Sherman’s March, February 17, 1865: “The scenes in Columbia that night were terrible.”

150 years ago this evening, Columbia, South Carolina burned.  The destruction of between half and two-thirds of the city became the most important incident of Major-General William T. Sherman’s march through the state.  Controversies swirled around, long after the fires had died…  and continue to this day.  I find many misconceptions, if not outright myths attached to the burning of Columbia.  I’ll touch upon a few here today.

Let me get the “administrative” movement details out of the way first:

SCMarch_Feb17

For February 17, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman’s Left Wing, screened by the cavalry, marched to the west of Columbia, South Carolina.  Fourteenth Corps crossed the Saluda River on a 375 foot long pontoon bridge and continued to near Rockville Post-Office.  The First Division of that corps continued to the mouth of Wateree Creek, waiting on another pontoon bridge to be laid over the Broad River.

The Cavalry followed the Fourteenth Corps across the Saluda, then fanned out patrols to the west.  Kilpatrick warned that Confederate cavalry and infantry, marching from Augusta, were closing quickly, nearing Alston, South Carolina.  Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry was making a late attempt to get in front of Sherman, but neither he or the Confederate infantry were within striking distance.

The Twentieth Corps made a short movement to camps on the south bank of the Saluda to await their turn crossing the pontoon bridge.

All the action that day was at the front of the Right Wing.  The day before, the Federal advance halted at the Broad River where Confederates burned the bridge into Columbia. Major-General John Logan ordered First Division, Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General Charles Woods, to force a crossing.  Colonel George Stone’s Third Brigade had the honor of leading this crossing, with attempts starting in the evening of the 16th:

The point of crossing designated was about half a mile above the wreck of the bridge and about two miles above the city of Columbia.  We expected to have effected a crossing and to have moved on the city by daylight, but the current of the river was so strong the engineers did not succeed in getting a line across until 3 o’clock of the morning of the 17th instant.  At 3:50 o’clock I sent over two loads of sharpshooters, under Captain [Abraham] Bowman, of my staff, with instructions to put them out as pickets or skirmishers….

This skirmish line was set 75 yards deep around the designated crossing site.  Bowman was to keep his men quiet unless directly attacked.  Stone then moved the 31st Iowa across and into the perimeter.  Accompanying them, Stone quickly discovered he’d secured not a bridgehead, but an island in the river.  And as this realization set in, the Confederates became more aggressive defending the crossing.

The enemy was now discovered to be very active, their skirmishers annoying us considerably. From a movement of troops toward his right, I was satisfied the enemy was endeavoring to re-enforce his line, and that to insure success I should at once attack without waiting for the remainder of the brigade.

I like that – when in doubt, attack!  Stone pressed the 31st Iowa to the north end of the island, where he found the Confederate right flank.  The 9th Iowa was ordered to move to the left of the 31st, cross the river, and turn the Confederate flank.  To follow this strike, the 25th Iowa and 4th Iowa would follow to exploit the opening.  With everything set, Stone ordered the attack:

The result proved no mistake, either in the planning or the execution. Before the enemy was hardly aware of it we were right into his skirmish line. The Thirtieth Iowa here captured thirty prisoners. I accompanied this regiment, and can by personal observation testify to the gallant manner in which they made the assault. In front of the island were a number of small bayous running parallel with the river, about twenty feet wide and some of them waist deep. Few stopped to find logs on which to cross, but plunged in, holding guns and cartridge-boxes above the water.

Stone identified his opponent as Brigadier-General Joseph Palmer’s Brigade, from Major-General Carter L. Stevenson’s command.  With the bridgehead, somewhat behind the intended schedule, in place, Stone setup a defensive perimeter while First Brigade of Woods’ Division followed across.   When that crossing was complete, Stone resumed his advance.  The Confederate infantry withdrew, but cavalry still contested the movement on Columbia.  About a mile from Columbia, Stone encountered Mayor T.J. Goodwyn under a flag of truce.  The Mayor was surrendering the city.  However, even with the mayor and the white flag in the procession, Stone’s column was still fired upon as they advanced into Columbia to secure the city.

Now, the reason I’ve described Stone’s crossing in detail is to make a point about the operations of the 17th. Often you will read that Columbia was left open and the Confederates did not contest Sherman’s advance.  Such is often deliberately advanced to setup the notion that Columbia was somewhat an innocent target.  It is false beyond all doubt.  While the defense of Columbia was something far short of that mounted for Atlanta or Savannah, there was a sharp fight that morning.  And that fight extended right up to the gates of the city.  Blood was shed.

Stone’s brigade became the provost martial in the city, while the rest of the Fifteenth Corps moved out to the east of Columbia.  The Seventeenth Corps moved to the north side of the City. All troops, save Stone’s, were initially posted outside the city limits, and as indicated on the map above, the rest of Sherman’s forces were on the other side of the Broad River.

Nobody disputes that by mid-day the Federals were in possession of Columbia.  It is what was done, or not done, in the hours that followed which seem to be in dispute.  Many historians (and non-historians, for that matter) approach the burning of Columbia as a crime investigation.  The goal is to find who was culpable in the fires, and beyond to determine if someone’s neglect allowed the fires to spread. I find such to be somewhat an exercise in speculation.  There are no “smoking guns” in the case of Columbia, just a lot of smoldering ruins after the fact.  No proper investigation was done at the time to identify the source of the fires, as no party had the time or the motivation.  So all that is left are orders, dispatches, claims, and counter-claims.  And there, as often does, the personal bias of the interpreter plays upon the scales.  (I’ve contended that if we determine the fires were started by a lightning strike, then someone will advance the notion that Sherman deliberately stood next to a pile of combustibles in order to temp the Almighty into generating the strike!)

The “evidence” amassed in this investigation comes from the Official Reports, post-war writings (particularly Sherman’s memoirs), and a few accounts from civilians in Columbia.  The most quoted (either directly or indirectly) of the latter is William G. Simms’ “Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C.” The pamphlet was written in the months directly after the burning and published during the void between Sherman’s passage and the formal start of Reconstruction.  Simms was indeed a witness to many of the events.  And he incorporated information from other witnesses.  But to say it was an unbiased account would be to bend credibility.  Simms had an agenda, and it is important to keep such in mind (but I’ll let the reader consider that agenda when reading Simms as a whole).

That said, it is a source that should be assessed and used as the historian analyzes the event… but certainly held within the context of the delivery.  In short, find where the sources agree and then build the “case” from there.

One point that all sources agree upon is that in the forty-eight hours before the Federals occupied Columbia, the city was in a state of chaos.  Yesterday I mentioned the Federals shelling the city, and specifically the attempt to scare away civilians who were taking supplies from the Confederate depot.  Corroborating that is Simms account, as he indicates starting on the 15th:

There was some riotous conduct after night. Some highway robberies were committed, and some few stores broken open and robbed.  But, beyond these instances, there were but few instances of crime, and none of insubordination.

Martial law was declared that day, with  Brigadier-General Evander M. Law taking charge.  But Law had practically no troops and but two fire companies.  As the Federals got closer to the city, the lawlessness increased.  Before the Federals fired their fist shots at Columbia on the 16th, the city witnessed destruction because of the lack of order, as Simms also details:

The inhabitants were startled at daylight, on Friday morning, by a heavy explosion. This was the South Carolina Railroad Depot.  It was accidentally blown up.  Broken open by a band of plunderers, mostly low persons, among whom were many females and negroes…. This building was crowded with stores of merchants and planters, trunks of treasures, innumerable wares and goods of fugitives – all of great value.  It appears that, among its contents, were some kegs of powder….

Thus the first thirty-five to fifty casualties in Columbia were attributed to mishandling of powder.  But the incident serves to prove a point – Columbia was not an easy, peaceful town on the 16th going into the 17th… far from it.

Further emphasizing the point, Simms records that on the afternoon of the 16th, the vandalism and pillaging reached a fury:

At an early hour on Friday, the commissary and quartermaster stores were thrown wide, the contents cast into the streets and give to the people. The negroes especially loaded themselves with plunder.  All this might have been saved, had the officers been duly warned by the military authorities of the probable issue of the struggle.  Wheeler’s cavalry also shared largely of this plunder, and several of them might be seen, even to the hour of the enemy’s arrival, bearing off huge bales upon their saddles.

Civil authorities had turned to Confederate leaders, asking to place a white flag over city hall.  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton himself rejected the proposal as, “his resolve was to fight the enemy in the streets….”  While the military minds continued to seek some means to delay Sherman, the civil authorities realized the only hope to restore order in the city was with the Federals on the other side of the Broad River.  While no source states in so much words, the hope was likely for an occupation akin to Savannah’s and not that of Milledgeville’s.

The riotous activity in Columbia, as recalled by Simms, was also reflected in comments made by Federal officers entering Columbia.  Furthermore, as Logan recorded, the citizenry welcomed the Federals in a manner more befitting Parisians in the summer of 1944:

A provost guard was at once organized and great exertions to preserve order and protect the city were made by all his officers; but the citizens had received our soldiers with bucketfuls of liquor, and the negroes, overjoyed at our entrance, piloted them to buildings where wine and whiskey were stored, and for awhile all control was lost over the disorganized mass.

Simms likewise agrees that liquor flowed that afternoon.  I’ll save the question as to why for a later date….

Logan and others agree that by late afternoon firm steps were taken to bring Columbia in order:

Toward dark Colonel Stone’s brigade was relieved from duty and fresh troops moved into the city to clear it of the rioters, and, if possible, to preserve order during the night, but the citizens had so crazed our men with liquor that it was almost impossible to control them.

Simms likewise corroborates the attempts by Federal authorities to bring order, though he is critical of the earnestness of the application.

With those passages from Simms and observations from Federal officers, we can move past a couple more misconceptions in regard to Columbia.  The Confederates defend the city, contesting right up to the last.  Even before the first “bummer” entered, a wave of lawlessness, looting, robbery, vandalism, and destruction was sweeping through the city.  That wave may have arrived because the Federals were at the gates, but it was not composed of Federal troops.  Lastly, Confederate authorities did little, and could do little, to counter the violence in Columbia.  Their focus was withdrawing supplies, materials, and manpower from Columbia, not keeping order in the streets.  The citizens of Columbia, while maybe not as a whole at least in part, responded to the Federal arrival by inviting celebration, and to some degree more rioting.  Lastly, there is every indication that the Federal commanders attempted to bring the city in order.  However, I do think everyone from Sherman down to Stone underestimated the amount of lawlessness within Columbia on the 17th.  The majority of the troops were posted well outside the city, leaving only one brigade to deal with the problems. And that in some ways enabled the disaster to come.

That said, I’ve written about twice what I normally allocate for a blog post.  Let me close for the moment and pick up later with some observations about the fires that consumed Columbia 150 years ago this evening. Consider this remark about the evening to come:

The scenes in Columbia that night were terrible.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 227 and 264; Simms, William Gilmore, and David Aiken. A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of the City of Columbia. Columbia: U of South Carolina, 2005, pages 53-5.)

4 thoughts on “Sherman’s March, February 17, 1865: “The scenes in Columbia that night were terrible.”

  1. I can’t find any notes about it right now, but I’m pretty sure Sherman decided to leave most his troops outside of town specifically to avoid exacerbating tensions and adding to the chaos. That sure did not work out.

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