1865 March 18: The Burning of Columbia, South Carolina
The following comes from the March 18, 1865, issue of The Prescott Journal. The capture of Columbia, South Carolina, occurred on February 17-18, 1865. For a previous post on the capture of Columbia, see “Columbia Has Fallen.”
Sherman’s Campaign—The Burning of Columbia, S. C.
The Savannah Republican contains a rebel account of Sherman’s [William T. Sherman] occupation of Columbia from the Augusta Constitutionalist of February 27th, derived from citizens of Columbia.
It appears that the rebel troops, in large numbers, left on the 17th, in the direction of Charlotte. Gov. McGrath [sic]¹ left on the 13th for the upper section of the State ; Beauregard [P.G.T. Beauregard] left the same day for Charlotte, and Maj. Godwin went the same day and surrendered the city to Sherman. The public stores were thrown open and everybody helped themselves. No stores were burned.
Sherman’s army entered Columbia in the afternoon. They soon commenced destroying the public property. The depots and arsenals were blown up and the buildings in the suburbs containing public stores fired late in the afternoon, a pile of cotton in the street near the Congers House took fire from sparks, and the flames spread to some wooden building which were near, when strong wind drive the flames down both sides of the street. The scene became terrific. Loud explosions continually filled the aim the residences and ground were shaken as by an earthquake, and vast columns of smoke and flames rose to the heaven.
Nothing of any account was saved. Goods provision and furniture, moved to supposed places of security, were burned as the fire progressed. The distance burned on Main street is about a mile and a half. Dr. Reinhold’s house is the only one left standing between the sections known as Cotton Town and the State House. The fire also extended five to ten blocks east of Main street, destroying everything. The entire business portion of the city is in ruins. Both hotels, the Guardian and Carolinian newspaper offices, and a number of churches, the Catholic Seminary and several other buildings, all the depots, the building at Charlotte Junction, Evans and Cogswell’s printing establishment are burned.
All the cars, engines and railroad stock which the rebels did not remove, are destroyed. Only three churches were left standing the Catholic, Episcopal and Presbyterian. The Female College is uninjured, and is now occupied by houseless women and children. The old State House was blown up. The new State House was not touched, it containing a statue of Washington. Wade Hampton’s house was saved by Federal officers. Gen. Preston’s² house was also saved and given to the Catholic Seminary, whose property was accidentally destroyed.
The railroads about Columbia are all torn up, and all the bridges leading to the place destroyed. All the foundries and machine shops were destroyed. The country around the place is stripped of all eatables and transportation. All the horses and carriages in the city were taken. The citizens are said to be in a very destitute condition. Unless some relief is soon obtained, the amount of suffering and deaths from starvation will be great.
Some 25 miles of the Greenville Railroad had been previously damaged by a freshet and much damage was also done to the road by the enemy.
The Treasury Department and banks were removed to Charlotte. Both papers removed a portion of their stock to the same place. Many Negroes left with Sherman’s army, but none were taken by force, large numbers returning to their masters. Sherman thought he would not visit the country west of Broad river and advised the Mayor to send the citizens there.
The federals seemed much incensed against Gov. Magrath and whould [sic] use him harshly if they got him in their power.
Few, if any, private residences were entered, and no outrages are known to have been committed on ladies. The enemy was under strict discipline during the march through the city. Sherman’s headquarters were in the city, at the residence of Mr. Duncan. It is estimated that his infantry and artillery numbered 70,000. He had no cavalry with him. Their rear guard passed through Tuesday afternoon.
The troops were in the best condition, were well clothed and marched as if they had just started on an expedition, instead of being out for weeks. Forts Mott, St. Mathews and Union Court House had been destroyed. Some of Sherman’s officers said his destination was Raleigh and Salisbury. The General himself appeared in good spirits, and confident of success.
One corps took the road to Camden and Florence, another to Winnesboro, and Sherman, with two crops, moved on the direct road to Charlotte.
1. Andrew Gordon Magrath (1813-1893) was the last Confederate governor of South Carolina, serving from December 1864 to May 1865. Before the Civil War, he had been a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives (1838-42), a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of S.C. (1856-60), and South Carolina Secretary of State (1860-61). Magrath resigned his judgeship the day after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Magrath as a Confederate district judge in 1862 and as such he was noted for his opposition to the centralization of power by the Confederate government in Richmond. The South Carolina General Assembly appointed him to be the governor of South Carolina in December 1864. He served for less than a year as governor and he was critical of continuing the struggle in the face of overwhelming Union forces. The Union Army arrested him on May 25, 1865, he was released in December. After the War, Magrath resumed his law practice in Charleston.
2. John Smith Preston (1809-1881) was a wealthy planter and attorney who became prominent in South Carolina politics. He had studied law at the University of Virginia and at Harvard. He married Wade Hampton’s daughter. An ardent secessionist, he was sent by South Carolina to convince the Virginia Secession Convention to join South Carolina in seceding from the Union. During the early part of the Civil War, Preston served as an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard. He later accepted a commission as an officer in the Confederate Army and headed the Bureau of Conscription in Richmond. In 1864 he was promoted to brigadier general. His mansion, the Hampton-Preston House, was seized by the Union Army during the occupation of Columbia and used as the headquarters of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan. After the War, Preston went to England and did not return to the U.S. until 1868. He remained a strong defender of the Confederacy until the end of his life.
3. Original Photographs Taken on the Battlefields During the Civil War of the United States, by Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner (Hartford, Conn.: [Edward Bailey Eaton], 1907), page 105; available in the UWRF University Archives and Area Research Center (E 468.7 .E14 1907). This particular image was taken by Mathew B. Brady while the ruins were still smoking.