Who really burned Columbia during the Civil War?

How Columbia was revived after Sherman burned the city in 1865

SCETV's production of Columbia: Memories of a City shows the history of South Carolina's capital during the Civil War and after Union army Gen. William T. Sherman burned the city down in 1865.
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SCETV's production of Columbia: Memories of a City shows the history of South Carolina's capital during the Civil War and after Union army Gen. William T. Sherman burned the city down in 1865.

Editors note: This story was originally published on Feb. 7, 2015, just before 150th anniversary of the burning of Columbia during the Civil War. The story has been updated to reflect the time frame of events and Fritz Hamer’s new title.

The blaze that destroyed much of Columbia in 1865 is considered the seminal event in the history of South Carolina’s capital. But the debate over who’s responsible for the conflagration has been raging as hot as the fire for 153 years.

William T. Sherman
In this undated photo provided by the Library of Congress Gen. William T. Sherman poses for a photo. Sherman is blamed for burnin Columbia on Feb. 5, 1865 during the Civil War. The truth may be more complicated than that. AP

Most blame is leveled at Gen. William T. Sherman, the intense, red-headed Union general known to his men as “Uncle Billy,” whose blatant war on civilians in 1864 and 1865 left a swath of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas. He torched Atlanta. He orchestrated the fiery March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah. And he burned Columbia. Right?

It’s not that simple.

“Everyone wants a tidy answer,” said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia. “But there are no tidy answers. None of us were there. It’s like wrestling quicksilver.”

Drunken soldiers. Gale force winds. Retreating Confederates. Union prisoners. Smoldering cotton. The chaos of war. Did they all contribute to the blaze? It depends on who you talk to.

But here are the undisputed facts:

Sherman’s army of 60,000 men approached the city after weeks on the march from Savannah and Beaufort, slogging through swamps, bridging rivers and looting and burning homes and whole towns as they approached.

After a short battle at Congaree Creek near what is now Cayce, a corps of that Army arrayed before the city and began shelling it.

Battle of Congaree Creek.jpg
A depiction of the Battle of Congaree Creek Martin Pate Courtesy of the River Alliance

On Feb. 17, 1865, Union soldiers entered Columbia after its surrender by Mayor Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn, and began drinking and looting. The next morning, more than a third of the city was a smoldering ruin.

The rest is not so clear.

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We asked a panel of experts – historians and authors – to address key points.

Did retreating Confederate soldiers contribute to the blaze?

Thousands of highly flammable and valuable cotton bales, each weighing 500 pounds, had been stacked in the streets – particularly Main Street, then known as Richardson Street – in preparation to be burned to keep them out of the hands of federal troops. The intent was published in the press.

Burning of Columbia Wade Hampton.JPG
Wade Hampton III 1818-1902 File photo

But on the night of the 16th, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, a Confederate general from Columbia, ordered troops to not burn the cotton because there wasn’t transportation to haul the bales out of the city and the wind was dangerously high. But when Sherman and Union Gen. O.O. Howard entered the city at about 10 a.m. on the 17th, some bales were on fire. Sherman had to ride his horse on the sidewalk of Richardson Street to avoid the flames.

“It was the most prosperous part of the city,” said Joe Long, curator of education at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum. “It wasn’t the part that you would want burned. It was foolish to stack it there.”

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Retreating Confederates looted stores before leaving. Confederate commanders failed to destroy the sea of alcohol in the city, booze that Union soldiers – hungry, cold and ragged from the long winter march – swarmed on.

“It was like pouring kerosene around your house and leaving,” Long said.

What part did deserters, Union prisoners, freed blacks and convicts play in the fire?

When Confederate troops left the city, all manner of incarcerated and enslaved people found themselves free.

“A Union prisoner’s account said the (cotton) fires were set in retaliation for Camp Sorghum,” a prison camp in Lexington County near what is now Riverbanks Zoo, said Tom Elmore, author of the book “A Carnival of Destruction: Sherman’s Invasion of South Carolina.” “Every Confederate account but one said the cotton wasn’t burning when they left. If the Confederate accounts are correct, the only possible explanation would be escaped prisoners.”

Burning of Columbia: Lithograph of downtown
This lithograph shows an interpretation of the burning of Columbia William Waud for Harper's Weekly Courtesy of Richland Library's The Walker Local and Family History Center

Patricia McNeely, author of the book “Sherman’s Flame & Blame Campaign,” said it doesn’t matter. The cotton fires that morning didn’t cause the inferno that night. They had already been put out.

“Sherman was always looking for scapegoats,” she said. “He was always coming up with an excuse. ‘Hampton burned the cotton. Hampton didn’t destroy the alcohol.’ The blame game was in full blast.”

But the extremely high winds could have rekindled the cotton, no matter who set it, said Fritz Hamer, a historian with the S.C. Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum.

“It was a terrible, terrible miscalculation by Hampton,” he said. “And the wild card is the huge gale.”

Three rockets reportedly were fired in the air after sundown on the 17th. Was this a signal to burn the city?

Several prominent citizens, including Mayor Goodwyn, reported seeing the rockets or being warned that when the rockets appeared to leave their homes for safety. Sherman and Howard later testified that the three rockets — red, white and blue — were fired each night to mark the final locations of the three corps.

“I’m very skeptical that this was a signal to burn the city,” Hamer said.

But Elmore countered that soldiers, many drunk, could have seen the routine, end-of-the-day rockets as an unofficial signal for mayhem.

“Either by accident or design, the rockets are regarded as the sign to start the fire,” he said.

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Why were the homes of prominent families targeted?

During and after the conflagration on the night of the 17th, Union soldiers torched the homes of prominent citizens.

Burning of Columbia: James Guignard Gibbs
The “fireproof” home of James Guignard Gibbs survived the fire, but his priceless collections were looted Courtesy of Richland Library's Local History Room

The three-story “fireproof” home of Dr. Robert W. Gibbs on Plain Street, now Hampton Street, across from the First Baptist Church, survived the main fire but was looted and torched, destroying world-class collections of books, paintings and historical and natural artifacts.

Wade Hampton’s plantation, Millwood, four miles from the city, was torched, as were the homes of Goodwyn, Confederate Secretary of the Treasury George A. Trenholm, Dr. Daniel Trezevant and many others.

“There is little doubt that (Union soldiers) would be out for revenge,” Hamer said, noting that Columbia was where the first Secession Convention in the South was held. “In the minds of the northern soldiers, these were the men that started the war.”

But McNeely noted that humble structures, stores and even a convent also were torched. Some Union soldiers also spread the fire using turpentine-soaked cotton as torches and impeded firefighting efforts by cutting fire hoses.

“They were destroying almost everything in their path” throughout the march from Savannah, she said. A Union cavalry general “called Barnwell ‘Burn-well’ after he torched it.”

So, was the torching of houses a political statement or a means of stealing loot?

“Yes,” Elmore said.

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Were there lots of civilian casualties?

Despite the widespread destruction of property and looting, there were no significant civilian casualties or any civilian deaths, aside from two people killed during the shelling the day before the fire.

“We don’t see wholesale slaughter,” Long said. “It’s not Berlin (in World War II). It’s not Nanking.”

Burning of Columbia: State House
Landscape National Archives and Records Administration Courtesy of Historic Columbia

McNeely said the lack of civilian casualties showed that Sherman had a high level of control over his drunken men. “He was OK with burning and pillaging and stealing, but he wasn’t OK with murder and rape.”

However, casualties among Union soldiers were high, but not from combat with the Confederates. There were at least two recorded instances of Union troops killing their own soldiers for rioting. “And I suspect that number was much higher,” Elmore said.

About 50 northern soldiers died when a warehouse filled with gunpowder exploded. That building formerly housed Jillian’s in the Vista. And Union troops arrested about 3,500 civilians and northern troops for rioting, “including officers of every grade,” Elmore said.

Hamer added: “And don’t forget, many Union soldiers helped fight the fire.

How much of the city was burned?

In 1865, noted poet, historian, attorney and novelist William Gilmore Simms compiled a house-by-house and building-by-building inventory and said about three-fifths of the city was destroyed. Mayor Goodwyn estimated four-fifths.

In 1976, in his book “Sherman and the Burning of Columbia,” Western Kentucky University historian Marion B. Lucas, a South Carolina native and graduate of USC, calculated that about one-third of the city was destroyed.

“It’s become a new controversy,” said Hamer, who offered that the primary sources, Goodwyn and Simms, might have exaggerated. “When you go through a traumatic event like that, you’re going to, naturally, inflate the destruction. They had an ax to grind.”

McNeely said she believes Simms and Goodwyn: “There’s been quite a movement to revise the history.”

Hamer responded: “The primary sources have huge, biased perspectives. It’s an issue we’ll debate forever.”

Sherrer, Elmore and Long also put the number between one-third and one-half.

“The theory that (Simms) may have double counted is as good as any,” Elmore said. “And I think it’s accidental.”

Did Sherman order the town burned?

Our experts agreed that Sherman never issued an order for the city be torched; but, he didn’t really seem to mind that it happened.

Burning of Columbia: Broad River Crossing
Depiction of Gen. William T. Sherman and staff crossing Broad River William Waud for Harper's Weekly Courtesy of Richland Library's The Walker Local and Family History Center

Sherman had allowed his foragers wide berth for destruction in Atlanta, during the March to the Sea and on the approach to Columbia, Long said. “When he ordered destruction, he wasn’t embarrassed about it. But it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. Nothing was going to stop those soldiers from burning the city.”

Sherman was “obviously a cunning officer, but you also have natural factors of fire and wind that were too great for him to control,” Sherrer said.

Hamer noted that Sherman actively tried to distance himself from the event in official correspondence and testimony after the blaze. “He couldn’t control his army of 60,000, who had been allowed to forage to feed themselves. And he and his high command underestimated the ability of the men to create havoc. I’m not absolving Sherman. But with that invading Army, something was going to happen.”

Elmore added that Union soldiers viewed South Carolina more harshly than the rest of the South, because the war started here. “It was like the anger for the Taliban on Sept. 12 (after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.). It was a perfect storm. I don’t think Sherman ordered it. I think he allowed it.”

McNeely said Sherman knew all along that his men would burn the city, but failed to issue strict orders against it, as he had in Savannah. “It was part of his strategy. And when he finally did (stop the destruction), he said, ‘You should be grateful that I saved what’s left.’ He was in total control.”


Tom Elmore

Elmore is the author of “A Carnival of Destruction: Sherman’s Invasion of South Carolina.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history at the University of South Carolina in 1982. He also penned “Columbia’s Civil War Landmarks” and “The Scandalous Lives of Carolina Belles Marie Boozer and Amelia Feaster: Flirting with the Enemy.” He presently is working on another book, “Potter’s Raid Through South Carolina.” He has penned numerous articles on the Civil War and has been featured on television and radio broadcasts. He also has been a book reviewer for Blue & Gray magazine for more than a decade. Elmore was profiled in the USC Alumni Association magazine Carolinian in the spring of 2007.

Joe Long

Long is the curator of education for the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where he has worked since 2002. He holds a master’s degree in history from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., and has been published in Civil War Historian magazine, the journal of the South Carolina Historical Society and elsewhere. He also has appeared on the television shows “History Detectives,” “Carolina Stories” and the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.” Long has written or co-written several of the Confederate Relic Room’s exhibits, including portions of the current exhibit “Paths of Destruction: Sherman’s Final Campaign” and is working on a biography of Confederate Gen. Maxcy Gregg of Columbia.

Fritz Hamer

Fritz Hamer is an historian with the S.C. Confederate Relic Room & Military museum. He received his bachelor of arts degree in history from Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1976. He received master’s and doctorate degrees in public history and history from the University of South Carolina in 1982 and 1998. Prior to coming to the South Caroliniana Library, he was the curator of history at the S.C. State Museum from 1986 to 2011. During his tenure there, Hamer curated 15 major exhibits, co-curated others and authored or co-wrote three books. He has served on numerous boards, among them the South Carolina Historical Association. He is on the board of the Foundation for the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

Pat McNeely

McNeely is the author of “Sherman’s Flame and Blame Campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas … and the burning of Columbia” and “Fighting Words: A Media History of South Carolina.” She is a University of South Carolina professor emerita who taught writing and reporting in the journalism school for 33 years. She was the Eleanor M. and R. Frank Mundy professor and was associate dean for four years. Her first Civil War book, “Knights of the Quill: Confederate Correspondents and their Civil War Reporting,” was one of three finalists in 2010 for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Tankard Award. Before joining the USC faculty, McNeely was a reporter and editor for The Greenville News, The State and The Columbia Record.

John Sherrer

Sherrer is director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia. A Columbia native, Sherrer holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in English and history and a master’s of arts in English from Clemson University, a master’s in public history from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in museum management from McKissick Museum. Sherrer has been involved in a summer program with the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts and a certificate from the Southeastern Museum Conference’s Jekyll Island Management Institute. Sherrer’s museum experience includes stints at Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the National Trust’s Drayton Hall Plantation and Old York Historical Society in York, Maine.