Are These the Men Who Burned Columbia, South Carolina?

Burning of ColumbiaThis weekend the Wade Hampton Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans will mark the anniversary of the bombardment of Columbia, South Carolina with a reenactment. The SCV hopes to remind local residents of the destruction wrought by the Union army. According to Don Gordon:

It’s important that we actually understand the true history of our city. We were fighting against the invading army that had burned every town that they came through.

The camp’s website devoted to the burning of Columbia reinforces their preferred narrative: “The responsibility for the burning of Columbia rests on the shoulders of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Federal forces.” Of course, anyone who has bothered to study this event knows that there are any number of questions surrounding what took place on February 17, 1865.

Marion Lucas’s Sherman and the Burning of Columbia is considered by many to be one of the better recent scholarly studies. Fellow blogger Al Mackey has a nice summary at his site that covers Lucas’s overall argument and includes selections from relevant primary sources. Lucas does not place full blame on Sherman’s army for what happened.

As always I wonder who ‘we’ is intended to refer to when it comes to Civil War memory. Is it intended to refer to the descendants of the area’s black population who may not have seen the arrival and even destruction of Columbia as such a horrific event? Does it resonate in a city that has no doubt witnessed the kinds of demographic shifts seen in much of the rest of the South over the course of the past 150 years?

Watching a bunch of elderly men fire off artillery will likely draw a crowd, but in terms of the history it is meant to commemorate, it falls woefully short.

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13 comments… add one
  • EK Feb 13, 2014 @ 11:22

    It’s interesting how much this camp’s website map of Columbia “borrows” from Marion Luca’s maps in his book. Of course they took nothing else from his work into consideration. That isn’t surprising though. I worry this is just a warm up for the sesquicentennial. Stay tuned…


  • Bob Huddleston Feb 13, 2014 @ 10:33

    When people complain about the Yankee Vandals pillaging and burning Columbia, I want to ask them if the young Americans who flew B-17s, B-24s and B-29s against Japan and Germany (and Hanoi and and and) were equally guilty of atrocities.

    • EK Feb 13, 2014 @ 11:34

      That’s a good point, but those views don’t necessarily have to align. On that thought though, I’d be curious how members of these groups think about the Indian Wars, including but not limited to the Sand Creek and Camp Grant massacres. Are they perceived to be continuations of the same style of violence or something else?

    • Jefferson Moon Feb 13, 2014 @ 17:52

      US policy in regards to Indians was no different after the war then before, IMO.

  • Jefferson Moon Feb 13, 2014 @ 10:22

    Many Union troops didn’t treat black so well at Columbia,lets not play pretend,but neither was it all atrocity…

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2014 @ 10:25

      Agreed. I wasn’t suggesting otherwise.

  • James F. Epperson Feb 13, 2014 @ 8:31

    IMO the key issue is/was the cotton in the streets. Without that, the destruction—whoever started the fire—would have been much less than it was. And the cotton was piled in the streets by the Confederates, the plan being to burn it there.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 12, 2014 @ 16:40

    This reminds me of a boy who used to bully me–not just with words, but also by shoving me around. One day I got so sick of it that I hit back, and he fell and broke his arm. After returning to school with a cast on his arm, he actually complained to me that I broke his arm!

    The lesson: sometimes perpetrators will do anything to make themselves look like victims when the tides turn on them.

  • Virgil Funk Feb 12, 2014 @ 15:29

    I have just finished reading Yankee Stepfather–the biography of O.O. Howard, by McFeely who was, as mentioned in Al Mackey’s wonderful summary, was one of the assisting generals to Sherman. Howard, of course, becomes head of Freedman’s Bureau. McFeely maintains that one of the reasons that Howard was chosen for that job was because the large number of liberated enslaved people who were following Sherman’s and specifically Howard’s Division. This liberated enslaved group treated Sherman and Howard as a New Moses—in a year of Jubilee–leading them on a path to the promise land. It is interesting to speculate what their reaction to, (or participation in) the burning of Columbia would have been!
    PS. I’ve found a wonderful letter of Christopher Winsmith from 1876 written to Wm Lloyd Garrison—that is fascinating information on Christopher. Write me directly, if you wish.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2014 @ 15:31


      You are making it very difficult for me to move on from Winsmith. Will be in touch.

  • R E Watson Feb 12, 2014 @ 14:53

    My goodness ! From the photo, those guys might have been at the actual battle. 😉

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 12, 2014 @ 10:18

    Hmmm…could secession and the firing on Fort Sumpter had something to do with the burning of Columbia? (For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost…)

    • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2014 @ 10:32

      No doubt.

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