Who burned much of Columbia to the ground on Feb. 17, 1865, is a debate that has been as heated as the blaze for 150 years. But when Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops left, about one-third of South Carolina’s capital city was a smoldering ruin.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fire, a new, major exhibit at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum focuses not only on that horrifying day in Columbia, but the brutal march Sherman’s troops made through South Carolina and North Carolina before and after – a march as destructive as the infamous March to the Sea through Georgia the year before.
“Paths of Destruction: Sherman’s Final Campaign,” which opens Friday, uses authentic Civil War artifacts, a life-sized diorama and a number of interactive features to detail that general’s effort to smash the Confederacy in the state that fired the war’s first shots.
“Sherman thought that to devastate South Carolina, which his soldiers called ‘the hell hole of secession,’ would end the war more quickly,” said Katie Conley, the Relic Room’s curator of history. “We decided to look at (the campaign) through the lens of total war and hard war and convey its effect on the people of South Carolina.”
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Following the burning of Atlanta, the March to the Sea and the capture of Savannah in December 1864, Sherman gained permission from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to lead his troops through South Carolina beginning in early 1865. The goal was to destroy all military facilities as well as mills, factories and farms in an attempt to break the morale of the Confederates and bring the war to an end as soon as possible.
But his soldiers also had other motives.
“The truth is,” Sherman wrote at the time, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.”
Sherman’s target was Columbia, where the state held a convention which led to its secession. Sheman also considered Columbia a richer prize than the much larger city of Charleston, because the Holy City had been devastated by years of naval bombardment. Columbia was also a major railroad hub and a large manufacturer of weapons, cloth and other materials that supplied Gen. Robert E. Lee’s besieged army at Petersburg and Richmond, Va.
Ripping up railroads and burning mills, factories and public buildings as they went, Sherman’s men cut a swath of destruction through the state as they traveled north into North Carolina. This example of total war, with little differentiation between military and private entities, left a lasting impact on the Carolinas and, when it officially ended in North Carolina on April 26, 1865, was one of the final campaigns of the war.
“It was a precursor to modern total warfare,” such as the use of strategic bombing in World War II and the dropping of the first nuclear weapons, Conley said.
Displays in the exhibit include:
• Union and Confederate weapons, accoutrements and ammunition, including the Confederate uniform of teenager Samuel Cooper of Denmark
• Prisoner of war artifacts excavated this year from Camp Asylum, a Union prison camp that was located at the S.C. State Hospital grounds at Bull Street
• Excavated relics from locations along Sherman’s path, such as Sister’s Ferry, Orangeburg and Sumter
• Artifacts from most of the battles of the Carolinas campaign, including Congaree Creek, Rivers Bridge, Bentonville and Monroe’s Crossroads
• A battle flag from the 10th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry and a South Carolina flag taken down from a building on Richardson (Main) Street by a Union soldier the day after the fire and returned after the war
• The letter from Columbia Mayor Thomas J. Goodwyn, surrendering the city to Sherman. The letter is courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library.
• A life-size diorama depicting Columbia after the burning
• Audio segments of first-person accounts during the campaign
• And a interactive map of Columbia before and after it burned.
“We’ve got more artifacts in this exhibit than we have ever had before,” Conley said.