Columbia, South Carolina in the American Civil War

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Ruins, as seen from the State House, 1865

Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina, was an important political and supply center for the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Much of the town was destroyed during occupation by Union forces under Major General William T. Sherman during the Carolinas Campaign in the last months of the war. Sherman was accused in print almost immediately of having deliberately (and needlessly) burned the city, which he denied. Modern historians say that multiple causes were responsible.[1]

Early Civil War history[edit]

Columbia became chartered as a city in 1786 and soon grew at a rapid pace, and throughout the 1850s and 1860s it was the largest inland city in the Carolinas.[2] Railroad transportation served as a significant cause of population expansion in Columbia during this time. Rail lines that reached the city in the 1840s were first and foremost interested in transporting cotton bales, not passengers. Cotton was the lifeblood of the Columbia community, as before the Civil War, directly or indirectly, virtually all of the city's commercial and economic activity was related to cotton.[3]

Columbia's First Baptist Church hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention on December 17, 1860, with delegates selected a month earlier at Secession Hill. The delegates drafted a resolution in favor of secession without dissent, 159-0, creating the short-lived Republic of South Carolina.[4] Columbia's location made it an ideal spot for other conventions and meetings within the Confederacy. During the ensuing Civil War, bankers, railroad executives, teachers, and theologians from several states met in the city from time to time to discuss certain matters.

Castle Sorghum was a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp established in 1862 in Columbia. It consisted of a 5-acre (20,000 m2) tract of open field, without walls, fences, buildings or any other facilities. A "deadline" was established by laying wood planks 10 feet (3.0 m) inside the camp's boundaries. The rations consisted of cornmeal and sorghum molasses as the main staple in the diet; thus the camp became known as "Camp Sorghum". Due to the lack of security features, escapes were common. Conditions were terrible, with little food, clothing, or medicine, and disease claimed a number of lives among both the prisoners and their guards.[5]

The burning of Columbia[edit]

Following the Battle of Rivers' Bridge on February 3, 1865, the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws attempted to prevent the crossing of the Salkehatchie River by the right wing of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's Union army. The Union division under Maj. Gen. Francis P. Blair (Howard's army) crossed the river and assaulted McLaws's flank. McLaws withdrew to Branchville, causing only one day's delay in the Union advance.[6]

The Burning of Columbia, South Carolina (1865) by William Waud for Harper's Weekly

On February 17, 1865, Columbia surrendered to Sherman, and Wade Hampton's Confederate cavalry retreated from the city. Union forces were overwhelmed by throngs of liberated Federal prisoners and emancipated slaves. Many soldiers took advantage of ample supplies of liquor in the city and began to drink. Fires began in the city, and high winds spread the flames across a wide area. Most of the central city was destroyed, and municipal fire companies found it difficult to operate in conjunction with the invading army, many of whom were also fighting the fire. The burning of Columbia has engendered controversy ever since, with some claiming the fires were accidental, a deliberate act of vengeance, or perhaps set by retreating Confederate soldiers who lit cotton bales while leaving town. On that same day, the Confederates evacuated Charleston. On February 18, Sherman's forces destroyed virtually anything of military value in Columbia, including railroad depots, warehouses, arsenals, and machine shops.[7]

Among the buildings burned were the old South Carolina State House and the interior of the incomplete new State House. The Arsenal Academy was also burned; the only surviving building is today the South Carolina Governor's Mansion.

Bronze star on the State House, indicating an artillery strike

Legend has it that Columbia's First Baptist Church narrowly missed being torched by Sherman's troops. As the story goes, the soldiers marched to the church and asked the groundskeeper if he could direct them to the location of the church where the declaration of secession was signed. The loyal groundskeeper directed the men to another church, a Methodist church located nearby; thus, the historic landmark avoided being destroyed by Union soldiers.[8]

Among the buildings destroyed was "Millwood", a large mansion owned by Confederate general Wade Hampton. His late father's home, the Hampton-Preston House in downtown Columbia, was spared as it was being used as the headquarters for Union Maj. Gen. John A. Logan.[9]

Debate over cause(s)[edit]

Controversy surrounding the burning of the city began before the war had ended. Shortly afterwards, Southern publications alleged that the burning had been a deliberate Northern atrocity.[10] General Sherman blamed the high winds and retreating Confederate soldiers for firing bales of cotton, which had been stacked in the streets. Sherman denied ordering the burning, though he did order militarily significant structures, such as the Confederate Printing Plant, destroyed.

According to Marion Lucas, author of Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, "the destruction of Columbia was not the result of a single act or events of a single day. Neither was it the work of an individual or a group. Instead it was the culmination of eight days of riots, robbery, pillage, confusion and fires, all of which were the byproducts of war. The event was surrounded by coincidence, misjudgment, and accident. It is impossible, he maintains, to determine with certainty the origin of the fire. The most probable explanation was that it began from the burning cotton on Richardson street. Columbia at this time was a virtual firetrap because of the hundreds of cotton bales in her streets. Some of these had been ignited before Sherman arrived and a high wind spread the flammable substance over the city."[11]

In 2015, The State identified "5 myths about the Burning of Columbia":[12]

  1. Sherman ordered the burning of Columbia.
  2. All of Columbia burned.
  3. There was a "battle" for Columbia.
  4. Union soldiers burned the Congaree River bridge.
  5. First Baptist Church was saved by an African-American caretaker.


During Reconstruction, Columbia became the focus of considerable attention. Reporters, journalists, travelers, and tourists flocked to South Carolina's capital city to witness a Southern state legislature whose members included ex-slaves. The city also made somewhat of a rebound following the devastating fire of 1865; a mild construction boom took place within the first few years of Reconstruction, and repair of railroad tracks in outlying areas created jobs for area citizens.

Notable Civil War personalities from Columbia[edit]

William Augustus Reckling (1850-1913) was a noted SC Photographer operating in Columbia 1870-1910 at times with his 2 sons as "Reckling & Sons Photographers" on Senate St now part of the USC campus. The latter has a collection of Reckling's photos of notable South Carolinians of the era as well as a series of stereographs of Columbia. [13]

Civil War tourism[edit]

The Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, part of the S.C. Budget and Control Board, showcases an artifact collection from the Colonial period to the space age. The museum houses a collection of South Carolins artifacts from the Confederate period.

The six impacts from Sherman's cannonballs to the granite exterior of the State House were never repaired, and are today marked by bronze stars.

Today, tourists can follow the path General Sherman's army took to enter the city and see structures or remnants of structures that survived the fire. A Civil War walking tour is available.[14]


  • Magrath, Andrew. "From The Governor of the State, to the People of South Carolina." Legislative System, Messages, 1860-1865. South Carolina Archives, Columbia, South Carolina.
  • Simms, William G. Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia S.C. Columbia: Power Press of Daily Phoenix, 1865.
  • McCarter, James. "The Burning of Columbia, Again." Harper's Magazine 33, October, 1866.
  • Whilden, Mary S. Recollections of the War, 1861-1865, 1887. Reprint: Columbia, 1911.
  • Gibbes, James Guignard. Who Burnt Columbia? Newberry, SC, 1902
  • Howard, Oliver Otis. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army. New York, 1907
  • Snowdon, Yates. Marching With Sherman: A Review of the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock. Columbia, 1929
  • Burton, Elijah P. Diary of E.P. Burton, Surgeon, Seventh Regiment Illinois, Third Brigade, Second Division, Sixteenth Army Corps, II, 63. Des Moines, 1939
  • Miers, Earl Schenck. The General Who Marched To Hell. New York,1951.
  • Miers, Earl Schenck. When The World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte. New York, 1957
  • Lucas, Marion Brunson. Sherman and the Burning of Columbia. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976
  • Fellman, Michael. Citizen Sherman: A Life Of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York, 1995.
  • Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  • Teal, Harvey S. "Partners with the Sun, South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940" University of South Carolina Press (2001).
  • Campbell, Jacqueline G. "'The Most Diabolical Act of all The Barbarous War': Soldiers, Civilians, and the Burning of Columbia, February, 1865." American Nineteenth Century History, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall 2002
  • Elmore, Tom, "A Carnival of Destruction-Sherman's Invasion of South Carolina." Jogglingboard Press, 2012.
  • Elmore, Tom, "Columbia's Civil War Landmarks" The History Press, 2011.


  1. ^ Gibbes, Who Burnt Columbia?
  2. ^ U.S. Census 1860
  3. ^ Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia.
  4. ^ Magrath, "From The Governor of the State, to the People of South Carolina."
  5. ^ Camp Sorghum website
  6. ^ National Park Service battle description
  7. ^ Campbell, "'The Most Diabolical Act of all The Barbarous War': Soldiers, Civilians, and the Burning of Columbia, February, 1865."
  8. ^ Touring Columbia Archived 2008-05-27 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Columbia nun saves the Hampton House
  10. ^ Was the Burning of Columbia, S.C. a War Crime?, New York Times, March 10, 2015
  11. ^ Barrett, John G. (June 1977). "Sherman and the Burning of Columbia (review)". Civil War History. 23 (2): 183. doi:10.1353/cwh.1977.0019.
  12. ^ Wilkinson, Jeff (February 13, 2015). "5 myths about the Burning of Columbia". The State.
  13. ^ "Partners With the Sun, South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940." Harvey S. Teal, University of South Carolina Press (2001).
  14. ^ Columbia tourism Archived 2007-10-16 at the Wayback Machine