Sherman Prepares to Enter Columbia

February 16, 1865 (Thursday)

Only the Congare River separated General Sherman’s four corps from the city of Columbia, the smouldering remains of Lexington to their back. Before them was a burned out bridge, and cavalry could be seen in the streets of the city.

The Fifteenth Corps crossing the Saluda River.
The Fifteenth Corps crossing the Saluda River.

Unable to immediately cross, Captain Francis De Gress unlimbered two pieces of artillery and began shelling the town, apparently aiming for the cavalry, but caring little what else he might hit. Sherman, having not ordered the shelling, rode over to him to see why he was firing. De Gress metioned the cavalry and suspected there was also infantry hidden on the other side of the river.

“I instructed him not to fire anymore into the town,” wrote Sherman after the war, “but consented to his bursting a few shells near the depot, to scare away the negroes who were appropriating the bags of corn and meal which we wanted, also to fire three shots at the unoccupied State-House.” Sherman stuck around to see the damage.

It was also in the morning when the Fifteenth Corps arrived, and when they made their appearance, he issued his orders. They were to “occupy Columbia, destroy the public buildings, railroad property, manufacturing and machine shops; but will spare libraries, asylumns, and private dwellings.” They were also ordered to destroy utterly anything relating to the railroad after leaving the city and on the march.

Columbia, though the capitol of South Carolina and where the order of secession was first declared, was not “an important conquest,” but rather, as Sherman later said, “simply one point on our general route of march.”

General Oliver Otis Howard, commanding the Right Wing of the army, ordered division commander, William Hazen, to send a brigade a bit north to search for a crossing. Selected was Theodore Jones’ brigade, which had had themselves a rough and sleepless night. The Confederate artillery in Columbia had discovered their camp and fired into it until dawn when the Rebels retired.

Hazen thought a crossing could be found above the confluence where the Saluda and Broad Rivers form the Congaree. Two miles above, Hazen, accompanying Jones, found the crossing, but the bridge had been burned. After a quick search, a few boats were found, and, as Hazen recorded after the war, “getting a regiment over with a few horsemen, we drove the enemy’s pickets rapidly across the tongue of land between the two streams, and tried by a sudden dash to save the bridge over the Broad. I was with this party, but we failed; for it had been prepared with tinder, which the retiring guard sent on fire, and the fine covered bridge was soon in flames throughout its entire length.”

And so a bridge would then have to be made.


“The Thirtieth Ohio and fifty-fifth Illinios were crossed in pontoon boats,” wrote Jones in his report, “and drove the enemy over the crest of the first ridge, where they remained, covering the working party until the bridge was completed. The rest of the brigade then crossed over the bridge. The command ‘forward’ was then given to the skirmishers, who advanced, driving the enemy with great rapidity across Broad River, the enemy burning the bridge.” With the pontoon bridge laid, the rest of the brigade followed, beating back an attack from the Confederates nearby.

Before long, two whole divisions of the Fifteenth Corps were across and ready to fall upon Columbia the next morning. General Charles Woods, commanding the division accompanying Hazen’s, was ordred to march his men “so that the city may be occupied by daylight.” Whomever Woods chose to lead the march was to proceed with caution, flankers to the side and skirmishers to the front. “Should he meet with too serious opposition he will fall back slowly on the bridge-head and there hold his position.”

The brigade selected was that of George Stone’s. He was ordered to have his command “in readiness to cross Broad River in the boats of the pontoon train” and once across to move directily into the city. Stone expected to be within its streets by daylight.

“The night of the 16th,” wrote General Sherman in his memoirs, “I camped near an old prison bivouac opposite Columbia, known to our prisoners of war as ‘Camp Sorghum,’ where remained the mud-hovels and holes in the ground which our prisoners had made to shelter themselves from the winter’s cold and summer’s heat. The Fifteenth Corps was then ahead, reaching to Broad River, about four miles above Columbia; the Seventeenth Corps was behind, on the river-bank opposite Columbia; and the left wing and cavalry had turned north toward Alston.”

And so with but one corps set to occupy Columbia, the rest of Sherman’s forces prepared to bypass the city the next day.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p263, 287, 291; Part 2, p447-448; A Narrative of Military Service by William Babcock Hazen; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Nothing But Victory by STeven E. Woodworth; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. []


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