“Here is where treason began…”: The Burning of Columbia

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of Columbia, SCColumbia, South Carolina was considered a notorious city by the rank-and-file Union soldiers. Many of them saw Columbia as the place where treason began. One Union soldier wrote,”Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end!”

The Union soldiers in Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army saw South Carolina as the chief instigator of the war. This war had taken them from their homes and families. It had caused the deaths of many of their comrades. They saw retribution against the state of South Carolina has just and right. And Columbia, the location of the first secession convention, was directly in their sights.

Columbia was chartered as a city in 1786 and grew rapidly until it was the largest inland city in the Carolinas by 1860. Growth was fueled by the rail lines that served Columbia. The main items that they transported were not passengers but cotton bales. Virtually all of the city’s commercial and economic activity was related to cotton. And the growth in cotton meant a corresponding growth in slavery.

The majority of the population in South Carolina was black, with concentrations in the plantation areas of the Low Country: by 1860 the population of the state was 703,620, with 57 percent or slightly more than 402,000 classified as enslaved African Americans. Free blacks numbered slightly less than 10,000.

Unlike Virginia, where most of the larger plantations and slaves were concentrated in the eastern part of the state, in South Carolina plantations and slaves became common throughout much of the state. After 1794, Eli Whitney‘s cotton gin allowed cotton plantations for short-staple cotton to be widely developed.

Columbia’s First Baptist Church hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention on December 17, 1860, with delegates selected a month earlier at Secession Hill. The delegates drafted a resolution in favor of secession without dissent, 159-0, creating the short-lived Republic of South Carolina. Columbia’s location made it an ideal spot for other conventions and meetings within the Confederacy. During the ensuing Civil War, bankers, railroad executives, teachers, and theologians from several states met in the city from time to time to discuss certain matters.

Until Sherman’s army began their march north through the Carolinas in early 1865, fighting in the state had been confined to the Atlantic coastline. Starting in 1863, the Union Navy and Army conducted amphibious assaults along the coast, capturing key locations from which they attempted to take the city of Charleston.

Union troops also occupied the Sea Islands in the Beaufort area, establishing an important base for the men and ships who would obstruct the ports at Charleston and Savannah. When the plantation owners, many of which had already gone off with the Confederate Army, fled the area, the Sea Island slaves became the first “freedmen” of the war, and the Sea Islands became the laboratory for Northern plans to educate the African Americans for their eventual role as full American citizens.

In February 1865, the Union Army entered South Carolina with 60,000 veteran troops in three columns. Moving swiftly north on February 17th, they entered the city of Columbia. Union troops were overwhelmed by thousands of celebrating former slaves who viewed them as their liberators.

Unfortunately, the retreating Confederates had left an adequate stock of liquor in the city and Union troops took advantage of it. Here is where the controversy about the burning of Columbia begins.

Some claim that the firing of the city was a deliberate act of arson carried out by Union soldiers bent on vengeance for South Carolina’s role in secession. Others say that Confederate soldiers fired bales of cotton to impede the advancing Union invaders and deny them the cotton as contraband. Still others say it was accidental.

Gen. Sherman did point out after the war that he had ordered the destruction of government buildings. The Union Army had carried out this type of destruction from the start of their march at Atlanta. Sherman ordered the destruction of the Confederate Printing Plant, the old South Carolina State House and the interior of the incomplete new State House.

Whatever the explanation, high winds whipped up the fires and caused the near-complete destruction of the city. Most of the central city was destroyed, and municipal fire companies found it difficult to operate in conjunction with the invading army, many of whom were also fighting the fire.

Gen. Sherman in his “Report on the Campaign of the Carolinas”, April 4, 1865 stated unequivocally that he only ordered the destruction of public buildings.

…In anticipation of the occupation of the city, I had made written orders to General Howard touching the conduct of the troops. These were to destroy, absolutely, all arsenals and public property not needed for our own use, as well as all railroads, depots, and machinery useful in war to an enemy, but to spare all dwellings, colleges, schools, asylums, and harmless private property. I was the first to cross the pontoon bridge, and in company with General Howard rode into the city. The day was clear, but a perfect tempest of wind was raging. 

Before one single public building had been fired by order, the smoldering fires, set by Hampton’s order, were rekindled by the wind, and communicated to the buildings around. About dark they began to spread, and got beyond the control of the brigade on duty within the city. The whole of Wood’s division was brought in, but it was found impossible to check the flames, which, by midnight, had become unmanageable, and raged until about four a.m., when the wind subsiding, they were got under control.

Whatever the explanation, Columbia, South Carolina was left in ruins when Sherman’s army moved North through the rest of the state and into North Carolina.


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