Sherman the Pyromaniac

On February 17, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union Troops completed the long march from Savannah and reached Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. T.J Goodwyn, Columbia’s Mayor, surrendered the city to General Sherman, and requested "for its citizens the treatment accorded by the usages of civilized warfare." Also, the Mayor asked the General to provide adequate guards "to maintain order in the city and protect the persons and property of the citizens."

General Sherman informed the Mayor that he might have to destroy a few government buildings but otherwise, "Not a finger’s breadth, Mr. Mayor, of your city shall be harmed. You may lie down to sleep, satisfied that your town shall be as safe in my hands as if wholly in your own."

Three days later Sherman’s Union forces marched out of Columbia, leaving behind roughly 50% of the city they had occupied; the rest was charred, smoldering ruins. Almost 500 buildings and their contents had been destroyed including warehouses, factories, offices, hotels, schools, libraries, private residences, churches, and a Catholic convent.

General Sherman claimed that the fire had been started by retreating Confederate troops, a claim that was denied by Confederate officers as well as Columbia’s citizens. And so began a controversy that continues to this day: Who was responsible for the burning of Columbia?

Southern historians generally blame the conflagration on a vengeful General Sherman while many Northern historians attempt to justify, mitigate, and in some cases, deny the involvement of Union troops. Other versions claim that drunken soldiers accidentally set the fires and at least one historian claims that a series of small, normally safe, fires got out of control because of strong winds blowing through the city.

But this disaster had many eyewitnesses including William Gilmore Simms, who, before the War Between the States, was an internationally celebrated author, poet, journalist and historian.

Tourists to Charleston, Simms’ hometown, get an idea of his importance if they visit White Gardens, the little park beside the Battery. Strolling through the park, they will encounter a bust of a rather stern looking man atop a pedestal with a single word inscription "Simms." When this monument was erected in the 1890s, it never occurred to Charlestonians that any further description was needed.

Unfortunately, Simms was also a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, defending its right to secede as well as to determine its own public policies. So he became a victim of political correctness long before that term was coined. Quietly, during the 1970s, many encyclopedias began deleting any reference to Simms. At that time, I remember leafing through one encyclopedia, an updated version recently placed on the library’s shelves. To my dismay, Simms had been removed and, in one of life’s little curios, his alphabetical slot had been refilled by professional football player, O.J. Simpson.

Because William Gilmore Simms was familiar with Sherman’s frequently quoted opinions as well as his background, he expected Columbia to be torched. Also, probably sensing that Northern historians might attempt to vindicate Sherman, Simms wanted to make an accurate record of events for posterity. So he traveled to Columbia, arriving a few days before General Sherman and his troops. With his keen observer’s eye Simms viewed events as they unfolded. He also conducted numerous interviews with other eyewitnesses, taking copious notes. Consequently, Simms was able to scrupulously report the events of those three dark days in February 1865.

His book, The Sack and Destruction of Columbia, South Carolina, begins with this ominous sentence: "It has pleased God, in that Providence which is so inscrutable to man, to visit our beautiful city with the most cruel fate which can ever befall States or cities." Simms goes on to capsulize the dramatic incidents and offer his conclusions. To illustrate the magnitude of the devastation, he includes a detailed listing of properties destroyed which fills nineteen pages. "The Sack and Destruction of Columbia, South Carolina" was first published in 1865 and it would be Simms last book. In 1937, A.A. Salley reissued the work with clarifying notes. Because of the continued interest in the burning of Columbia, the book was issued again in the year 2000 by Crown Rights Book Company. This latest version fails to attribute the footnotes to Salley which causes a certain amount of confusion, but doesn’t detract from the book’s overall power.

William Gilmore Simms places the blame for the holocaust of Columbia on the Commander-in-Chief of the occupying army, William Tecumseh Sherman. He also puts to rest claims that retreating Confederates set the fires or that they were accidentally started by an unruly group of drunken soldiers. His recital of events makes it crystal clear that the Union officers, especially General Sherman, had control of the troops at all times and knew what was happening in every quarter of the city. Throughout the inferno, General Sherman was frequently spotted riding through the city, observing what was happening but making no attempt to stop it.

Any discussion of Sherman’s culpability in the burning of Columbia should mention his pre-war opinions of Southerners, especially South Carolinians; opinions he formed while stationed there in 1843. "This state, their aristocracy, their patriarchal chivalry and glory-all trash." But Sherman was alarmed by what he called South Carolina "young bloods" who were "brave, fine riders, bold to rashness and dangerous in every sense." His solution was, incredibly, that "the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright."

Sherman’s resentment of Columbia’s upper class finally erupted during his occupation of their city. In addition to having their homes burned, irreplaceable heirlooms and other family mementos were destroyed. Priceless paintings, family portraits, and statuary were defaced. Family crystal and porcelain china were smashed. And a special target of Sherman’s wrath were private libraries hosting invaluable historical documents and irreplaceable first editions.

But the anxious citizens of Columbia had anticipated the worst even before Sherman’s army arrived.

"Day by day brought to the people of Columbia tidings of atrocities committed.long trains of fugitives.seeking refuge from the pursuers.village after village-one sending up its signal flames to the other, presaging for it the same fate.where mules and horses were not choice, they were shot down.young colts, however fine the stock, had their throats cut.the roads were covered with butchered cattle, hogs, mules and the costliest furniture. horses were ridden into houses. People were forced from their beds, to permit the search after hidden treasure."

Union troops entered Columbia in an orderly manner with Sherman and his officers firmly in control. But shortly after the officers withdrew, the drinking and looting began. Those who took part in the looting of valuables claimed that the victors were entitled to the spoils of war. And Simms description of the looting of the city is bolstered by other reports as well as correspondence from Union soldiers. These excerpts are from a letter Union Lieutenant Thomas Myers wrote from Camden, S.C. after the burning of Columbia.

"My dear wife.we have had a glorious time in this State. Unrestricted license to burn and plunder was the order of the watches, silver pitchers, cups, spoons, forks, etc are as common as blackberries. The terms of plunder are as follows: Each company is required to exhibit the results of its operations at any given place, -one-fifth and first choice falls to the share of the commander-in-chief and staff, one-fifth to the corps commanders and staff, one-fifth to field officers of regiments, and two-fifths to the company." Then Lieutenant Myers makes this statement:

"Officers are not allowed to join these expeditions without disguising themselves as privates." And, finally, this telling comment:" General Sherman has silver and gold enough to start a bank. His share in gold watches alone at Columbia was two hundred and seventy-five."

Some smoldering cotton bales were found and quickly extinguished by Union troops when they took possession of the city but there were no other significant fires. However, shortly after dusk "while the Mayor was conversing with one of the Western men, from Iowa, three rockets were shot up by the enemy from the Capitol Square. As the soldier beheld these rockets, he cried out: "Alas! Alas! For your poor city! It is doomed. These rockets are the signal! The town is to be fired." Shortly thereafter, flames broke out around the city. "As the flames spread from house to house, you could behold, through long vistas of the lurid empire of flames and gloom, the miserable tenants of the once peaceful home issuing forth in dismay, bearing the chattels most useful or precious, and seeking escape through the narrow channels which the flames left them."

Not only were Union troops seen starting fires, they were also observed preventing firemen from extinguishing blazing buildings. "Engines and hose were brought out by the firemen, but these were soon driven from their labors-which were indeed idle against such a storm of fire-by the pertinacious hostility of the soldiers; the hose was hewn to pieces, and the foremen, dreading worse usage to themselves, left the field in despair."

But William Gilmore Simms didn’t paint all Union troops or officers with the same brush. Some were brutish but others showed respect and even outright disapproval of the behavior of their compatriots. Simms praises these Union soldiers, who ".to their credit, be it said, were truly sorrowful and sympathizing, who had labored for the safety of family and property, and who openly deplored the dreadful crime." Several Union officers tried to restrain their men and many of the soldiers were injured themselves while risking their own lives to help families escape from burning buildings that were collapsing around them. Often, Union soldiers shared their provisions with civilians and, to the extent possible, prevented them from being robbed while they were being led to safety.

"One of these mournful processions of fugitives was that of the sisterhood of the Ursuline Convent, the nuns and their pupils. Beguiled to the last moment by the promises and assurances of officers and others in Sherman’s army, the Mother Superior had clung to her house to the last possible moment." The nuns and their young girls were protected and led to a safe place by Union officers who professed to be Catholic Irish. These officers stood guard over the Mother Superior and her charges throughout the night.

Simms makes only a passing mention of "outrages" against women, black and white, that took place "in remote country settlements" far from the eyes of Union officers. He recounts "two cases" of young black women that tragically ended in death but this is not a subject he wants to pursue so he demurs:

"Horrid narratives of rape are given which we dare not attempt to individualize."

The fires as well as the vandalism continued unabated for almost 12 hours.

Around four in the morning, a distraught lady confronted a Union officer:

"In the name of God, sir, when is this work of hell to be ended?" "You will hear the bugles at sunrise" he replied, " when a guard will enter the town and withdraw these troops. It will then cease, and not before." " Sure enough, with the bugle’s sound, and the entrance of fresh bodies of troops, there was an instantaneous arrest of incendiarism. You could see the rioters carried off in groups and squads, from the several precincts they had ravaged."

The Sherman apologists ignore eyewitness reports of the immolation of Columbia as well as much of the devastation caused by Sherman’s famous "march to the sea." Instead, they quote self-serving entries in Sherman’s diary wherein he blames the fires on the retreating General Hampton’s Confederate army. To justify the looting that occurred throughout his march, Sherman claims that: "The country was sparsely settled, with no magistrates or civil authorities who could respond to requisitions, as is done in all the wars of Europe; so this system of foraging was simply indispensable to our success." This is totally false. Atlanta, Columbia, and all the smaller towns in between, had elected officials to whom requisitions could have been submitted. And they would not have been ignored.

As a graduate of West Point, Sherman surely knew that his conduct was illegal and grossly unethical. Comments from diaries and letters written during and after the march to the sea show that many of his junior officers and soldiers had lost respect for their Commander-in-Chief. Sherman later admitted that his placing the blame for the fire on retreating Confederate troops was false. And, in a curious statement made the day after the fire, when questioned about his involvement, Sherman said: "I did not burn your town, nor did my army. Your brothers, sons, husbands and fathers set fire to every city, town and village in the land when they fired on Fort Sumter. That fire kindled then and there by them has been burning ever since, and reached your houses last night."

Incredibly, William Tecumseh Sherman’s attacks on defenseless civilians are viewed by his apologists as an expedient military strategy. They laud Sherman for being the father of modern warfare; the term they use is "total war." They claim, falsely, that he only destroyed property and supplies that would aid the Confederate military effort which, sadly, might sometimes include non-military targets, i.e. innocent civilians. And even Sherman’s abusive acts against "non-military targets" are laundered by applying innocuous terms like "directed severity" and "collateral damage."

Some who try to exonerate Sherman often refer to reports of Sherman’s march as a "myth" enshrined in films like "Gone With the Wind." But the burning of Atlanta was not a myth nor was it a literary device created by Margaret Mitchell to heighten the dramatic effect of her novel. And in his memoirs, Sherman described the spectacle: "Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city."

Unable to concede that there could be any other interpretation of events except theirs, the apologists often employ one of contemporary society’s most overused ploys; implying that Southerners who hold opinions contrary to theirs do so because of sub-conscious psychological reasons. Assuming a clinical tone, one professor explains: "The reasons Southerners continue to embrace this myth are more elusive.for some it still continues to resonate, especially for whites discontented with "Second Reconstruction"; and for those unhappy with the rapid development and transformation of the South."

The sanitized legend of William Tecumseh Sherman was becoming almost as sacrosanct as the Lincoln mythology. But it began to erode in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of criticism, not from Southerners, but from northern liberals. These critics of the war in Vietnam compared Sherman’s operations in Georgia and the Carolinas to crimes committed by Americans in Vietnam. They called Sherman our first merchant of terror, the spiritual father of such hated doctrines as search and destroy.

In the 1870s, Congress held hearings to consider claims for property losses in Southern states as a result of the war. After investigating the facts, the government agreed "to compensate the Ursuline Order of Nuns for the destruction of their convent when much of Columbia, SC, was burned following the occupation of the city by Union soldiers in 1865." Although this was not an outright admission of guilt, it certainly implied improper behavior on the part of General Sherman’s army.

Scholarly disputes over the burning of Columbia persist to this day. But, although there are still unresolved issues, the story does have a happy ending. In 1867, a group of New York City firemen, mostly former Union soldiers, raised $2,500 for fire hose carriage as a gift, a "peace offering" , to the city of Columbia. Some of the firemen, and other New Yorkers, traveled to Columbia to formally present the new fire carriage. At the ceremonial presentation, they were officially welcomed by a former Confederate officer. After offering the city’s profound appreciation, he expressed hope that one day Columbia would be able to "obey that golden rule by which you have been prompted in the performance of this magnificent kindness to a people in distress."