Part of Columbia burned at the end of the Civil War 137 years ago. Andthe topic is still generating some heat.
It's not about what went up in smoke but about who caused it: arevengeful Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union soldiers, orfrightened, confused Confederates trapped in an endangered city.Historians agree on only one thing: There's no way to know for sure howand why the fire started. That's because there's really no single truthin the historian record, said Marion B. Lucas, author of " Sherman andthe Burning of Columbia " and the man who probably knows more about theevents 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 aboutthe city's burning at 3 p.m. today at the Clarion Town House. Thelecture is sponsored by Historic Columbia Foundation and the USCInstitute for Southern Studies.
Lucas' book, which appeared in 1976, met a firestorm of controversy, notall of which has receded. His conclusion that Sherman alone was not atfault, and that there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides,has always been disputed in some corners.
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Soon after the book was published, the late Civil War historian TomConnelly at USC said Lucas erroneously absolved Sherman of too muchresponsibility.
"Lucas takes the angry accounts written immediately after the war byangry Columbians, sets them up as the accepted version, and proceeds toattack their credibility," he wrote in 1977.
Connelly said accounts by Columbians who suffered in the burning needcredence. He also acknowledged, however, that through the years mostprofessional historians have concurred with Lucas' conclusions: That noone knows precisely what happened on that night of chaos anddestruction, and that most evidence points to a combination of eventsbeing responsible.
Lucas did set the record straight on some things for the first time inhis book.
In spite of long-held assertions that all of Columbia was destroyed, hisresearch found that 458 buildings burned, most of them in the businessdistrict along Richardson Street (now Main Street). That representedabout one-third of the city in 1865.
There were no deaths to Columbians as a result of the fire, or moreaccurately, 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 anattitude of revenge by many of Sherman 's battle-hardened troopers,happy to see the war brought home to the state first to secede from theUnion.
Also, retreating Confederates torched bales of hay to keep them fromfalling into enemy hands.
Alcohol flowed freely when soldiers arrived in the city, looseninginhibitions. And perhaps worst of all, a high wind sprang up, ensuringthat flames anywhere in the city would quickly spread.
But whether the fire began with federal soldiers punishing a deservingcity or was self-inflicted by Confederates, both sides played a part byallowing 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," hewrote.
For some longtime Columbians, however, Lucas' conclusions have chafed,and they criticized the author for refusing to accept the Confederateversion of events, blaming Sherman alone.
Lucas has heard from them through the years, too. His defense is that heis not a carpetbagging historian. Rather, he is a Columbia native whogot his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina. His book was drawnfrom 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 goingto be controversial, no matter what I did. But you know, your advisorshave a way of getting things done the way they want when you're just astudent."
Since then, Lucas has moved on to other matters. Now UniversityDistinguished Professor and history professor at Western KentuckyUniversity in Bowling Green, he teaches courses in U.S. and Civil Warhistory, writes articles for academic journals and finished a book, "AHistory of Blacks in Kentucky: Volume I, From Slavery to Segregation" in1992.