Who Burned Columbia?

On February 17, 1865, Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, burned and was almost completely destroyed.  This happened as Federal troops under Major General William Tecumseh Sherman had entered the city.

350px-Columbia_sc_ruins The_Burning_of_Columbia,_South_Carolina

Edit February 16, 2014:  My thanks to Evan Kutzler of the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies for permission to include his map of the Columbia fire:


Often we’ll see neoconfederates, such as the completely unreliable Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) make the claim that William T. Sherman burned Columbia, or at least stood by and let his men burn Columbia.  We’re treated to lurid tales of the evil Yankees setting off rockets as signals and gleefully setting fires all over the town.

As usual, what neoconfederates claim is at odds with reality.

The fact of the matter is that Columbia burned as the result of a number of factors, but one of them was NOT William T. Sherman.

The standard work on the burning of Columbia is Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia.

“Confederate policy, however, was that as the Union army advanced into the South, the stored cotton was to be burned; with Sherman in central South Carolina the authorities knew what had to be done. Consequently, on February 14, Beauregard, through General Hampton, ordered the post commander to move both Confederate and privately owned cotton outside the city to be burned. Unfortunately, the lack of transportation made it impossible for Major Green to carry out this order, so he decided to roll the bales into the streets, with the idea of burning the cotton there. The next day, February 15, the order to burn the cotton was published in the Columbia newspapers. During the fifteenth and sixteenth most of the cotton was moved into the streets.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, pp. 64-65]

So up to the 16th, the order was to burn the cotton.

In compliance with this order hundreds of bales of cotton were moved into the streets by the confederates themselves. They moved the cotton out of storage and into the streets.

“At about eight o’clock on the night of February 16 Wade Hampton learned that he had been promoted to Lieutenant General and placed in command of the cavalry operating in South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, when he met with Beauregard to discuss Columbia’s evacuation, Hampton urged that the cotton not be burned because it would endanger the city. Beauregard was apparently of a similar opinion but, for reasons never explained, delayed a final decision until the next morning. Early on the seventeenth, upon assuming his command, Hampton once again discussed with Beauregard the problems involved in firing the cotton placed in the streets. The South Carolinian reiterated his position that the cotton should not be burned because the stiff wind blowing out of the northwest would spread the flames and destroy the entire town. Hampton argued further that Sherman obviously could not take the cotton with him and perhaps it might be spared the Federal torch. Beauregard concurred.

“Hampton’s order not to burn the cotton, issued at approximately seven o’clock in the morning, was the first he gave on February 17 after assuming command.” [Ibid., pp. 66-67]

So the decision not to burn the cotton wasn’t made until the morning of the 17th, with Hampton’s order not going out until 0700, 17 Feb. The late time of the order is very significant:

“The order could not be issued through the post commander, Major Allen J. Green, under whose authority it [the original order to burn the cotton] was originally published, since he had fled the city the previous morning. The matter was further complicated by the fact that the order could not be published in the newspapers, and with the confusion that existed in Columbia it was going to be exceedingly difficult–if not impossible–to see that every soldier became aware of the new order. Finally, Hampton did not post guards over the cotton during the evacuation either on the night of the sixteenth or the morning of the seventeenth.” [Ibid., p. 67]

So Hampton did order the cotton to not be burned, but there was no way to transmit that order because he issued the order only three and a half hours prior to the Union forces entering the city, and it was too little and too late because the burning had already started.

“During the night of February 16-17, as the Confederate army withdrew, there was a complete breakdown in discipline. Straggling soldiers and town rabble created the ‘wildest terror’ as they plundered warehouses and stripped depots. In the midst of the chaos several fires broke out. ‘The city was illuminated with burning cotton,’ a Confederate officer wrote, describing the situation at three o’clock on the morning of February 17. Just how extensive these fires were is difficult to estimate, but at least two separate blazes can be located. One pile of cotton was seen burning that night on Blanding Street between Richardson and Sidney Park, and another fire was observed in the more than two thousand bales used for breastworks near the South Carolina Railroad depot.” [Ibid., p. 68]

As Lucas writes, “The conclusion is inescapable that cotton was burning on the morning of February 17, 1865.” [Ibid., p. 69]

It’s significant that cotton was burning before the Federals arrived.

“Fires in cotton are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and though it was believed by those present that no danger remained from the cotton near the town hall, the smoldering bales were rekindled again later in the day, probably by the wind. Alderman Orlando Z. Bates later testified that he saw a small amount of cotton burning on Richardson Street about three-o’clock in the afternoon, and as Colonel John E. Tourtelotte rode through town toward camp between 3:00 and 4:00 P.M., he noticed several bales of cotton still on fire.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, p. 92]

That wasn’t the only damage the confederates did to Columbia, though.

“That night, as the retreating Confederates streamed into town, there were several reports of robberies, violence, and riotous conduct on their part. Some of the stores on Richardson Street were broken into and their contents taken. A letter to the Richmond Whig, written from Charlotte on February 16:

‘A party of Wheeler’s cavalry, accompanied by their officers, dashed into town, tied their horses, and as systematically as if they had been bred to the business, proceeded to break into the stores along Main [Richardson] street and rob them of their contents.’ ” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, pp. 53-54]

Prof. Lucas also writes, “During the night of February 16-17, as the Confederate army withdrew, there was a complete breakdown in discipline. Straggling soldiers and town rabble created the ‘wildest terror’ as they plundered warehouses and stripped depots. In the midst of the chaos several fires broke out. ‘The city was illuminated with burning cotton,’ a Confederate officer wrote, describing the situation at three o’clock on the morning of February 17. Just how extensive these fires were is difficult to estimate, but at least two separate blazes can be located. One pile of cotton was seen burning that night on Blanding Street between Richardson and Sidney Park, and another fire was observed in the more than two thousand bales used for breastworks near the South Carolina railroad depot.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, p. 68]

One of the confederate stragglers pillaging inadvertently ignited some powder near the railroad depot, causing an enormous explosion at about 6 A.M. on the 17th. There were still confederates in the area. Hampton was still there at the time because he went to see Mayor Goodwyn after the explosion. [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, p. 70]

“Having set the final retreat in motion, Hampton returned to the town hall and instructed Mayor Goodwyn to hoist a white flag. The mayor and aldermen John Stork, Orlando Z. Bates, and John McKenzie were given instructions where to find the advancing Union forces, and between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. they rode out in a carriage to surrender Columbia.

“The burning of the Charlotte terminal by Butler between ten and eleven o’clock was one of the last acts of the evacuating Confederates. With the smoke of the burning railroad station on the horizon, the remnants of the forces defending Columbia, about five thousand strong, left the city.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, pp. 70-71]

Lucas’ source for this is none other than Wade Hampton himself, in a deposition given for the Mixed Commission on British and American Claims.

Troops who were on duty tried to put the fires out. Some of the drunken soldiers did set some fires maliciously, though.

“Colonel Stone’s brigade did not cross before 7 a.m., when he moved out in the direction of Columbia, meeting with little resistance. On his approach he was met by the mayor and other prominent citizens, who formally surrendered the city to his command. Colonel Stone moved his brigade into Columbia, taking possession of the public stores and buildings. A provost guard was at once organized and great exertions to preserve order and protect the city were made by all his officers; but the citizens had received our soldiers with bucketfuls of liquor, and the negroes, overjoyed at our entrance, piloted them to buildings where wine and whisky were stored, and for awhile all control was lost over the disorganized mass. On completion of the bridge the rest of the corps crossed and moved through the city to position on the Columbia Branch of the South Carolina Railroad. Toward dark Colonel Stone’s brigade was relieved from duty and fresh troops moved into the city to clear it of the rioters, and, if possible, to preserve order during the night, but the citizens had so crazed our men with liquor that it was almost impossible to control them. The scenes in Columbia that night were terrible. Some fiend first applied the torch and the wild flames leaped from house to house and street to street until the lower and business part of the city was wrapped in flames. Frightened citizens rushed in every direction, and the reeling incendiaries dashed, torch in hand, from street to street, spreading dismay wherever they went. General Woods used every exertion to quell the riot, and his troops aided him in fighting the conflagration, and to their exertions is due the preservation of such portion of the city as escaped the fire. Toward morning General Oliver’s brigade, of Hazen’s division, was ordered into the city, and this force, in addition to that from the First Division, restored order. The next morning the provost system was more thoroughly organized, and, under command of Brevet Brigadier-General Woods, the city was perfectly quiet.” [OR, Series I, Vol XLVII, Part 1, pp. 227-228]

Some fires were deliberately set, though.

“General C. R. Woods, commander of the first division, fifteenth corps, wrote, February 21:  ‘The town was fired in several different places by the villains that had that day been improperly freed from their confinement in the town prison.’ …

“General Logan, commander of the fifteenth corps, said, in his report of March 31:  ‘The citizens had so crazed our men with liquor that it was almost impossible to control them.’ …

“‘Some escaped prisoners,’ wrote General Howard, commander of the right wing, April 1, ‘convicts from the penitentiary just broken open, army followers, and drunken soldiers ran through house after house, and were doubtless guilty of all manner of villainies, and it is these men that I presume set new fires farther and farther to the windward in the northern part of the city.  Old men, women, and children, with everything they could get, were herded together in the streets.  At some places we found officers and kind-hearted soldiers protecting families from the insults and roughness of the careless.  Meanwhile the flames made fearful ravages and magnificent residences and churches were consumed in a very few minutes.’  All these quotations are from Federal officers who were witnesses of the scene and who wrote their accounts shortly after the event, without collusion or dictation.  They wrote too before they knew that the question, Who burned Columbia? would be an irritating one in the after years.  These accounts are therefore the best of evidence.  It is not necessary to exclude one by another.  All may be believed, leading us to the result that all the classes named had a hand in the sack and destruction of Columbia.”  [James Ford Rhodes, “Who Burned Columbia?” The American Historical Review, Vol VII, No. 3, April, 1902, pp. 492-493]

Many of Sherman’s men, in fact, tried to put fires out.

“When the fire was well under way, Sherman appeared on the scene but gave no orders.  Nor was it necessary, for Generals Howard, Logan, Woods, and others were laboring earnestly to prevent the spread of the conflagration.  By their efforts and by the change and subsidence of the wind, the fire in the early morning of February 18 was stayed.”  [James Ford Rhodes, “Who Burned Columbia?” The American Historical Review, Vol VII, No. 3, April, 1902, p. 493]

The fire, of course, was a great tragedy, but it was not until the flames reached such proportions that they were observed by the men of the XV and XVII Corps encamped on the perimeter of the city that conditions reached their nadir. The raging fire was the invitation to stragglers, sightseers, and the curious that all such calamities attract, and consequently a steady stream of troops began to drift into town. Liquor was everywhere abundant, as it had been during the entire day, and new supplies were discovered readily. Soon an assortment of drunken citizens and refugees, both white and black, and ‘the vilest vagabond soldiers, the veriest scum of the entire army,’ roamed the streets. The appearance of this rioting mob, which continued to accumulate in intensity until it reached a crescendo between 2:00 and 4:00 A.M. on the morning of the eighteenth, greatly hampered the already hopeless attempts to control or localize the flames.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, p. 102]

“References to the culpability of escaped Federal prisoners are also numerous, but the charges cannot be sustained because of the absence of eyewitness accounts. Evidence is clearer about the part played by one of Columbia’s criminals in spreading the fire. Bill Morris, who escaped from jail during the confusion of the entrance of the Union army, was recognized by several citizens during the night as he set fire to houses and outbuildings.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, p. 103]

Professor Lucas does discuss the “rockets” that were seen by some witnesses:

“There are two possible explanations for the rockets observed by Columbians on the night of the fire.  The first, that they were a signal to a group of conspirators who were determined to burn the city, is plausible, but extremely difficult to substantiate.  That some of the Federal troops expressed hatred for South Carolina and its capital is abundantly clear.  How many of these men were engaging in mere rhetoric and how many transferred their feelings into burning and looting is not so lucid.  In the final analysis, the entire case of a camp conspiracy to destroy Columbia is based on a meager amount of hearsay. … The other explanation of the rockets was that presented by the Union officers who had been in Columbia.  For purposes of communication, Sherman and Howard told the Mixed Commission, flags were used by the signal corps during the day and rockets at night.  The rockets informed each wing of the army of the other’s most advanced position.  Henry W. Howgate of Sherman’s signal corps put it succinctly:  ‘Our order was to exchange communication by means of rockets at a certain hour every night–eight o’clock–an hour when it was supposed the different columns, marching over different roads, would be in camp.’  Though the charge that rockets signaled the fire has been extensively articulated by Columbians–the number of general accounts grew steadily as the years passed–it is difficult to believe that the relationship was anything more than coincidental.”  [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, pp. 150-152]

As Bell Wiley writes in his introduction to Lucas’ text, “Professor Lucas concludes that the burning of the city resulted from a series of fires, beginning with cotton ignited by Southerners as they were leaving Columbia. The fire smoldered in the huge piles of cotton bales that had accumulated in ‘Cotton Town’ on Richardson Street, thus converting that portion of the city into a firetrap. City firemen, with the help of the vanguard of Federal invaders, tried hard to bring the initial conflagration under control, but a brisk and persistent wind rekindled the flames, and new fires were started by resident hoodlums released from prison, by blacks celebrating their new-found freedom, and by poorly disciplined Union soldiers. Many of the incendiaries were intoxicated on liquor dispensed by well-meaning citizens of the city or seized in raids on grogshops and distilleries. Burning cotton and shingles borne through the air by the wind spread the flames rapidly until about three o’clock in the morning of February 18, when a belated roundup of drunks by the Federal provost marshal and the abatement of the wind enabled firemen, soldiers, and local civilians to get the situation under control.” [Ibid., p. 12]

So the burning of Columbia was caused by rowdies, most of them southerners, and kept alive by the wind. Federal soldiers actually helped bring the fire under control and prevent further damage.

More evidence:

“Sherman and Howard led the way into the city after the mayor surrendered it, the streets littered with broken furniture and other household items left there by pillaging Confederate soldiers and civilians. The railroad depot and a large storage building had been burned to the ground. Bales of cotton piled in the middle of many streets had been torn open, and lint was flying around, catching in trees and bushes. The scene reminded Sherman of a ‘northern snow-storm.’ The first Union troops into the city turned to trying to extinguish fires in a number of the cotton bales. So many were burning, in fact, that Cump had to ride his horse along the sidewalk to avoid them.”
[John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, pp. 322-323]

“An American and British commission established under the 1870 Treaty of Washington absolved Sherman’s army of responsibility, but Confederate sympathizers were not convinced. Southern publications like Confederate Veteran regularly accused Sherman of incinerating Columbia.” [Ibid., p. 325]

“It seems clear now that neither Sherman nor anyone else was solely responsible for the fire. It was an accident of war. Hampton and his soldiers set fire to the cotton bales that fueled the fire, but it was released Southern civil prisoners, former slaves, and some Union soldiers, many of these groups intoxicated by the liquor provided by town’s people or stolen from storage areas, who set other fires. The Union high command worked valiantly to extinguish the blazes, but the high winds made their task impossible. ‘The principal demons in the drama were cotton, whisky, and wind,’ a later historian surmised. Sherman phrased it more bluntly in later years, refusing to accept the blame for the Columbia fire. ‘Had I intended to burn Columbia,’ he said in 1881, ‘I would have done it just as I would have done any act of war, and there would have been no concealment about it.’ ” [Ibid., p. 325]

“Before the Fifteenth Corps left Columbia on February 20, Sherman had it destroy several foundries, the state arsenal jammed with weapons, and a factory that printed Confederate money.” [Ibid., p. 325]

“One word about Columbia. It was not burned by orders, but expressly against orders and in spite of the utmost effort on our part to save it. Everything seemed to conspire for its destruction. The streets were full of loose cotton, brought out and set on fire by the rebels before they left,–I saw it when we rode into town. A gale of wind was blowing all that day and that night, and the branches of the trees were white with cotton tufts blown about everywhere. The citizens themselves–like idiots, madmen,–brought out large quantities of liquor as soon as our troops entered and distributed it freely among them, even to the guards which Gen. Howard had immediately placed all over the city as soon as we came in. This fact is unquestionable, and was one chief cause of what followed.” [Henry Hitchcock, Marching With Sherman: Passages from the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock, pp. 268-269]

“My mechanics came up with their personal effects, and we found a car (freight) filled with some Treasury employés [sic] and their baggage. These we turned out by force, put aboard the ammunition (no easy task), and by dint of threats succeeded in getting the car switched on the train then about to start. In the meantime the city was in the wildest terror. The army had been withdrawn (3 a.m.), the straggling cavalry and rabble were stripping the warehouses and railroad depots, and the city was illuminated with burning cotton.” [Maj. N. R. Chambliss, CSA; O.R. Series I, Vol LIII, p. 1050]

Major Chambliss is not a Yankee source. He was a confederate quartermaster who told us that at 0300 on the 17th, “The city was illuminated with burning cotton.” This is almost 8 hours before the first Union soldiers entered the city.

“In the confusion of the evacuation and occupation of Columbia, the city endured a series of fires, the first of which occurred during the early hours of the morning of February 16 when the Congaree River bridge was burned against Beauregard’s orders. That action can with little doubt be attributed to a diligent soldier who was uninformed of Beauregard’s intent or to a straggler bent upon delaying the enemy. The next fires, of unaccountable origin, were those of the burning cotton which Major Chambliss reported were illuminating Columbia at three o’clock on the morning of February 17. That same morning before daylight there was the enormous explosion at the South Carolina Railroad station, generally attributed to the recklessness of greedy plunderers carrying torches; when the Federal army entered the capital, the terminal was still smoldering. Also burning when the Federal troops entered the city was the Charlotte Railroad station, which Beauregard had ordered Hampton to burn as he withdrew his last forces. There was one other fire in Columbia when the Union army entered, the fire in the cotton on Richardson Street. When Sherman arrived at the town hall about noon, two of Columbia’s volunteer fire companies, the Independent commanded by John McKenzie and the Palmetto of William B. Stanley, aided by several of Stone’s men, were working to extinguish the fire in the 100 to 200 cotton bales in the area.” [Marion B. Lucas, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia, pp. 90-91]

There were indeed fires set by drunken U.S. soldiers which contributed to the destruction of the city. These were not by order of anyone and instead were criminal acts perpetrated by drunken soldiers who had received the liquor from the townspeople of Columbia themselves.

“When the Union soldiers of Colonel Stone’s brigades entered the city, they were at once supplied by citizens and negroes with large quantities of intoxicating liquor, brought to them in tin cups, bottles, demijohns, and buckets. Many had been without supper, and all of them without sleep, the night before, and none had eaten breakfast that morning. They were soon drunk, excited, and unmanageable.” [James Ford Rhodes, “Who Burned Columbia?” American Historical Review, Vol VII, No. 3, April, 1902, p. 491]

After the war a mixed American-British commission was empanelled [sic] to adjudicate claims of damage. They studied the Columbia case and heard from witnesses. They “disallowed all the claims, ‘all the commissioners agreeing.’ While they were not called upon to deliver a formal opinion in the case, the American agent was advised ‘that the commissioners were unanimous in the conclusion that the conflagration which destroyed Columbia was not to be ascribed to either the intention nor default of either the Federal or Confederate officers.’ ” [Ibid., p. 490]

As the best evidence tells us, the destruction of Columbia was a tragic accident. Retreating confederates set cotton on fire, and the burning embers were carried by the wind. Some cotton bales continued to smolder during the day, and the high winds whipped them into a blaze as well that evening, spreading more embers around. Some Union soldiers, drunk on the liquor provided them by well-meaning but mistaken civilians, set fires themselves, but the record shows that more Union soldiers tried to stop the fires but were unable to do so.

As usual, we can’t trust claims by neoconfederates.  Never, ever believe the SCV when it comes to history.


  1. Beauregard and Hampton were right to hesitate burning the cotton under those circumstances. Cotton fires are pernicious things, with a tendency to throw off burning embers into the air, and (especially) to continue smoldering even after the fire appears to be out. Disaster waiting to get out of control.

    1. True, Andy, but unfortunately the order to burn had already gone out. Beauregard also hesitated in ordering the cotton to NOT be burned, which was significant in the timeline and led to several bales being set on fire in obedience to the original orders to burn the cotton.

  2. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Excellent book, BTW. It’s available from Amazon for around $18 plus shipping and only $10 to your Kindle. I thought it was great.

  3. How many posts on alt.war.civil.usa did I write about this? Must have been in the hundreds …

  4. A group of Sherman’s men are credited with actually saving the University of South Carolina from burning down, maybe one of Corey Meyer’s ancestor’s perhaps?
    As a Gamecock fan I will gives the invader props on that one.

    Of course I would add that Columbia probably would never have burned under any circumstances if Sherman’s men hadn’t invaded the State of South Carolina in the first place, but hey war’s hell as Billy Sherman himself once coined.

    1. Had South Carolina not seceded, or had Jefferson Davis not started the war, there would have been no burning of Columbia either.

  5. […] This post from 2013, by my colleague Al Mackey, examines a variety of contemporary sources and points actions of the Confederate military authorities that contributed heavily to the destruction that followed, including bales of cotton stacked in the streets and set ablaze before Federal soldiers entered the city, and by looters at the railroad depot who set off a huge explosion of powder stored there. Al concludes, […]

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