How do you mark an important anniversary of the transformative event in your city’s history when it was a disaster such as the burning of Columbia on Feb. 17-18, 1865?
Columbia’s leaders decided to focus on thoughtful discussion, an informed retrospective and a dose of analysis.
“We hope to bring people together for a dialogue about what the burning of Columbia means to them and to our city even today,” said Historic Columbia board member David Campbell, at a news conference to mark the start of the 150th anniversary of that event. “By openly reflecting upon it, we can see how far we’ve come in 150 years as well as how far we still have to go.”
The Friday event coincided with the launch of a website, www.burningofcolumbia.com, that provides a snippet of the history of that tumultuous period at the end of the Civil War and a comprehensive list of events where people can learn more. The history and tourism-related groups behind the website will continue to add layers of information over the next few months.
There’s plenty of information available on that day, when Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops marched with vengeance into the city where the Ordinance of Secession that began the war was written. Despite the many first-hand accounts documented in diaries, newspapers or official war reports, there’s still debate over who set the first spark among the cotton bales stacked in the streets — and why.
What’s clear is that more than 450 buildings were destroyed and many of the city’s residents were left homeless and destitute.
“The memories of that night, nearly 150 years ago, have carved an indelible mark upon the psyche of generations of South Carolinians,” said Eric Emerson, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History. For years, “Sherman became the state’s nocturnal villain, with mothers addressing recalcitrant children with the threat that, if they did not go to bed, Sherman would get them.”
But the city eventually rose from the destruction, and “Columbia, which was nearly ruined by the fires of that dreadful night, has not only grown to be the largest city in South Carolina, but is now thriving and vibrant,” Emerson said, noting how many of today’s South Carolina residents are natives of Northern states.
The lectures, exhibits and tours of the next two months are designed to help residents determine how to look back on the nation’s most devastating conflict and how to gauge its impact even today.
“It’s not just about remembering one of the darkest moments of our past,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. “It’s about using it to inform and enrich our future ... to not only mark this defining moment in our history but rather to take stock in how far we have come as a city and a people.”