The Burning of South Carolina
"The truth is", wrote Union Gen. William T. Sherman shortly before leaving Savannah, "the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina . I almost tremble at her fate, but feel she deserves all that seems in store for her." The destruction Sherman's army had caused on its way to Savannah had surely made Georgia howl, but it was mild compared with what detested South Carolina was to face. Here the war had started, and now the first secessionists were to get retribution. One of its soldiers wrote home: "If we don't purify South Carolina, it will be because we can't get a light."
After leaving Savannah on February 5, 1865, Sherman's 60,000 men took a direct line toward Columbia, the capital. Able South Carolina men had long since left for the Confederate armies in distant states, and the Union soldiers faced only token resistance from any organized Rebel troops. Sherman's men foraged liberally upon the native population, and everywhere left little more than clusters of black chimneys to mark the sites of where towns had been. One soldier joked that the name of the town of Barnwell should now be changed to Burnwell. Still, the march was grand and
By the night of February 15,the first of the Union soldiers had reached the Congaree River across from Columbia. The next day they sighted their cannon on the State House across the river and fired shells into the heart of the city. Other members of their forces laid pontoon bridges and crossed the river. On the morning of February 17, the advancing blue horde was met by the mayor of Columbia, who surrendered the city and was in turn assured by Sherman that the city and its inhabitants would not be harmed. Even so, as the blue soldiers marched into Columbia, some could be heard to sing, "Hail, Columbia, happy land. If you don't burn, I'll be damned." ~ “Sherman’s March from Savannah to Bentonville.” From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
The suffering of so many helpless and innocent persons could not but move the Hardest heart. The fall of Savannah resulted in the adoption of the plan which Sherman had contemplated. In a letter dated December 24th by Union General Henry W. Slocum, Sherman says:
“Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why I did not go to South Carolina, and when I answered that we were en route for that State, the invariable reply was, ‘Well, if you will make those people feel the utmost severities of war we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.’” About one month was spent in Savannah in clothing the men and filling the trains with ammunition and rations. Then commenced the movement which was to make South Carolina feel the severities of war. The right wing, with the exception of Corse’s division of the Seventeenth Corps, moved via Hilton Head to Beaufort. The left wing with Corse’s division and the cavalry moved up the west bank of the Savannah River to Sister’s Ferry, distant about forty miles from Savannah. Sherman’s plan was similar to that adopted on leaving Atlanta. When the army had started from Atlanta, the right wing had moved direct toward Macon and the left toward Augusta. Both cities were occupied by Confederate troops. The movements of our army had caused the Confederate authorities at each of these important cities to demand not only the retention of the troops at each place, but had induced them to demand help from every quarter. Sherman had had no thought of attacking either place, and at the proper time the movements of both wings of the army were so directed as to unite them and leave both cities in our rear, with little or no force in our front. On leaving Savannah our right wing threatened Charleston and the left again threatened Augusta, the two wings being again united in the interior of South Carolina, leaving the Confederate troops at Augusta with almost a certainty that Charleston must fall without a blow from Sherman. On the arrival of the left wing at Sister’s Ferry on the Savannah, instead of finding, as was anticipated, a river a few yards in width which could be easily crossed, they found a broad expanse of water which was utterly impassable. The continuous rain-fall had caused the river to overflow, so that the lowland on the South Carolina side was covered with water, extending nearly half a mile from the river. We were delayed several days in vain efforts to effect a crossing, and were finally compelled to await the falling of the waters. Our pontoon-bridge was finally constructed and the crossing commenced. Each regiment as it entered South Carolina gave three cheers. The men seemed to realize that at last they had set foot on the State which had done more than all others to bring upon the country the horrors of civil war. In the narrow road leading from the ferry on the South Carolina side torpedoes had been planted, so that several of our men were killed or wounded by treading upon them. This was unfortunate for that section of the State. Planting torpedoes for the defense of a position is legitimate warfare, but our soldiers regarded the act of placing them in a highway where no contest was anticipated as something akin to poisoning a stream of water; it is not recognized as fair or legitimate warfare. If that section of South Carolina suffered more severely than any other, it was due in part to the blundering of people who were more zealous than wise.
About February 19th the two wings of the army were reunited in the vicinity of Branchville, a smallvillage on the South Carolina Railroad at the point where the railroad from Charleston to Columbia branches off to Augusta. Here we resumed the work which had occupied so much of our time in Georgia, viz., the destruction of railroads.
Having effectively destroyed over sixty miles of railroads in this section, the army started for Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, each corps taking a separate road. The left wing (Slocum)arrived at a point about three miles from Columbia on the 16th, and there received orders to cross the Saluda River, at Mount Zion’s Church. The Fourteenth Corps moved to the crossing, built a bridge during the night, crossed the river next day, and was followed by the Twentieth Corps and Kilpatrick’s cavalry. The right wing (Howard) moved direct to Columbia, the Fifteenth Corps moving through the city and camping outside on the Camden road. The Seventeenth Corps did not enter Columbia. During the night of February 17th the greater portion of the city of Columbia was burned. The lurid flames could easily be seen from my camp, many miles distant. Nearly all the public buildings, several churches, an orphan asylum, and many of the residences were destroyed. The city was filled with helpless women and children and invalids, many of whom were rendered houseless and homeless in a single night. No sadder scene was presented during the war. The suffering of so many helpless and innocent persons could not but move the hardest heart.