From the Archives: Debate on burning of Columbia lingers

Monday, February 18, 2002

April 15, 2011 

It's a fact that one-third of Columbia burned Feb. 17, 1865.

The question of who was responsible and what it meant to the city? Well, that's a matter of perspective.

For white Columbians, "the tragic fire was the latest in a series of calamities," followed by the surrender at Appomattox and the era of Reconstruction, said College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers.

For black Columbians, he said, the fires and the end of the Civil War "represented God's rebuke to the white South," and, although hardship followed, their lives were now mixed with opportunity.

For the 500 people who crowded into Sunday's lecture at the Clarion Town House, it was a chance to hear a different take on history.

"We wanted to look at one of the defining events of our history and explore it from a couple perspectives," said Belinda Gergel, president-elect of the Historic Columbia Foundation, one of the event's sponsors. "Most of the published accounts are from a white perspective. Today shows us there are so many different perspectives.

"It's really important that Columbians today are able to talk about things they haven't talked about, . . . to hear about controversial aspects of our past."

Powers explored the role of the fires on the black community, while Marion Lucas, a professor of history at Western Kentucky University and author of the book " Sherman and the Burning of Columbia ," discussed what happened the night Columbia burned and Gen. William T. Sherman 's influence on the fires.

Powers, author of the book "Black Charlestonians," said the destruction that shook the white South provided the opportunity for black residents to reconstruct their lives. While puzzled white Columbians reflected on the failure of their cause, the war's outcome was clear to black residents - the South was being punished for slavery and secession.

He talked of beliefs by white Columbians in the time after the fire and the end of the war, when fear of violence was widespread. Writings told of white residents worried that freedmen would break into their homes and attack them. Rumors circulated about black garrisons coming to Columbia , he said, although there were few, if any, black troops assigned to Columbia .

The end of the war also brought a change in the racial etiquette - a change many white people were not prepared for, he said. Union soldiers were seen talking to black people, something many white Columbians had trouble accepting.

The labor force, too, changed drastically in Columbia , when freed slaves would no longer work for their former owners without being compensated.

Powell told the story of a black cook who, when her meal was criticized, simply returned the kitchen key with the message, "I'm not coming anymore."

It was during this time when many black people deserted the churches of their former owners and joined Northern churches. The African Methodist Episcopal church, based in Philadelphia, recruited freedmen, and churches like Bethel AME on Taylor Street were founded.

The churches offered an expanded opportunity for leadership in the black community and were the sites for freedmen schools, one of which grew into Allen University.

While black Columbians for the most part welcomed Union troops, white Columbians' hatred for Sherman ran deep.

"For 100 years, most accounts of Sherman 's evil deeds . . . were passed orally from father to son," Lucas said.

Lucas, a Columbia native whose book about Sherman came out of his doctoral dissertation at USC, takes the view that the fires were an "accident of war."

A mixture of burning cotton bales, a strong wind from the northwest, and a riot fueled by drunken soldiers were to blame for the fires, which burned 458 buildings, Lucas said. No Columbians were killed in the fires.

The publication of his book in 1976 caused the letters to come in. Among them, from Charleston: "Why did you write that horrible book defending General Sherman ?" And from a Columbia letter writer: " Sherman was responsible for that fire."

Sherman 's role in the burning of Columbia became an issue soon after the flames subsided, with Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton blaming Sherman and the Union general putting the blame back on Hampton.

The debate continues today in some quarters.

"If you listen closely in central South Carolina," Lucas said, "what you hear might not be a breeze blowing through the trees, but professional Southerners saying, 'Forget, hell.' "

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