THE BURNING OF COLUMBIA FROM THE UNION AND CONFEDERATE PERSPECTIVES – October 1998 Civil War Times Feature
An excerpt from “Sherman’s March from Savannah to Bentonville.” From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
BY UNION MAJOR GENERAL HENRY W. SLOCUM
The fall of Savannah resulted in the adoption of the plan which Sherman had contemplated. In a letter dated December 24th Sherman says:
“Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why I did not go to South Carolina, and when I answered that we were en route for that State, the invariable reply was, ‘Well, if you will make those people feel the utmost severities of war we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.'”
About one month was spent in Savannah in clothing the men and filling the trains with ammunition and rations. Then commenced the movement which was to make South Carolina feel the severities of war. The right wing, with the exception of Corse’s division of the Seventeenth Corps, moved via Hilton Head to Beaufort. The left wing with Corse’s division and the cavalry moved up the west bank of the Savannah River to Sister’s Ferry, distant about forty miles from Savannah. Sherman’s plan was similar to that adopted on leaving Atlanta. When the army had started from Atlanta, the right wing had moved direct toward Macon and the left toward Augusta. Both cities were occupied by Confederate troops. The movements of our army had caused the Confederate authorities at each of these important cities to demand not only the retention of the troops at each place, but had induced them to demand help from every quarter. Sherman had had no thought of attacking either place, and at the proper time the movements of both wings of the army were so directed as to unite them and leave both cities in our rear, with little or no force in our front. On leaving Savannah our right wing threatened Charleston and the left again threatened Augusta, the two wings being again united in the interior of South Carolina, leaving the Confederate troops at Augusta with almost a certainty that Charleston must fall without a blow from Sherman. On the arrival of the left wing at Sister’s Ferry on the Savannah, instead of finding, as was anticipated, a river a few yards in width which could be easily crossed, they found a broad expanse of water which was utterly impassable. The continuous rain-fall had caused the river to overflow, so that the lowland on the South Carolina side was covered with water, extending nearly half a mile from the river. We were delayed several days in vain efforts to effect a crossing, and were finally compelled to await the falling of the waters. Our pontoon-bridge was finally constructed and the crossing commenced. Each regiment as it entered South Carolina gave three cheers. The men seemed to realize that at last they had set foot on the State which had done more than all others to bring upon the country the horrors of civil war. In the narrow road leading from the ferry on the South Carolina side torpedoes had been planted, so that several of our men were killed or wounded by treading upon them. This was unfortunate for that section of the State. Planting torpedoes for the defense of a position is legitimate warfare, but our soldiers regarded the act of placing them in a highway where no contest was anticipated as something akin to poisoning a stream of water; it is not recognized as fair or legitimate warfare. If that section of South Carolina suffered more severely than any other, it was due in part to the blundering of people who were more zealous than wise.
About February 19th the two wings of the army were reunited in the vicinity of Branchville, a small village on the South Carolina Railroad at the point where the railroad from Charleston to Columbia branches off to Augusta. Here we resumed the work which had occupied so much of our time in Georgia, viz., the destruction of railroads.
Having effectively destroyed over sixty miles of railroads in this section, the army started for Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, each corps taking a separate road. The left wing (Slocum) arrived at a point about three miles from Columbia on the 16th, and there received orders to cross the Saluda River, at Mount Zion’s Church. The Fourteenth Corps moved to the crossing, built a bridge during the night, crossed the river next day, and was followed by the Twentieth Corps and Kilpatrick’s cavalry. The right wing (Howard) moved direct to Columbia, the Fifteenth Corps moving through the city and camping outside on the Camden road. The Seventeenth Corps did not enter Columbia. During the night of February 17th the greater portion of the city of Columbia was burned. The lurid flames could easily be seen from my camp, many miles distant. Nearly all the public buildings, several churches, an orphan asylum, and many of the residences were destroyed. The city was filled with helpless women and children and invalids, many of whom were rendered houseless and homeless in a single night. No sadder scene was presented during the war. The suffering of so many helpless and innocent persons could not but move the hardest heart. The question as to who was immediately responsible for this disaster has given rise to some controversy. I do not believe that General Sherman countenanced or was in any degree responsible for it. I believe the immediate cause of the disaster was a free use of whisky (which was supplied to the soldiers by citizens with great liberality). A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night, particularly when for a series of years you have urged him to come, so that you might have an opportunity of performing a surgical operation on him.
An excerpt from “The Battle of Bentonville”
By Confederate Lieutenant General Wade Hampton
When Sherman cut loose from Atlanta, after expelling the inhabitants and burning a part of the city, it was evident to every one who had given a thought to the subject that his objective point was a junction with General Grant’s army. The Army of Tennessee, after its disastrous repulse before Franklin, was, with its shattered columns, in rear instead of in front of Sherman’s advancing forces, and thus he was allowed to make his march to Savannah a mere holiday excursion. At this latter point there was no adequate force to oppose him, and when Hardee, who commanded there, withdrew, the city fell an easy prey. The situation then was as follows: Sherman had established a new base, where communication with the sea was open to him, while Hardee’s line extended from the Savannah River to James Island, beyond Charleston, a distance of 115 miles. Outside of the garrison of Charleston he had but a handful of unorganized troops to hold this long line, and our true policy then would have been to abandon Charleston, to concentrate every available man in front of Sherman, and to dispute the passage of the rivers and swamps which were in his line of march, and which offered most admirable positions for an inferior force to strike a superior one. The garrison of Charleston consisted, I think, of about sixteen thousand well-equipped, well-drilled infantry, fully supplied with excellent artillery. Stevenson’s division, Army of Tennessee (Confederate), consisting of 2600 men, reached Columbia before the appearance of the enemy. In addition to the troops already mentioned, there were here Wheeler’s and Butler’s commands of cavalry, and several unattached bodies of State troops and reserves. A rapid concentration of these forces would have put from 25,000 to 30,000 men in front of Sherman, and an attack upon one wing of his army, when separated from the other, would either have resulted n a victory to our army or would have encumbered him with so many wounded men that he would have been forced to retreat to the sea, at Charleston. The views I have here expressed were entertained at the time spoken of, for as I happened to be in Columbia then,–not on duty, however,–I urged upon General Beauregard, who had assumed command about that time, the abandonment of Charleston and the concentration of his whole force at the first-named city. I pressed the same views on Governor Magrath, telling him that, important as Charleston was to us, Branchville, the junction of the railroads from Columbia, Augusta, and Charleston, was far more important. In these opinions, my recollection is that General Beauregard concurred, but why the movements suggested were not made I have never known. At all events Charleston was evacuated, February 17th, and its garrison was sent to Cheraw on the Pedee River, and thence by a long march to North Carolina. When the Federal army appeared before Columbia, the only troops in and around the city were Stevenson’s division, Wheeler’s cavalry, and a portion of Butler’s division, in all about five thousand of all arms. Practically there was no force in the city, for the troops were on picket duty from a point three miles above Columbia to one twenty miles below. Of course no defense of the place was attempted, and it was surrendered by the mayor before the enemy entered it, with the hope that, as no resistance had been offered, it would be protected from pillage and destruction. Sherman, in his memoirs, tells its fate in these brief and suggestive words: “The army, having totally ruined Columbia, moved on toward Winnsboro.'”