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 ofcalamities," followed by the surrender at Appomattox and the era ofReconstruction, said College of Charleston history professor BernardPowers.
For black Columbians, he said, the fires and the end of the Civil War"represented God's rebuke to the white South," and, although hardshipfollowed, their lives were now mixed with opportunity.
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For the 500 people who crowded into Sunday's lecture at the Clarion TownHouse, it was a chance to hear a different take on history.
"We wanted to look at one of the defining events of our history andexplore it from a couple perspectives," said Belinda Gergel,president-elect of the Historic Columbia Foundation, one of the event'ssponsors. "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 aboutthings they haven't talked about, . . . to hear about controversialaspects of our past."
Powers explored the role of the fires on the black community, whileMarion Lucas, a professor of history at Western Kentucky University andauthor of the book " Sherman and the Burning of Columbia ," discussedwhat happened the night Columbia burned and Gen. William T. Sherman 'sinfluence on the fires.
Powers, author of the book "Black Charlestonians," said the destructionthat shook the white South provided the opportunity for black residentsto reconstruct their lives. While puzzled white Columbians reflected onthe failure of their cause, the war's outcome was clear to blackresidents - the South was being punished for slavery and secession.
He talked of beliefs by white Columbians in the time after the fire andthe end of the war, when fear of violence was widespread. Writings toldof white residents worried that freedmen would break into their homesand attack them. Rumors circulated about black garrisons coming toColumbia , he said, although there were few, if any, black troopsassigned to Columbia .
The end of the war also brought a change in the racial etiquette - achange many white people were not prepared for, he said. Union soldierswere seen talking to black people, something many white Columbians hadtrouble accepting.
The labor force, too, changed drastically in Columbia , when freedslaves would no longer work for their former owners without beingcompensated.
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 cominganymore."
It was during this time when many black people deserted the churches oftheir former owners and joined Northern churches. The African MethodistEpiscopal church, based in Philadelphia, recruited freedmen, andchurches like Bethel AME on Taylor Street were founded.
The churches offered an expanded opportunity for leadership in the blackcommunity and were the sites for freedmen schools, one of which grewinto Allen University.
While black Columbians for the most part welcomed Union troops, whiteColumbians' hatred for Sherman ran deep.
"For 100 years, most accounts of Sherman 's evil deeds . . . were passedorally from father to son," Lucas said.
Lucas, a Columbia native whose book about Sherman came out of hisdoctoral 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, anda riot fueled by drunken soldiers were to blame for the fires, whichburned 458 buildings, Lucas said. No Columbians were killed in thefires.
The publication of his book in 1976 caused the letters to come in. Amongthem, from Charleston: "Why did you write that horrible book defendingGeneral Sherman ?" And from a Columbia letter writer: " Sherman wasresponsible for that fire."
Sherman 's role in the burning of Columbia became an issue soon afterthe flames subsided, with Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton blaming Shermanand 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 youhear might not be a breeze blowing through the trees, but professionalSoutherners saying, 'Forget, hell.' "