From the Archives: Columbia's burning question: Who lit the fire in 1865?

Friday, February 17, 1995

April 15, 2011 

Who burned Columbia?

Easy question. It was:

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's men, under orders to waste the city where the first secession meeting took place and capital of the state where the first shot of the bloody Civil War was fired.

Drunken Union soldiers let loose on the town after days of tramping through swamps and woods of the Lowcountry.

Retreating Confederates, commanded by local hero Gen. Wade Hampton, not wanting to leave anything behind to supply or comfort the hated Yankees.

The blaze burned for two days, but the debate still rages on who started it. About the only agreed-upon fact is that the fire took place 130 years ago today.

If you were to get a guided tour of Columbia by local promoters not many years ago, there is little question what version of the fire you would get.

Now, tourists are more likely to get both sides.

"We give them the unreconstructed Rebel version that the fire was deliberately set by Union forces, and we give them the version that Gen. Hampton's forces were leaving and set fire to the cotton supplies, and that fire was spread when wind blew sparks of lint," said Ray Sigmon, director of the Historic Columbia Foundation, which conducts tours. "We say here's the evidence; you draw your conclusion."

Some of the region's and nation's most reputable historians have not pinned down the blaze, generally calling it an unplanned consequence of war .

Even Sherman, perhaps the most cursed name in Columbia history, left some doubt.

At a postwar congressional hearing, Sherman directly blamed Hampton for setting fire to the cotton and leaving it behind. In his memoirs published in 1875, Sherman called the fire an accident. Sherman also remarked at one point that if he had really wanted to burn Columbia , he'd have done a better job.

"The controversy will probably never be settled to everyone's satisfaction," historian Walter Edgar wrote in " Columbia , Portrait of a City," a bicentennial history. "No matter what the evidence, Columbians who went through the conflagration were certain that the Yankees had burned their town."

"It was an accident of war ," John F. Marszalek, a history professor at Mississippi State University, wrote in a Sherman biography.

Fire damage has been exaggerated over the years. Some locals casually say the fire destroyed Columbia .

But Edgar says about a third of the city burned, confined generally to an area bounded by Gervais, Assembly, Elmwood and Bull streets. Included were hundreds of residences, the entire central business district, several stately churches, the old State House and a magnificent courthouse.

Surviving the fire were several University of South Carolina buildings, which even Union troops helped save; Trinity Episcopal, First Baptist and First Presbyterian churches; the Robert Mills house; and the old Columbia Female Academy.

Remarkably, not a single civilian died in the fire, Edgar said, even though Columbia 's population was swelled by war refugees from around the state.

For those who would like to blame Sherman for wiping out the city's history, Edgar made this observation in his book:

" . . . Columbians themselves -- usually in the name of 'progress' -- have destroyed more antebellum structures since 1865 than were lost on the night of Feb. 17."

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