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1865 March 4: Columbia Has Fallen

March 8, 2015

The capture of Columbia, South Carolina, occurred on February 17-18, 1865.  Union General [William T. Sherman] split his troops sending his left wing to Augusta and his right wing to Charleston, and then concentrated his army at Columbia.  Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, however, divided his troops between Augusta and Charleston, leaving only small detachments to guard Columbia. Much of Columbia burned to the ground in a fire that has engendered controversy ever since, with some saying it was started by Confederates setting fire to cotton bales and others saying that drunken Union soldiers started the fires, while a few witnesses claimed that some of the fires were by accident.

Both of these reports on the fall of Columbia comes from The Prescott Journal of March 4, 1865.

“The Fall of Columbia.”

Gen. GRANT [Ulysses S. Grant] transmits to Secretary STANTON [Edwin M. Stanton] the following account of the fall of the Capital of South Carolina, and of the situation in that State, from the Richmond Dispatch of the 18th :

Columbia has fallen, Sherman marched in and took possession of the city yesterday morning.  The intelligence was communicated yesterday by Gen. Beauregard, in an official dispatch.

Columbia is situated on the north bank of the Congaree river, just below the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers.  From Gen. Beauregard’s dispatch it appears that on Thursday evening the enemy approached the south bank of the Congaree, and threw a number of shells into the city during the night.  They moved up the river, and yesterday morning forded the Saluda and Broad Rivers.  Whilst they were crossing these rivers, our troops, under Gen. Beauregard, evacuated Columbia.  The enemy soon after took possession.

Through private sources we learn that two days ago, when it was decided not to attempt the defense of Columbia, a large quantity of medical stores, which it was thought it was impossible to remove, were destroyed.  The female employes of the Treasury Department had been previously sent off to Charlotteville, a hundred miles north of Columbia.  We presume the Treasury lithographic establishment was also removed, although as to this we have no positive information.

The fall of Columbia necessitates, we presume, the evacuation of Charleston, which, we think likely, is already in process of evacuation.

It is impossible to say where Sherman will next direct his columns.  The general opinion is that he will go to Charleston and establish a base there ;  but we confess that we do not see what need he has of a base.  It is to be presumed he is subsisting on the country, and he has had no battle to exhaust his ammunition.  Before leaving Savannah he declared his intention to march to Columbia, thence to Augusta, and thence to Charleston.  This was uttered as a boast, and to hide his designs.  We are disposed to believe that he will next strike at Charlotte, which is a hundred miles north of Columbia, on the Charlotte and Columbia Railroad, or at Florence, S.C., the Junction of the Columbia and Wilmington and the Charleston and Wilmington Railroads.

There was a report yesterday that Augusta had also been taken by the enemy.  This we do not believe.  We have reason to feel assured that nearly the whole of Sherman’s army is at Columbia, and that the report that Schofield [John M. Schofield] was advancing on Augusta was untrue.

"Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865," by William Waud

“Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865,” by William Waud

The Campaign in South Carolina.

Gen. GRANT transmits the following from a Richmond paper of the 20th, relative to the capture of Columbia and the campaign in South Carolina:

We now know that on Friday the enemy took possession of Columbia.  It is reported that our forces under Gen. Beauregard are moving in the direction of Charlotte.  Official intelligence was received at the War Office last night, that Sherman was, on yesterday morning, advancing toward and was near Winsboro, a point on the railroad leading to Charlotte and thirty miles north of Columbia.  Charlotte is thronged with refugees from Columbia, who report that some of Wheeler’s cavalry plundered the city before the evacuation.

Up to Tuesday last it was uncertain whether Columbia would come within the immediate range of Sherman’s purposes, and consequently the public mind was not prepared for such an early solution of the question.  The Government had, however, just two weeks ago taken the precaution to remove its specie deposited there amounting to several millions of dollars, and within the past few days all of the dies and plates belonging to the Treasury Department, together with the supplies of Treasury notes on hand, were safely conveyed away.

The enemy being in possession of Branchville, Orangeville and Kingsville, precluded movements on the roads leading to Charleston, and an unfortunate accident upon the Charlotte road from Columbia, prevented the authorities from making use of that avenue to save other valuable materials in the city.

A large quantity of medical stores belonging to the government were there, one half of which were saved, and the rest, for want of time and transportation, was destroyed.  The presses and fixtures for printing Treasury notes, in the establishments of Evans & Coggswell, and Keating & Ball, were necessarily abandoned, together with the other extensive machinery of those well known firms.  The first named establishment had 102 printing presses, and was unquestionably the largest and best equipped publishing house in the South.

The enemy’s forces operating west of Columbia, reached the banks of the Congaree, opposite the city, on Thursday evening, and threw in a number of shells, to which our batteries responded.  A portion of this column moved up the river during the night, and crossed the Saluda and Broad rivers, the main tributaries of the Congaree, which meet near Columbia, a few miles above the city.

During the movement Gen. Beauregard evacuated the city, and on Friday morning the enemy entered and took possession without opposition.  Our troops were withdrawn to a position some 20 miles from Columbia, where they remained on yesterday.  The enemy’s force, entering Columbia,, consisted of Sherman’s main army, a large portion of which immediately moved up the Charlotte road, while another portion moved down in the direction of Charleston.

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