From the Archives: 'An accident of war'

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

April 15, 2011 

Part of Columbia burned at the end of the Civil War 137 years ago. And the topic is still generating some heat.

It's not about what went up in smoke but about who caused it: a revengeful Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union soldiers, or frightened, confused Confederates trapped in an endangered city. Historians agree on only one thing: There's no way to know for sure how and why the fire started. That's because there's really no single truth in the historian record, said Marion B. Lucas, author of " Sherman and the Burning of Columbia " and the man who probably knows more about the events of Feb. 17, 1865, than anyone.

"In truth, the historical record is constantly changing," said Lucas, who joins College of Charleston historian Bernard Powers to talk about the city's burning at 3 p.m. today at the Clarion Town House. The lecture is sponsored by Historic Columbia Foundation and the USC Institute for Southern Studies.

Lucas' book, which appeared in 1976, met a firestorm of controversy, not all of which has receded. His conclusion that Sherman alone was not at fault, and that there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides, has always been disputed in some corners.

Soon after the book was published, the late Civil War historian Tom Connelly at USC said Lucas erroneously absolved Sherman of too much responsibility.

"Lucas takes the angry accounts written immediately after the war by angry Columbians, sets them up as the accepted version, and proceeds to attack their credibility," he wrote in 1977.

Connelly said accounts by Columbians who suffered in the burning need credence. He also acknowledged, however, that through the years most professional historians have concurred with Lucas' conclusions: That no one knows precisely what happened on that night of chaos and destruction, and that most evidence points to a combination of events being responsible.

Lucas did set the record straight on some things for the first time in his book.

In spite of long-held assertions that all of Columbia was destroyed, his research found that 458 buildings burned, most of them in the business district along Richardson Street (now Main Street). That represented about one-third of the city in 1865.

There were no deaths to Columbians as a result of the fire, or more accurately, Lucas said, a series of fires during a 48-hour period.

"The best analysis, with Columbia a virtual firetrap on Feb. 17, 1865, is that the fire was an accident of war," Lucas wrote.

What were the circumstances that led to the burning ? Lucas cites an attitude of revenge by many of Sherman 's battle-hardened troopers, happy to see the war brought home to the state first to secede from the Union.

Also, retreating Confederates torched bales of hay to keep them from falling into enemy hands.

Alcohol flowed freely when soldiers arrived in the city, loosening inhibitions. And perhaps worst of all, a high wind sprang up, ensuring that flames anywhere in the city would quickly spread.

But whether the fire began with federal soldiers punishing a deserving city or was self-inflicted by Confederates, both sides played a part by allowing volatile matters to get out of control, according to Lucas.

USC historian Walter Edgar, in his "South Carolina: A History" (1998), affirmed much of Lucas' judgment. "Broken cotton bales, wooden roofs, drunken soldiers and gusting winds were a recipe for disaster," he wrote.

For some longtime Columbians, however, Lucas' conclusions have chafed, and they criticized the author for refusing to accept the Confederate version of events, blaming Sherman alone.

Lucas has heard from them through the years, too. His defense is that he is not a carpetbagging historian. Rather, he is a Columbia native who got his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina. His book was drawn from his doctoral dissertation.

"The topic was suggested by one of my professors at the university," Lucas recalled. "I tried my best to get out of it. I knew it was going to be controversial, no matter what I did. But you know, your advisors have a way of getting things done the way they want when you're just a student."

Since then, Lucas has moved on to other matters. Now University Distinguished Professor and history professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, he teaches courses in U.S. and Civil War history, writes articles for academic journals and finished a book, "A History of Blacks in Kentucky: Volume I, From Slavery to Segregation" in 1992.

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