‘Lit Up with the Lurid Hue of a Conflagration’ – Columbia Burns

February 17, 1865 (Friday)

George Stone’s Fifteenth Corps brigade had been selected to first cross the Broad River and enter Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city. Before dawn, they were ready. As there was no bridge, they had to be ferried over in boats. The first two, departing just before 4am, were loaded full with sharpshooters. The rest of the brigade soon followed with Stone among them.

The ruins of Columbia.
The ruins of Columbia.

They came first upon a small detachment of enemy skirmishers, and then more. Stone made some final preparations and shortly ordered a charge, which cleared the way.

“Having driven the enemy in our front,” recorded Stone a few days later, “and noticing a demonstration on his [the enemy’s] right to turn my left, I ordered a halt and commenced throwing up a line of works while waiting for the advance of Brevet Brigadier-General [William] Woods’ brigade to get over. So soon as I discovered this brigade had commenced crossing, I moved for the city, easily driving the regiment of cavalry that disputed our advance.”

As they came to about a mile from the city limits, Stone espied the mayor, T.J. Goodwyn, and a few other city officials. They were riding toward his advance in a carriage under a flag of truce. Their query was terms.

“I refused anything but an unconditional surrender,” continued Stone, “which, after a few words, he consented to and unconditionally surrendered the city of Columbia.”

Stone joined the mayor in his carriage, along with a few of his staff and fellow officers. But when they drew nearer the city, Stone noticed fifteen or so Union skirmishers being driven back by Confederate cavalry apparently unaware of the surrender.

“I at once called a corporal and three men, who happened to be near me,” Stone wrote, “and put the mayor and aldermen in the corporal’s charge, and with Major Anderson took about forty of my flankers and advanced on the cavalry. The corporal was instructed that in case one man was killed or wounded he should at once shoot the mayor and his party.” Fortunately for all, Stone and his forty flankers drove back the enemy without loss.

Once inside the city, Stone went to the state-house “and planted the first U.S. flag on that building.” This took but an hour, but within that hour, hell had broken loose.

“When I rejoined my command, [I] found a great number of the men drunk. It was discovered that this was caused by hundreds of negroes who swarmed the streets on the approach of the troops and gave them all kinds of liquors from buckets, bottles, demijohns, &c. The men had slept none the night before, and but little the night before that, and many of them had no supper the night before, and none of them breakfast that morning, hence the speedy effect of the liquor. I forthwith ordered all the liquor destroyed, and saw fifteen barrels destroyed within five minutes after the order had been given.”

Before long, Stone could see drunk men from every regiment of the Fifteenth as well as the Seventeenth Corps, and even some from the cavalry. Upon General Woods’ orders, Stone posted guards on private dwellings, but this wasn’t enough. Twice he called upon Woods for reinforcements, but none came.

feb17burning

“About 8 o’clock,” remembered Stone, “the city was fired in a number of places by some of our escaped prisoners and citizens (I am satisfied I can prove this), and as some of the fire originated in basements stored full of cotton it was impossible to extinguish it.”

That some of the newly-free Union prisoners started fires was confirmed by Stone. And that the citizens of Columbia started others was suggested by Confederate Major N.R. Chambliss, in charge of the arsenal. The Confederates had evacuated just before dawn, and, according to him, “the city was in the wildest terror. The army had been withdrawn (3a.m.), the straggling cavalry and rabble were stripping the warehouses and railroad depots, and the city was illuminated with burning cotton.”

According to this Confederate, before the Federals even arrived, part of the city was on fire. Wade Hampton, helming the Confederate cavalry vehemently denied ordering any of his men to set flame to the cotton, though several escaped Federal prisoners contend that the Rebel troops did anyway. There are still other Confederates who held that no fires were present prior to the arrival of the Federals.

General Sherman had ridden into the city and met with the mayor, riding around the city, avoiding random Confederates and fires. After, Sherman visited a few old friends he knew before the war, and then took a nap. He was woken by the flicking light of fires.

Regardless of which side or citizenry started the early fires, after the Confederates had fled, still more fires were started. Though Stone most definitely saw fire brigades rushing through the morning to douse what flames they could, through the afternoon, most of the hoses were slashed by Union bayonets or the wagons were destroyed by the holders of those bayonets.

General William Hazen, commanding a Fifteenth Corps division, had established his headquarters in a hotel, and by evening “a fire broke out in several places in a clump of isolated wooden buildings a little to the north of the principal hotel.” Thinking that but a few men would be needed to tear down a few buildings and thus create a trench against the fire, he found General Woods and suggested the same.

But Woods replied that he had tried, that there were simply not men enough to do it, which went a long way to explaining just how mob-like the entire division, if not the entire Fifteenth Corps, had become. Hazen then rode to Sherman’s headquarters just east of the city for dinner. When their meal was finished, they went into the back yard “and saw the darkness lit up with the lurid hue of a conflagration.”

“They have brought it on themselves,” Sherman was to have said with apparent regret.

Sherman described the scene in his memoirs:
“The fire continued to increase, and the whole heavens became lurid. I dispatched messenger after messenger to Generals Howard, Logan, and Woods, and received from them repeated assurances that all was being done that could be done, but that the high wind was spreading the flames beyond all control. These general officers were on the ground all night, and Hazen’s division had been brought into the city to assist Woods’s division, already there.

“The whole air was full of sparks and of flying masses of cotton, shingles, etc., some of which were carried four or five blocks, and started new fires. The men seemed generally under good control, and certainly labored hard to girdle the fire, to prevent its spreading; but, so long as the high wind prevailed, it was simply beyond human possibility.”

feb17columbia

The general noted that “many of the people thought that this fire was deliberately planned and executed,” but insisted “this is not true.” He blamed Wade Hampton’s Rebel troops acting, perhaps, without his orders. Hampton would later deny it and since Sherman’s memoirs and Hampton’s response were published over two decades after the event, no certainty could be claimed to either.

General Hazen, however, had more to say about the later fires. “The fire could not have been communicated from the clump of houses I first saw burning,” he wrote after the war. “It was evident that incendiaries had been actively at work. The buildings were mainly of wood, and the wind was carrying large sheets of blazing siding and shingles high into the air, landing them hundreds of yards away, on the roofs of buildings, all over the eastern part of the city. The wind now set in with great force, much increased by the fire itself. Any general effort to stop the conflagration would have been entirely useless.”

Hazen himself had tried to gather men to form a bucket brigade, but as soon as some could be roped into helping, other slipped away. And just when he thought he had saved a single house, the men all wandered off and the fire consumed it whole.

Finally, just before dawn – nearly twenty-four hours after the first fires were started – Sherman ordered his men, Hazen’s division, to patrol the city “and arrest all soldiers and disorderly persons.” After their sweep, Hazen reported that “twenty-five hundred citizens and soldiers, including officers of nearly every grade, were turned over to the provost-marshal.”

Come the dawn, Hazen was most moved:
“The sight when day opened was most saddening. An oppressive stillness prevailed. The solid portion of the city was in ashes. in the vicinity of the unfinished capitol, there was a bed of quick-line where the day before, stored in wooden sheds, had been acres of beautiful marble capitals, cornices, pilasters, columns, and mouldings. Crowds of homeless women and children were gathered in the public square. […]

“The city where secession was first proclaimed was turned to ashes. I have never doubted that Columbia was deliberately set on fire in more than a hundred places. No one ordered it, and no one could stop it. The officers of high rank would have saved the city if possible; but the army was deeply imbued with the feeling that as South Carolina had begun the war, she must suffer a stern retribution.”1

Columbia the morning after.
Columbia the morning after.


  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p264-265; Vol. 53, p1050; A Narrative of Military Service by William Babcock Hazen; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. []

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