The Burning of Columbia

Major General Henry W. Slocum
"Sherman's March from Savannah to Bentonville."

The fall of Savannah resulted in the adoption of the plan which Sherman had contemplated. In a letter dated December 24th Sherman says:
"Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why I did not go to South Carolina, and when I answered that we were en route for that State, the invariable reply was, 'Well, if you will make those people feel the utmost severities of war we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.'"
About February 19th the two wings of the army were reunited in the vicinity of Branchville, a small village on the South Carolina Railroad at the point where the railroad from Charleston to Columbia branches off to Augusta. Here we resumed the work which had occupied so much of our time in Georgia, viz., the destruction of railroads.
Having effectively destroyed over sixty miles of railroads in this section, the army started for Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, each corps taking a separate road. The left wing arrived at a point about three miles from Columbia on the 16th, and there received orders to cross the Saluda River, at Mount Zion's Church. The Fourteenth Corps moved to the crossing, built a bridge during the night, crossed the river next day, and was followed by the Twentieth Corps and Kilpatrick's cavalry. The right wing moved direct to Columbia, the Fifteenth Corps moving through the city and camping outside on the Camden road. The Seventeenth Corps did not enter Columbia. During the night of February 17th the greater portion of the city of Columbia was burned. The lurid flames could easily be seen from my camp, many miles distant. Nearly all the public buildings, several churches, an orphan asylum, and many of the residences were destroyed. The city was filled with helpless women and children and invalids, many of whom were rendered houseless and homeless in a single night. No sadder scene was presented during the war. The suffering of so many helpless and innocent persons could not but move the hardest heart.
The question as to who was immediately responsible for this disaster has given rise to some controversy. I do not believe that General Sherman countenanced or was in any degree responsible for it. I believe the immediate cause of the disaster was a free use of whisky (which was supplied to the soldiers by citizens with great liberality). A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night, particularly when for a series of years you have urged him to come, so that you might have an opportunity of performing a surgical operation on him.

The Burning of Columbia
Lieutenant General Wade Hampton
"The Battle of Bentonville"

When the Federal army appeared before Columbia, the only troops in and around the city were Stevenson's division, Wheeler's cavalry, and a portion of Butler's division, in all about five thousand of all arms. Practically there was no force in the city, for the troops were on picket duty from a point three miles above Columbia to one twenty miles below. Of course no defense of the place was attempted, and it was surrendered by the mayor before the enemy entered it, with the hope that, as no resistance had been offered, it would be protected from pillage and destruction. Sherman, in his memoirs, tells its fate in these brief and suggestive words: "The army, having totally ruined Columbia, moved on toward Winnsboro.'"

The Burning of Columbia
My Opinion
"The Only One That Counts"

I was born (1947), raised, and educated in Columbia. The Burning of Columbia was taught to me as a current event, not history. I was in my teens before I knew "Damn Yankee" was 2 words, never hearing the 2nd without being preceded by the first, even in polite society. When the autor, John Kelso, of the book made into a movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, was in Savannah to gather background, he was a speaker of a weekly tie of the matrons of the city. When he was introduced as one of the "Good Yankees", one of these lasies responded "He ain't dead is he?"

As I have aged and read all I could about the subject, I have come to hold the opinion that No doubt that General Wade Hampton's account was correct but General Slocum's view also contains true facts. I believe that the CSA and SC command structure made 2 serious blunders:
  1) Cotton was still considered a product that must be preserved and therefore was gathered into the center of town in preparation of shipment out of harm's way. Where it was to be shipped to what benefit of "The Casue" is a mystery. While Sherman would have burned it, his was an Army on the move, not interested in such bulky "Spoils of War". There "booty" was in the form of more transportable wealth, such as gold and silver, silverware not plates. Gathering the cotton no doubt contributed to the devastation regarding the source of the spark.
  2) While Columbia was under military control, local citizens were allowed to retain their alcohol, even though drunken soldiers had been a problem in every occupied city during Sherman's campaign. Local citizens did in fact hope that offer drinks to the soldiers was a way of welcome. Even with The War lost, CSA authorities would not violate civil liberties by confiscating such supplies.

So here are the pertinent questions:
  1) Who started the fire?
I have no idea how the fire started. The City was under barrage even though it was undefended and this is the most likely source.
  2) Did Yankee soldiers start the fire?
There is no doubt in my mind that individual soldiers encouraged the fires, at the very least. There was looting and "crimes" committed and a fire is a great way to cover it up. Lastly, there were a vast number of plantations and towns that were burned by the yankees as they laid waste to Georgia and the down country of South Carolina, no arguments. Why would they pass up the Capital of the State they blamed the most for The War?
  3) Did Confederate soldiers start the fire?
I can see no reason why they would and there have been no such claims in any other city.
  4) Did Sherman order Columbia burned?
I do not see evidence to that effect but I am quite sure he did nothing to stop the fires once started and that he never lost a night's sleep over it.
  5) Who is responsible for the Burning of Columbia?
As the Philippines were falling, the Japanese Army sacked and burned Manila, an undefended city with little military value. The United States of America deemed this a War Crime and the General in command of the occupying Army was hung, although there is no evidence that he ordered it or took any part. Had things turned out differently or if somehow before The War, Sherman had fallen under the control of South Carolina, who knows what may have happened.

In defense of Sherman, the generous terms to Joe Johnston during surrender talks in North Carolina, exceeded those given by Grant to Lee and may have eased the post war ill feelings in South Carolina towards him. With Lincoln's death, a peacful reconstruction died and he was forced to retract his terms and exact a greater degree of humilation.

Regardless, this is what citizens of Columbia were left with

My research and these pages do not address, in any depth, this action. I am the great grandson of those who were there and passed it thru their children down to me. This was and is the feeling of the majority of those who were born and raised in Columbia. If you are interested in finding out more from an equally unbiased Columbian, I would refer you to

My long term goal is to accumulate enough information to publish a book for inclusion in the resources of the South Carolina Archives. If you have any information about these units or their members, please E-Mail me at: