, and then claim everything was burned by occupying troops. They had some asinine war policies.

  7. thefreerev February 17, 2015 / 8:58 pm

    An opportunity for countless fundraisers for museums, historical societies, and heritage groups… and reenactors got to have some fun as well with all of the “celebrations” here in the midlands.

  8. SF Walker February 17, 2015 / 10:37 pm

    In addition to the enduring controversy surrounding Columbia’s burning, the event underscored the fact that the Southerner was not invincible after all–he couldn’t defend the capitol city of secession’s birthplace. It rendered Charleston militarily insignificant, forcing its evacuation by the Rebels and taking the Palmetto State out of the war for good.

    Interestingly, Columbia during the war had become one of the principal sources of Confederate currency; Keatinge and Ball Engravers were based there. The city also assisted the Richmond Depot in the production of uniforms for the Confederate Army. At least until this event. Charlestonians had sent many of their valuables to Columbia on the preconception that Sherman would certainly focus his attention on their coastal city.

  9. chancery February 18, 2015 / 9:49 am

    For those few readers of Crossroads who are not also regular readers of Andy Hall’s blog, “Dead Confederates,”, I should also mention Andy’s post on Columbia’s burning, http://deadconfederates.com/2015/02/17/the-burning-of-columbia-february-17-1865/. which summarizes analyses by Al Mackey and blogger Craig Swain and adds some insightful comments of his own.

    Also, an anecdote from Professor David Blight’s introductory civil war course (available online: http://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-119):

    “I’ll also never forget the time I was doing research in the Caroliniana Collections in Columbia, South Carolina, and I don’t remember exactly what I asked for in the Archives–I spent a good week there–I don’t remember. Oh, it was records about the state capital and the buildings. I wanted to know about the ruins and destruction, and I asked for this stuff, and the archivist, who was a woman, looked up from the desk at me and she said, “Don’t have it. Sherman burnt it.” [Laughter] Okay, thank you very much, I won’t be able to look at that stuff apparently.”

  10. Mr. Martin February 18, 2015 / 2:11 pm

    I think the historical significance is chilling and haunting. The ruthless large-scale terror tactics Sherman employed served as a compelling model for future generations of invaders. More specifically, scorched-earth policies and tactics so effectively displayed by Sherman were repeated and given a special vigor in the Japanese invasion of China, and in the German invasions of Poland and Russia. It was truly an ominous event that portended a terrible future in the nature of warfare.

    • John Foskett February 19, 2015 / 8:41 am

      Since WWII analogies are apparently in vogue, how about this one? Richmond 1865 = Florence 1944, for just a single example. The fleeing Nazis did to Florence what the fleeing Rebels did to Richmond. But for a recalcitrant General, Paris would have suffered the same fate. Unfortunately for Richmond, there was no von Cholitz in the ANV.

  11. neukomment February 18, 2015 / 3:49 pm

    I suspect that symbolically at the time the burning of Columbia had more signicance in the popular mind, both Union and Confederate, then it does 150 years after the fact. After all that was where the whole bloody mess had its genesis. Was it Sherman that said to the effect, we did not start this war; our enemies started this war, so let us give them thier fill of it?

    Also in the popular memory I offer this from 1971::

  12. Bob Nelson February 23, 2015 / 2:24 pm

    Here’s Chapter 1 from Charles Royster’s “The Destructive War” (1993 & 2011), which describes the burning of Columbia. It’s about 35 pages long. Using Google Books you cannot read Royster’s notes but Helga Ross tells me they run to 4 1/2 pages in very small print just for this chapter. Having just read it, I’m not entirely sure it presents a fair and impartial look at the event. Seems a bit skewed. What thinkest thou?

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