2017-02-17 / Front Page

Sherman protects his Columbia friend

Part IV: The Burning of Columbia was 152 years ago today
By Patricia G. McNeely


Columbia was in ruins by daybreak Saturday, February 18, 1865. This was the scene from the front of the new State House looking north on Richardson (Main) Street. 
Source: South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina Columbia was in ruins by daybreak Saturday, February 18, 1865. This was the scene from the front of the new State House looking north on Richardson (Main) Street. Source: South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina The first time General William T. Sherman visited Mary Catherine Poyas Walker before the burning of Columbia February 17, 1865, he had come from the battlefield and apologized for his appearance. When he visited her the second time on Sunday, February 19, he was wearing his brand new full-dress uniform.

He told her to try to keep her servants from following the army when he left, even if she had to “offer them wages,” because, he said, he was “not fighting for the abolition of slavery, but for the preservation of the Union, and (being a Western man) the control of the Mississippi River.”

He promised to send her some provisions, and advised her to keep a close watch on her seven-yearold son Theodore S. Lucas, who had made friends with the guards, as he said “they would probably want to take him with them.” He also told her when she wanted fire wood, she had permission to burn any fences, etc., around the neighborhood.


The home of Dr. Robert W. Gibbes was a three story fire proof building that contained a rich collection of art and American and South Carolina history. The man standing at the bottom of the steps in this picture is believed to be Dr. Gibbes. Source: South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina Columbia The home of Dr. Robert W. Gibbes was a three story fire proof building that contained a rich collection of art and American and South Carolina history. The man standing at the bottom of the steps in this picture is believed to be Dr. Gibbes. Source: South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina Columbia “Thank you, General,” was her reply, “but I am not a thief. Those fences are not yours to give away. If you were disposed to be generous, why did you not give me one of those fine houses you burned yesterday?”

Sherman said that he “had not wanted to burn the town, it was such a pretty place, but could leave no part of his army to keep it.” He told her he had given orders to burn the “tin bridge,” that crossed Gervais Street near Harden, but seeing the wind was blowing towards her house that night, he had come down at midnight to countermand his orders and was just in time, as the rails were already torn up, and the wood work prepared for burning.

When she asked if he were coming to Charleston, he said he was going to Richmond and in three months’ time the war would be over.

Rumors started circulating at 6 a.m. on February 20, 1865, that General Wade Hampton had attacked the advance of General William T. Sherman’s army at Killian’s Mills, ten miles north of Columbia. Sherman hurriedly issued orders, and the army marched out of Columbia at 8 a.m., sparing some of the establishments that had been doomed to destruction.

“Having utterly ruined Columbia,” Sherman wrote, the Federals resumed their march across South Carolina on February 20. His strategy was working, and he was well pleased. He would testify before the Mixed Commission on March 30, 1872, that the ulterior and strategic advantages “of the occupation of Columbia are seen now clearly by the result.”

Sherman admitted in his memoirs that he had to order drunken soldiers replaced during his entry into Columbia, but he was no longer blaming liquor or his drunken soldiers or Governor Andrew Magrath or Mayor Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn.

And in spite of his admission to Mary Catherine he “had not wanted to burn the town, it was such a pretty place, but could leave no part of his army to keep it,” he issued his final official story that would last for more than 150 years. “I disclaim on the part of my army any agency in this fire, but, on the contrary, claim that we saved what of Columbia remains unconsumed. And without hesitation I charge General Wade Hampton with having burned his own city of Columbia, not with a malicious intent, or as the manifestation of a silly ‘Roman stoicism,’ but from folly and want of sense, in filling it with lint, cotton, and tinder.”

He said, “Our officers and men on duty worked well to extinguish the flames; but others not on duty, including the officers who had long been imprisoned there, rescued by us, may have assisted in spreading the fire after it had once begun, and may have indulged in unconcealed joy to see the ruin of the capital of South Carolina. During the 18th and 19th the arsenal, railroad depots, machine shops, foundries, and other buildings were properly destroyed by detailed working parties, and the railroad track torn up and destroyed down to Kingsville and the Wateree bridge, and up in the direction of Winnsborough.”

Sherman’s account left out the pillaging and robberies that had begun as the troops entered the city, the drunken soldiers who had slashed and set fire to the cotton, the guards who abandoned their posts so that houses and businesses could be robbed and burned, the destruction of Columbia’s firefighting equipment, dozens of horror stories about the Federal soldiers who entered occupied houses with combustibles to torch the interiors, eyewitness accounts of the robbing, pillaging, and destruction throughout the city, and his efforts to blame the governor and the mayor and liquor for the destruction of Columbia.

To “mystify the enemy,” he would claim not only had he not ordered the destruction of the city (there is no evidence that he ever issued written orders to burn Columbia) and had blamed the nearest Confederate by saying that Hampton had carelessly left cotton burning in the streets, but he added another twist of propaganda by claiming as he rode out of town that Columbians should be grateful to him because his “brave” soldiers had labored through the night and saved what was left of the city. Sherman’s strategy was working exactly as he had planned. The Confederates left in the burned-out towns in his wake were, as he planned, homeless, destitute, and starving.

In defense of Hampton, the Reverend Peter Shand, rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for 52 years, said, “I heard no intimation from any quarter during the stay of the army the crime was perpetrated by our own people. All believe it to be the work of the soldiers and determined upon by them before their occupation of the city.

“Some of them in my presence acknowledged the fact. When escaping from my house, I was met by one of them who accursed my grey hairs and pointing to the shocking scenes around us with great apparent exultation, exclaimed he wanted our hearts’ blood and desired to have every house burned and the city sowed in salt. ‘ We have taught them by this lesson,’ said another, referring to the burning, and expressions of similar import were made by others of them of which I was cognizant.”

Even though the Trinity parsonage had been burned and Sherman “had done us a fearful and lasting wrong, a wrong which has since, from its effects, carried numbers of our community to their graves,” the Reverend Shand said, “neither my age (65) nor my office—neither the precepts of our blessed religion, nor the natural temperament with which God has endowed me, incline me to exercise feelings of malice or unforgiveness towards him, nor to wish otherwise than that he may obtain forgiveness from Heaven.”

For more than a decade, Sherman stuck to the story about Hampton leaving cotton burning in the streets before he finally admitted in his memoirs in 1875 his accusations were part of his effort to cripple the Confederacy by making civilians lose faith in their government and leaders like Hampton and to undermine and destroy civilian support for the Confederate cause.

“In my official report of this conflagration, I distinctly charged it to General Wade Hampton, and confess I did so pointedly, to shake the faith of his people in him, for he was in my opinion boastful, and professed to be the special champion of South Carolina,” Sherman said.

And on the morning of Monday, February 20, Sherman turned his back on the smoldering city of Columbia as his troops headed north towards Winnsboro. Sherman’s troops continued their march of destruction as they pillaged and burned their way north to set fire to Winnsboro, which was blamed on “stragglers” before troops were sent in to put out the fire. As was his strategy, Sherman claimed credit for saving what was left of Columbia and Winnsboro.

Before Sherman left Columbia, Mayor Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn begged for some food for those who had survived the fire, so on the way out of town, Sherman left 560 head of broken down and dying cattle on the college green inside the brick walls of South Carolina College. It was not an act of generosity because they were “such as were not able to be driven any further,” said James G. Gibbes, who became mayor when Goodwyn moved to Fort Motte after his house was destroyed. No forage was left for the cattle, and no water was available because the water-works had been destroyed, and “it was impossible to drive them to the river.”

Sherman said he also “gave the mayor one hundred muskets, with which to arm a guard to maintain order after we should leave the neighborhood,” but Gibbes reported that the guns were all useless. That night, civilians barricaded all houses that were still standing and “drew out guns from places where they had been secreted, and organized the few men into a home guard,” the Rev. Toomer Porter from Charleston said.

Columbia citizens held a meeting the next day and decided to butcher the cattle; so, 20 or 30 volunteers began slaughtering the animals as fast as they could. “Even killing them as rapidly as possible, 160 of the number died before they could be killed,” Gibbes said. The poor, tough beef plus 100 barrels of salt that had been found in the basement of the capitol was almost all that was left to feed 20,000 people.

An old shed at the corner of Plain (Hampton) and Market (Assembly) streets that escaped the flames was turned into a market or ration house, and for weeks it was the gathering place for rich and poor.

“Here rations of tough beef and salt were given out,” Gibbes said. “Those who were able to pay paid; those who could not were supplied gratuitously; but all were allowanced, and that to what was barely sufficient to feed their families, every one having to testify as to the number of mouths he had to fill.”

Gibbes said the character of the beef, which at first seemed to be a great misfortune, turned out to be a blessing. “Had it been good, fat meat, it would have been, comparatively, a drop in the bucket toward supplying our necessities, but, fortunately, its quality compensated for its quantity, and I am certain the survivors of that time will always preserve a lively recollection of the tough, blue sinews that, like India rubber, the more you chewed it the larger it got.”

The water works had been blown up, and the only other food that Columbians would have for two weeks beside the beef was loose corn picked up from the ground where the horses of the Federals had fed.

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