Capture of Columbia

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Capture of Columbia
Part of the Campaign of the Carolinas
The burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865.jpg
The Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, on
February 17, 1865, as depicted in Harper's Weekly
DateFebruary 17–18, 1865[1]
Result Union victory
 United States  Confederate States
Commanders and leaders
United States Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman Confederate States of America Lieut. Gen. Wade Hampton
60,000 ~500

The capture of Columbia occurred February 17–18, 1865, during the Carolinas Campaign of the American Civil War. The state capital of Columbia, South Carolina, was captured by Union forces under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Much of the city was burned, although it is not clear which side caused the fires.


Following the fall of Savannah, Georgia, at the end of his "March to the Sea", Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman turned his combined armies northward to unite with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia and to cut General Robert E. Lee's supply lines to the Deep South.[2] He planned to march through South Carolina to Columbia, then capture and destroy the Confederate arsenal at Fayetteville, North Carolina, before uniting with the XXIII Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Schofield, at Goldsboro, North Carolina. To confuse the Confederates, he sent his left wing westward towards Augusta and his right wing eastward towards Charleston.[3]

Confederate forces in South Carolina were part of the Department of the West, under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard. He attempted to defend both Augusta and Charleston and divided his available forces between the two cities to defend them as long as possible. He hoped that doing so would give the Confederacy an advantage during negotiations at the Hampton Roads peace conference; he also thought that he could reconcentrate his forces if Sherman changed course for Columbia.[4]

The capture[edit]

Sherman was able to concentrate his army faster than Beauregard had anticipated and arrived at Columbia on the afternoon of February 16. The only Confederates defending the city were small detachments from Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry corps, Maj. Gen. Matthew Butler's cavalry division, and Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee's corps from the Army of Tennessee. Heavily outnumbered, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton ordered an evacuation of the city without a fight, although they destroyed all bridges over the Congaree and Saluda Rivers in an attempt to delay the Union forces. Sherman occupied Columbia the following day.[5] Much of Columbia burned to the ground in a fire that has engendered controversy ever since: some say it started when the Confederates set fire to cotton bales in the city, others say that drunken Union soldiers were fanning the flames of vengeance, while a few witnesses claimed that some of the fires were by accident.[6] James W. Loewen researched the topic for his book, Lies Across America, and found that most likely, the cotton bale fires spread and caused most of the destruction. He did find that there were some fires started by Union soldiers, but the effects of these were minimal. Most likely, the Confederates' scorched earth policy was to blame for the burning of Columbia.[7]

Extent of the burning[edit]

According to contemporary accounts, "as much as two-thirds of Columbia was destroyed, though later studies arrived at a lower figure. While the exact extent of the damage may never be known, without question the fires razed political, military, and transportation targets while indiscriminately destroying commercial, educational, religious and private properties in the process. The legacy of this physical loss became a pillar of the city’s common folklore and memories of the war, and it remains hotly debated today."[8]


  1. ^ "The Capture of Columbia". The History Engine. University of Richmond. Archived from the original on June 10, 2010. Retrieved February 14, 2020.
  2. ^ Bradley, p. 2.
  3. ^ Hughes, pp. 2–3.
  4. ^ Bradley, pp. 21–22.
  5. ^ Barrett, pp. 69–70.
  6. ^ Bradley, pp. 23–24.
  7. ^ Loewen pp. 259–267
  8. ^ Columbia Museum of Art, Art from the Ashes: Columbia Artists Respond to the 150th Anniversary of the Burning of their City, archived from the original on December 27, 2021, retrieved February 12, 2022


  • Barrett, John G. Sherman's March through the Carolinas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956. ISBN 0-8078-4566-3.
  • Bradley, Mark L. Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville. Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing Company, 1996. ISBN 1-882810-02-3.
  • Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr. Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8078-2281-7.
  • Loewen, James W. "Lies Across America". New York: Simon & Schuster 1999. ISBN 0-7432-9629-X.

Coordinates: 34°00′03″N 81°02′05″W / 34.0007°N 81.0348°W / 34.0007; -81.0348