“I know you’re a strong supporter of the Second Amendment–is there anything about this situation that makes you think, ‘Okay, should we rethink–is it time for some kind of change?'”


“‘I do sincerely believe that the whole United States, North and South, would rejoice to have this army turned loose on South Carolina to devastate that State, in the manner we have done in Georgia,’ wrote Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, just prior to his invasion of the Palmetto State.  He continued this theme in a letter to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on Christmas Eve 1864.  ‘We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war. . . . The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.  I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.’

“The men in the ranks shared their commander’s hatred for the first Southern state to declare independence.  An Ohio private looked forward to destroying ‘every thing’ and predicted to his sister that ‘ere long you will heare of Shermans army sweeping through S.C. like [a] hericane.’  South Carolina ‘will soon reap the whirlwind,’ wrote one Iowan.  ‘Shermans army are with him to a man and his reputation is their reputation.’  Another soldier prophesied to a Georgia woman about the punishment that lay in store.  ‘You think the people of Georgia are faring badly, and they are, but God pity the people of South Carolina when this army gets there, for we have orders to lay everything in ashes—not to leave a green thing in the State for man or beast.  That State will be made to feel the fearful sin of Secession before our army gets through with it.  Here our soldiers were held in check . . . and when they get to South Carolina they will be turned loose to follow their own inclinations.’

“South Carolinians were not only disturbers of the union, but in the eyes of many Northerners were thought of as inferior human beings.  One Federal officer expressed his contempt for those he encountered, referring to them as ‘white trash’ and ‘not fit to be kept in the same sty with a well to do farmer’s hogs in New England.’  Not surprisingly, an enemy dehumanized would be treated inhumanely.

“By February 1, 1865, Sherman had his entire army on the soil of hated South Carolina.  Hardeeville first felt their vengeance.  A Yankee enlisted man described how the troops disassembled the town in order to use the lumber in building shelters for themselves.  ‘In a few hours a town of half century’s growth is thus leveled to the ground.’  Nor was the local church spared.  ‘First the pulpit and seats were torn out,’ wrote a sergeant, ‘then the siding and the blinds were ripped off.  Many axes were at work.’  Soon the spire then the entire building came crashing down.  ‘There goes your damned old gospel shop,’ shouted one of the vandals.

“Searching for valuables, the soldiers repeated many of the tactics they had perfected in Georgia.  Nancy DeSaussure of Robertville told how her elderly uncle was brutalized.  Having been suspected of hiding gold, ‘twice was he hung by them and cut down when unconscious.’

“After plundering came wholesale destruction.  ‘There was but one fence paling to indicate the site of our little village (Robertville).  The church, too, was burned,’ said Mrs. DeSaussure.  The towns of Purysburg, Lawtonville, and McPherson also disappeared.  ‘Houses were burned as they were found,’ reported the correspondent for the New York Herald.  ‘Whenever a view could be had from high ground, black columns of smoke were seen rising here and there within a circuit of twenty or thirty miles.’ 

“One bizarre undercurrent of Sherman’s devastation came to be known as the ‘war on dogs.’  Convincing themselves that Southerners used bloodhounds to track escaped Union prisoners of war, the invaders became obsessed with the notion that all dogs must be destroyed.  A Federal colonel said that ‘we were determined that no dogs should escape, be it cur, rat dog or blood hound; we exterminate all.’  And he saw no need to waste ammunition on the creatures.  ‘The dogs were easily killed.  All we had to do was to bayonet them.’  Some animals, such as cats, ‘seemed to feel it in the air that something was approaching,’ observed one woman in the path of Sherman’s army.  ‘The watchdog had, in fear, crouched under the dining table,’ she said, ‘when a soldier, spying him there, shot him.’  Another lady living in Barnwell wrote that the first act of the invaders upon breaking into her home was to kill her pet dogs.  They barked and growled at the intruders, ‘but in an instant both were hushed, two sharp pistol reports followed the last growl as the faithful dogs bounded forward only to fall in their tracks, dead.’  Her terrified children stood by, ‘shedding silent tears.’  Sometimes soldiers used the butts of their rifles to kill beloved pets in the presence of children.

“Near Barnwell, Mrs. Alfred Aldrich watched helplessly as Yankees made a shambles of her home.  When she begged their commander for protection, he claimed to have little control over his troops.  ‘You must remember we are in South Carolina now,’ he said, ‘we entered this State with ‘gloves off!”  A lady refugee staying in Barnwell remembered how Yankees stole ‘provisions, clothing, books and an endless variety of things’ that they had no use for, leaving these goods in piles around their campgrounds.  ‘They behaved more like enraged tigers, than human beings,’ said another, ‘running all over the town, kicking down fences, breaking in doors and smashing glasses.’  They left Barnwell in flames.  Cavalry chief Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick sent a message to Sherman that reportedly amused the general.  ‘We have changed the name of Barnwell to Burnwell.’  Kilpatrick’s troopers three times set fire to the home of James Courtney, near Montmorenci, and each time the homeowner extinguished the flames.  Angered, they shot the fifty-four year old in the leg, leaving him to bleed to death.

“Others had good luck in their plundering.  One soldier said that a cache of seven thousand dollars in gold was found in the woods by a small party of soldiers.  ‘No notice will be taken of it by any officer.’  Another recorded that foragers ‘often found confederate money jewelry & women’s dresses.’  And of course food was always taken from the people.  ‘They cleaned out the country no doubt & probably committed much depredation,’ he concluded, adding that ‘we took that even if it left poor women & children to starve as I fear it did in some cases.’

“An Illinois soldier recorded in his diary that foragers found ‘plenty of everything we wanted.’  At one house they loaded wagons with salted meat, meal, flour, sugar, and molasses.  Upon leaving, they set fire to a barn filled with cotton and a cotton gin.  Hearing the roar of the flames, an old lady came out to see what had been done, fell to her knees, raised her hands, and began fervently to pray.  ‘I did not hear the words she uttered,’ reported the soldier, ‘but I do not think she prayed for the Yankees without it was for for their ruen.  Some of the boys told hir not to take it hard,’ misspelled the diarist.  ‘That was nothing to what we dun some places.’

“The same soldier told how they tricked victims into revealing where food was hidden.  They would ride to a house and tell the owner that his supply of meat and other food had been found, and they were about to burn it; that if he wanted to save any for his family he must hurry.  The thieves would follow the deluded victim, appropriate the provisions for themselves, then offer their thanks ‘for showing them where it was.’

“Only occasionally were Northern soldiers forced to stop their outrages—and then only by Confederate forces.  Near Aiken, Confederate cavalry met an old man, a Baptist pastor, standing in front of his home, leaning against a fence post for support.  ‘My daughter,’ he sobbed.  ‘A bunch of Yankees raped her—they just left here.’  The troopers charged down the road and quickly overtook the party of foragers.  ‘Boys, I know why you do this, but I had nothing to do with it,’ said one wounded Federal as he begged for his life.  The Confederates spared him but executed the others.

“There were so many gold watches, rings, chains, silver cups, canes, and similar treasures in the Federal camps that soldiers jested about the plunder.  When asked where he got such a valuable item, the soldier’s standard reply was that it was presented by a lady ‘for saving her household goods from destruction.’  As one expressed it, ‘a soldier must have his joke.’

“The cruel jokes extended beyond the borders of the military camps.  ‘One Yankee asked my mother to mend his coat,’ remembered Mary McMichael of Orangeburg.  After she did the work, ‘He pretended to be very thankful and told her that if she would give him the names of some of her friends in town, he would do all he could to help them.  She gave him their names, and he told them that Mrs. McMichael had told him to do them all the harm he could.’

“Mary Bellinger Fishburne, a young refugee staying in St. Matthews, recounted that one Yankee asked her aunt where her husband was.  ‘He is dead,’ she replied sadly.  ‘Dead, and in Hell, where you ought to be,’ replied the Federal.

“‘The marauders destroyed everything in the way of supplies,’ continued Mary, ‘and what they didn’t want for themselves they fixed so we couldn’t use it.  They mixed salt with barrels of syrup and emptied sacks of rice on the floor of the smoke house, flour being served the same fate.’

“At one home a soldier took a jar of sorghum and filled his canteen.  He then spit a wad of tobacco into the jar.  The woman complained about his spoiling precious food.  ‘Oh,’ he said without emotion, ‘some feller’ll come along and taste that sorghum, and think you’ve poisoned him.  Then he’ll burn your damned old house.’

“‘Well, it does seem a shame to take every single one,’ said a soldier, referring to the chickens his comrades had just stolen from a family, ‘you have this one for dinner.’  She thanked him for his mercy, with tears streaming from her eyes, as he found some lard for her to fry it in.

“‘Did you cook the chicken?’ he asked, returning later.

“‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘and I gratefully thank you for it.  My poor grandchildren are so hungry.’

“‘And I gratefully thank you for it,’ replied the soldier, grabbing the pan as he left.  ‘I sure got my dinner cooked in a sly way.’

“At the home of Joe Beard all knew that the invaders were coming.  Former slave Fannie Griffin remembered that ‘the missus told us to put . . . some white peas in a big pot and put a whole ham in it, so that we’d have plenty for the Yankees to eat.’  Her peace offering was ready.  ‘Then when they came,’ said Fannie, ‘they kicked the pot over and the peas went one way and the ham another.’  When it was discovered that no valuables were to be had, ‘They got awfully mad and started destroying everything.’

“‘By instinct,’ insisted former bondsman Andy Brice, a person of his race ‘can make up his mind pretty quick ’bout the creed of white folks. . . . Every Yankee I see had the stamp of poor white trash on them.  They strutted ’round, big Ike fashion, a bustin’ in rooms without knockin’, talkin’ free to the white ladies, and familiar with the slave gals, ransackin’ drawers, and runnin’ their bayonets into feather beds, and into the flower beds in the yards.’ 

“An Illinois soldier found Orangeburg crowded with women, many of them refugees.  Expecting the invaders to burn the town, the women had piled their clothing and bedding out-of-doors.  There they stood, some ‘crying bitterly.  Others seemed sullen and independent.’  The conflagration was not long in coming.  Sherman spread the tale that ‘a Jew merchant’ started a fire, but that it ‘was soon put out.’  Despite his denial of responsibility, few buildings in Orangeburg survived the brief Federal occupation.

“Sherman also seemed unable to explain convincingly what caused Columbia’s destruction, except to conclude privately that ‘it was all right.’  He probably never read what Henry Halleck had to say in his Elements of International Law and Laws of War on the subject of soldiers committing atrocities because they ‘could not be controlled.’  This is ‘no valid excuse,’ wrote Halleck.  ‘An officer is generally responsible for the acts of those under his orders.  Unless he can control his soldiers, he is unfit to command them.’

“Sherman’s out-of-control forces continued their outrages in Winnsboro.  Federals camped in and around the Baptist church and staged cockfights inside that house of worship.  The Episcopal church was burned.  ‘They stole much that was useless to them,’ remembered one, ‘for even Bibles were taken, one, I remember belonging to a little girl.’  Famed Mount Zion Institute had been converted into a hospital, and there a Confederate soldier named Manigault died just before the invaders arrived and was buried in the Episcopal churchyard.  ‘His new-made grave was dug open,’ said a witness, ‘his coffin placed across the grave and split open with an axe, and left so.  This was done by those who termed themselves soldiers.  ‘Hunting for buried treasures’ was the reason for such desecration.’

“Troops ‘played snowball’ in the streets with flour, burned hams and sides of bacon, poured gallons of molasses on the streets, and ‘fed horses from hats full of sugar,’ remembered another Winnsboro resident.  For days after the army left, hungry women and children scoured the deserted camps for grains of corn uneaten by the horses.

“Anne Bell was a slave on a Fairfield District plantation when the Yankees came.  ‘They was full to the brim with mischief,’ she remembered.  ‘Before they left they took everything.’  On the plantation of John Mobley, at nearby Woodward Station, Adeline Jackson was another slave who never forgot the day the invaders arrived.  ‘The Yankees that I remember were not gentlefolks.  They stole everything they could take, and the meanest thing I ever see was shoats they half killed, cut off the hams, and left the other parts quiverin’ on the ground.’

“Plantation owner Thomas Lyles at seventy-eight years of age was far too old to serve in the Confederate army.  When enemy troops arrived they found him in bed and unable to walk.  ‘They thought he was shamin’, playin’ ‘possum, so to speak,’ remembered bondsman Abe Harris.  ‘One of the raiders, a Yankee, came with a lighted torch and said, ‘Unless you give me the silver, the gold, and the money, I’ll burn you alive.”  The flaming torch was then thrust under the bed.  ‘He replied, ‘I haven’t many more years to live.  Burn and be damned!”  Stunned by the man’s bravery—and convinced he concealed no valuables—they spared his life.

“At the Durham plantation in Fairfield District there was an old map of the United States displayed on a plaster wall.  ‘One of the soldiers took his bayonet and cut South Carolina out of the map, using such force that he also cut the outline in the wall,’ recounted owner Margaret Durham.  ‘He said to me, ‘Old Woman, that is the way we intend to wipe South Carolina off the map.”  Though it was plundered and all the outbuildings were destroyed, hers was one home in Sherman’s path to escape burning.  The outline of the state, cut into the wall, remained for generations.

“The village of Liberty Hill was filled with refugees when the enemy arrived.  ‘Thousands of Yankees coming in,’ wrote one lady in her journal, ‘all robbing and plundering . . . they go down in the cellar and pour kerosene oil, molasses and feathers all together, then stir them up with their bayonets.’

“At a home in Lancaster an elderly lady was having her morning devotions when the Federals burst in.  ‘Get up old woman, praying will do you no good now, for Sherman’s bummers are upon you!’  Seeing that she wore gold-rimmed spectacles, one soldier ripped them from her face as his comrades plundered the house.  A six-year-old girl hid under a bed, clutching her doll in one hand and a bar of sweet soap in the other.  A Yankee dragged her out.  ‘The child was too terror-stricken to cry,’ said a witness, ‘but clasped her little doll and her soap fast to the throbbing little heart.  The man wrenched both from her and thrust the little one away with such violence that she fell against the bed.’

“Elizabeth Allston, no more than a schoolgirl, recorded in her diary the conversation she had with one of the invaders.

“‘Do you know what you are fighting for?’ sneered the Yankee captain.

“‘Existence,’ Elizabeth replied.

“‘We won’t let you have it,’ he grinned.  ‘In four months we’ll have the Confederacy on its knees.’

“Elizabeth fired back.  ‘You must kill every man, woman and child first.’

“‘We’ll do it too,’ said the captain.  ‘At the beginning of this war I didn’t care a cent about a nigger, but I’d rather enlist for ten years longer than let the South have her independence.  We’ll starve you out!  Not in one place that we have visited have we left three meals.’  When it was implied that God still had something to do with events, he replied that ‘the Almighty has nothing to do with this war!’

“A similar sentiment was revealed to the Reverend Dr. John Bachman, a Lutheran minister, who was present when Yankee soldiers forced a female friend to publicly undress, claiming she was hiding jewels under her clothing.  They then turned their attention to him, demanding to know where he kept his valuables, though he had none.  They cocked pistols and held them to his head, promising to send him ‘to hell in five minutes’ if he did not talk.  He told them to go ahead and shoot.  A lieutenant with ‘the face of a demon’ kicked the pastor in the stomach and then in the back.  Bachman was knocked down as many as eight times during the course of his torture.

“‘How would you like to have both your arms cut off?’ asked the Federal lieutenant, a man who seemed unable to speak a single sentence without swearing.  That officer hit the clergyman in the left arm with his sheathed sword, breaking the bone.  He then did the same to the right arm.  The pain, said Bachman, was ‘most excruciating.’

“Bachman’s daughter begged for her father’s life, pleading that they have mercy on a man who had served his church for decades.  ‘I don’t believe in a God, a heaven or a hell,’ replied the lieutenant.  Finally the torturer gave up, allowing the old man to seek medical care.

“‘When the people began to mingle together again,’ said Margaret Adams after the Yankees moved on, ‘each had a thrilling tale to tell, some indeed shocking—of old men who were hung up, time and again, by the neck, to force them to disclose the hiding place of their treasure; of women who had spoken sharply to some of the soldiers, who, for so doing, were tied in chairs in their yards and made to witness the burning of their own houses.’

“Julia Frances Gott wrote to her sister, telling about ‘some of the outrages the Yankees have committed.’  A man named Brice was hung when he refused to tell where valuables were hidden.  ‘They stripped old Mrs. R, Kate’s mother, and whipped her,’ confided Julia.  ‘Wheeler’s men [cavalry under the command of Confederate major general Joseph Wheeler] killed sixteen Yanks I hear in retaliation for whipping Mrs. R.  Oh Ann, I do think the idea of a Lady’s being stripped and whipped by those villains is outrageous, the most awful thing I have ever heard of.’

“Confederate brigadier general James Chesnut was informed by Wheeler’s cavalrymen of a crime they discovered that was far worse.  The home of a family identified as the ‘M.’s’ was found plundered.  A party of seven Federals had come upon only Mrs. M and her teenaged daughter at home.  They tied up the mother and each then proceeded to rape the daughter.  By the time Confederates arrived, the girl was dead and the mother was out of her mind.  The Yankees were overtaken on the road by the Southern troopers, who shot them down, cut their throats, and left the bodies with a sign that read, ‘THESE ARE THE SEVEN.’

“Ohio sergeant Arthur McCarty had the distinction of being the only Federal soldier to be tried for rape by his own army during the invasion of South Carolina.  Three eyewitnesses of the Tenth Illinois testified that a girl in her teens living near Bennettsville was raped by McCarty in the presence of her crying and terrified parents.  The sergeant was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.  Later, petitions from his regiment touting his ‘soldierly qualities’ and letters contradicting the evidence led to a dismissal of his sentence by Pres. Andrew Johnson.

“The Confederates also sought some measure of justice for the pillaging.  At least two parties of Federal foragers were found dead near the towns of Chester and Feasterville.  ‘Death to all foragers’ was the sign posted on the bodies.  Sherman assumed they had been killed after capture and sent a letter to Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, Confederate cavalry commander, threatening to kill Southern prisoners in retaliation.  Hampton promised to execute two Federals for every Confederate if Sherman carried out his threat.  The South Carolinian—who had lost his own home and those of his family to Federal arsonists—had something to say to the man who was destroying his state and despoiling its people. 

“‘I do not believe my men killed any of yours, except under circumstances in which it was perfectly legitimate and proper that they should kill them.  It is a part of the system of the thieves whom you designate as your foragers to fire the dwellings of those citizens whom they have robbed.  To check this inhuman system, which is justly execrated by every civilized nation, I have directed my men to shoot down all of your men who are caught burning houses.  This order shall remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings. . . .

“‘I do not, sir, question this right [to forage on the country].  But there is a right older, even, than this, and one more inalienable—the right that every man has to defend his home and to protect those who are dependent on him; and from my heart I wish that every old man and boy in my country who can fire a gun would shoot down, as he would a wild beast, the men who are desolating their land, burning their homes, and insulting their women. . . .

“‘You have permitted, if you have not ordered, the commission of these offenses against humanity and the rules of war; you fired into the city of Columbia without a word of warning; after its surrender by the mayor, who demanded protection to private property, you laid the whole city in ashes, leaving amidst its ruins thousands of old men and helpless women and children, who are likely to perish of starvation and exposure.  Your line of march can be traced by the lurid light of burning houses.’

“Sherman’s men had indeed carried out their general’s wishes to lay waste to South Carolina.  ‘Even before we came into the State the privations were vastly greater than we had ever supposed,’ wrote a Federal officer.  Now he predicted that the devastated territory ‘will be abandoned by the inhabitants who will never return.’  Indeed, some towns disappeared from the map.

“‘I never saw so much destruction of property before,’ recorded a Union company commander in South Carolina.  ‘Very few houses escape burning, as almost everybody has run away from before us, you may imagine there is not much left in our track.’  A Union colonel agreed with that assessment: ‘We have given South Carolina a terrible scourging. . . . Our army has occupied in moving a belt of from thirty to seventy miles.  We have destroyed all factories, cotton mills, gins, presses and cotton; burnt one city, the capital, and most of the villages on our route as well as most of the barns, outbuildings and dwelling houses, and every house that escaped fire has been pillaged.’

“Another soldier concurred that there was ‘no restraint whatever in pillaging and foraging’ while in South Carolina.  ‘Men were allowed to do as they liked, burn and destroy.’  But the state ‘was deserving of it certainly,’ he was quick to add, as her people were ‘Enemies of Liberty and free government.’  An Indiana chaplain agreed that the people of that state were responsible for the atrocities visited upon them.  He recounted that the suffering of the people was the ‘full reward of their folly and crimes,’ observing that ‘sometimes the world seemed on fire’ as a result of the Union’s version of justice.

“A Yankee newsman who had seen the March to the Sea summarized Sherman’s campaign in South Carolina: ‘As for wholesale burnings, pillage, devastation, committed in South Carolina, magnify all I have said of Georgia some fifty fold, and then throw in an occasional murder, ‘just to make an old, hardfisted cuss come to his senses,’ and you have a pretty good idea of the whole thing.'”


“A refugee fleeing Savannah was advised by one Federal officer to avoid the cities and towns of South Carolina—particularly Columbia—since ‘it was the cradle of secession and must be punished.’  Another soldier of Sherman’s command relished the prospect that ‘fire & sword’ were about to descend, ‘and there is not one in all the length & breadth of the land to stop our hands.’  By mid-February 1865 that army arrived on the outskirts of the capital, a city by then made up almost entirely of women, children, old men, and slaves.

“To slow the enemy’s advance, bridges over the Congaree, Broad, and Saluda Rivers had been burned by retreating Confederates.  Early on February 16, Union artillery unlimbered on the bank of the Congaree and began firing on downtown.  Sherman seemed unconcerned about any Southern soldiers who might still be in the city but noted ‘quite a number of Negroes . . . near the burned depot.’  The general ordered his battery commander to aim at these civilians, as they ‘were appropriating the bags of corn and meal which we wanted.’  In all, Federal artillery threw 325 rounds of shot and shell into the city that morning.  ‘You could see the cannons every time they would fire,’ remembered a youthful observer, ‘and hear the shells whistle through the air.  Some of them would explode in the air and others would not.’  Miraculously, only two civilians were killed by the bombardment.

“Just before leaving the city, Confederate major general Wade Hampton was asked if bales of cotton piled in the streets should be destroyed by fire to avoid confiscation by the enemy.  ‘No,’ he replied, ‘the wind is high; it might catch something and give Sherman an excuse to burn this town.’

“After Confederate forces evacuated, about 9 a.m., Mayor Thomas Jefferson Goodwyn met the advancing Federals and surrendered his city, asking for—and receiving—promise of protection for persons and property.  Upon entering Columbia some Union officers permitted their men to be given liquor, and soldiers started looting stores and igniting the cotton.  Flames were soon extinguished by municipal firefighters.  One Iowa soldier said that when he arrived, ‘The cotton had been drenched and the street flooded with water and, to all appearances, the fire entirely subdued.’  That was fortunate, for about 2 p.m. troops began to pass the time by slashing and bayoneting hoses.

“Throughout the day, reported a witness, ‘robbery was going on at every corner—in nearly every house.’  Purses, watches, hats, boots, overcoats—any item of value—were taken from victims, white or black.  ‘Nor were these acts [entirely] those of common soldiers,’ he noted.  ‘Commissioned officers, of a rank so high as that of a colonel, were frequently among the most active.’  At one home soldiers in their search for hidden valuables stabbed knives into a mattress between terrified children, ‘thinking that the children were put there as a blind.’  Countless women had earrings ripped from bleeding ears.  ‘I have myself seen a lady with the lobes of both ears torn asunder,’ wrote a foreign diplomat.  A bedridden, dying woman had rings removed from her fingers.  ‘In several cases, newly made graves were opened,’ remembered a witness, ‘the coffins taken out, broken open, in search of buried treasure, and the corpses left exposed.’

“Yankee troops relieved themselves in the rooms of Columbia homes, defiling crockery, even urinating on beds.  On one street a Union soldier, ‘seeing some children playing with a beautiful little greyhound, amused himself by beating its brains out.’  Churches were pillaged.  At the Catholic convent ‘soldiers drank the sacramental wine and profaned with fiery draughts of vulgar whiskey the goblets of the communion service.  Some went off reeling under the weight of priestly robes, holy vessels and candlesticks.’

“‘Columbia is a doomed city!’ hissed one.  ‘And what do you think of the Yankees now?’ taunted another.  ‘We mean to wipe you out!  We’ll burn the very stones of South Carolina.’  One victim observed, ‘To inspire terror in the weak . . . seemed to these creatures a sort of heroism.’

“That afternoon smoke was seen rising from suburban residences belonging to prominent ‘rebels,’ properties specifically targeted by Federals.  ‘It was surprising to see the readiness with which these incendiaries succeeded in their work of destruction,’ wrote local educator Sophie Sosnowski.  ‘They had hardly passed out of sight when columns of smoke and flames rose to bring the sad news that another home had been sacrificed to the demon of malice and arrogance.’

“Then came sundown.  ‘Four rockets have gone up,’ a lady told her family, ‘one at each corner of the town, all at the same moment.’  These rockets were recognized as a signal for general destruction.  One observer said that at the signal ‘troops from the various camps began to pour into the city like locusts.’  Another remembered ‘the hitherto deserted street filled with a throng of men, drunken, dancing, shouting, cursing wretches, every one bearing a tin torch or a blazing lightwood knot.’  One saw soldiers as they ‘went about with matches, turpentine and cotton, with which they fired houses.’  Sixteen-year-old Emma LeConte described how ‘Sumter Street was brightly lighted by a burning house so near our piazza that we could feel the heat.  By the red glare we could watch the wretches walking—generally staggering—back and forth from the camp to the town—shouting—hurrahing—cursing South Carolina—swearing—blaspheming—singing ribald songs.’  According to a refugee from Charleston, ‘demons in human shape were leaping fences with torches and steeped cotton. . . . They danced with fearful shrieks and curses, and their forms shone out hideously in numbers on all sides in the light of our flaming homes.’  As victims reached the streets, wrote a woman in her diary, ‘we were greeted by, ‘How do you like secesh now,’ ‘Columbia is skedaddling,’ ‘Columbia is on a picnic,’ and curses too fearful to be entered in my book.’

“‘What we experienced that night is indescribable,’ said another.  ‘At one time the air was so hot I felt I would suffocate.  We walked under an arch of fire, meeting terrified children and distracted mothers.’

“‘I trust I shall never witness such a scene again—drunken soldiers, rushing from house to house, emptying them of their valuables, and then firing them,’ wrote Northern reporter David Conyngham.  Of those troops ostensibly assigned to keep order, ‘I did not once see them interfering.’  ‘The frequent shots on every side told that some victim had fallen,’ he continued, recounting that he had himself been fired at for attempting to save a man from murder.

“‘On came the flames,’ wrote a witness, ‘driven by a fierce wind and augmented by the cruel torches of the fiends, who unrelentingly applied them to building after building, as they rushed from block to block.  The streets were as bright as day, and the air was rent with the screams and cries of distress, mingled with infant wails, and the demon yells of the tormenters.  Who can picture that scene, except to compare it with the lower regions?’

“Seventy-two-year-old Agnes Law placed her trust in four ‘well-behaved and sober’ soldiers standing guard over her home.  ‘When the city began to burn I wished to remove my furniture [she said], they objected and said my house was in no danger.  Not long afterward these guards themselves took lighted candles from the mantelpiece and went up stairs. . . . My sister followed them up-stairs, but came down very soon to say, ‘They are setting the curtains on fire.’  Soon the whole house was in a blaze.  When those who set fire up-stairs came down they said to me, ‘Old woman, if you do not mean to burn up with your house you had better get out of it.”

“‘I have been for over fifty years a member of the Presbyterian church,’ concluded Mrs. Law.  ‘I cannot long live.  I shall meet General Sherman and his soldiers at the bar of God, and I give this testimony against them in the full view of that dread tribunal.’

“Rev. Peter J. Shand, assisted by a servant, tried to save the silver communion service of Trinity Episcopal Church.  They were stopped by soldiers who stole it along with that clergyman’s watch.

“On Washington Street, the Methodist pastor twice smothered fires set at his church.  Soon he saw that the parsonage was burning.  Quickly he wrapped his child in a blanket and they escaped to the street only to witness flames breaking out anew at the church.  Angered that he had tried to frustrate their arson, one Federal ripped the blanket away and threw it into the conflagration.  ‘Damn you!’ he snapped, ‘if you say a word, I’ll throw the child after it.’

“Witnesses saw soldiers torching the Catholic convent.  ‘What do you think of God now?’ they shouted to the nuns.  ‘Is not Sherman greater?  Do you think now you are sanctified?  We are as sanctified as you.’

“Sunrise revealed a landscape of smoldering ruins.  Much of the city, including the main business district, was gone.  Thousands of homeless civilians huddled against the cold in gardens, parks, and cemeteries.  ‘Oh, it was a pitiable sight,’ wrote a Federal private, ‘to see the mothers with helpless children, out of doors, their houses burnt to the ground.’  But he was not surprised at the fate of ‘secessionist’ Columbia.  ‘Our soldiers always said if they entered the place, they would burn it and they did.’

“‘It is true our men have burnt Columbia,’ Sherman told Mayor Goodwyn the morning after, ‘but it was your fault.’  Columbia’s civilian population, he insisted, had made his men drunk.  ‘I know that the general judgment of the country is that no matter how it began,’ Sherman privately confided to his brother, ‘it was all right.’  In his official report he pointed the finger at Wade Hampton, claiming the Confederate general left burning cotton in the streets.  Later Sherman confessed that he charged Hampton only ‘to shake the faith of his people in him,’ inadvertently admitting at the same time that it was indeed his troops who ‘utterly ruined Columbia.’

“‘Sherman may have issued no order,’ concluded one historian of the city’s destruction, ‘but his failure to control his men constituted probable tacit consent.’  ‘There is no doubt whatsoever,’ wrote another, ‘that Union soldiers were to blame for what happened, some with intent, others by default in their drunken stupor.’  Incredibly, there are still those who downplay Federal responsibility.  ‘If a transaction that occurred in the presence of forty or fifty thousand people can be successfully falsified,’ concluded witness Edwin J. Scott, ‘then all human testimony is worthless.'”

Walter Brian Cisco

Chapter 21: Sherman in South Carolina

Chapter 22: The Burning of Columbia




“I know you’re a strong supporter of the Second Amendment–is there anything about this situation that makes you think, ‘Okay, should we rethink–is it time for some kind of change?'”




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