April 12, 1861 Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Bay, South Carolina and thus the American Civil War began. Three years later in 1864 the war was still raging with both sides claiming victories over the other and to many it seemed like the war between the states that saw brothers fighting brothers and fathers fighting sons, would never end.
The rest here is an amalgamation of the following sources: William Tecumseh Sherman; William T. Sherman; Colonel George Stone Describes the Capture and Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 1865; New York Times, Feb. 18, 1865 and This Day in History, Feb 17 – Sherman Sacks Columbia, South Carolina.
By 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman had been placed in charge of the Union Armies of the West. Sherman took his troops and marched from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia and onward to sea. His campaign is generally referred to Sherman’s March to the Sea.
He managed to fight off any and all Confederate resistance he met along the way. Sherman’s agenda was not only to just defeat the Confederacy but to utterly devastate everything they had that he encountered along the way. He wanted the people of the South to hurt as much as the Confederate soldiers in hopes it would drive them to push for an end to the war.
By September 1864, Sherman occupied Atlanta, a major city of the Confederacy. After completely occupying Atlanta and burning much of it to the ground, Sherman made the most strategic move of the entire Civil War when in November, 1864, he left Atlanta with 62,000 men, 35,000 horses and 2,500 wagons, setting his aim on Savannah, Georgia. He divided his forces into two groups, leaving his supply train behind. His troops lived off the land and whatever spoils they could capture along the way.
On December 21, 1864, he captured Savannah. Sherman stated that his utter destruction of all roads, houses and people along his campaign would cripple their military resources. He concluded by saying that he would make Georgia howl.
After capturing Georgia’s two major cities, Sherman then took aim at South Carolina to the north. He wanted to continue to cut a large swath of destruction through the South and leaving the Confederacy in pieces.
On this day, February 17, 1865, Sherman’s forces reached Columbia, South Carolina. The news of Sherman’s approach caused Confederate General Wade Hampton to withdraw from the city, leaving it in the hands of Sherman. The occupation of Columbia, the state capital of the first state to secede from the United States was hailed a huge victory for the North and a huge demoralizer for the South.
What happened that day to Columbia has always been shrouded in controversy with both the North and South pointing fingers at each other over who was responsible for the burning of the city. Sherman claimed that Confederate soldiers torched the town as they withdrew to keep the yanks from gaining any of the spoils. Southern sources blamed Union soldiers who got drunk and out of control. Regardless of who was to blame, perhaps both, nearly two-thirds of the town was turned to ashes.
The news of Sherman’s conquest and destruction of Columbia made front page news on the February 20, 1865 issue of the New York Times, which read:
“HIGHLY IMPORTANT.; Capture of Columbia by Gen. Sherman. The Rebels Retreat as Our Troops Enter the City. Large Quantities of Medical Stores Destroyed by the Enemy. The “Cradle of Secession” violently Rocked. The Evacuation of Charleston a Military Necessity. Speculations as to where Sherman will Next Strike. He Lives on the Country and is Unopposed in His Advance. OFFICIAL REPORTS FROM GENERAL GRANT. [The following dispatch appeared in our edition of yesterday:] [OFFICIAL.]”
The paper went to report:
“SECOND DISPATCH FROM GEN. GRANT.
CITY POINT, Va., Feb. 18, 1865.
Hon. E.M. Stanton, War Department:
The following is taken from to-day’s Richmond Dispatch:
THE FALL OF COLUMBIA.
Columbia has fallen. SHERMAN marched into and took possession of the city yesterday morning. The intelligence was communicated yesterday by Gen. BEAUREGARD in an official dispatch. Columbia is situated on the north bank of the Congaree River, just below the confluence of the Saluda and Broad Rivers.
From Gen. BEAUREGARD’s dispatch it appears that on Thursday evening the enemy approached the south bank of the Congaree, and threw a number of shells into the city. During the night they moved up the river, and yesterday morning forded the Saluda and Broad Rivers. Whilst they were crossing these rivers our troops, under Gen. BEAUREGARD, evacuated Columbia. The enemy soon after took possession.
Through private sources we learned that two days ago, when it was decided not to attempt the defence of Columbia, a large quantity of medical stores, which it was thought it was impossible to remove, were destroyed. The female employes of the Treasury Department had been previously sent off to Charlotte, South Carolina, a hundred miles north of Columbia. We presume the Treasury lithographic establishment was also removed, although as to this we have no positive information.
The fall of Columbia necessitates, we presume, the evacuation of Charleston, which, we think likely, is already on process of evacuation.”
Many believe that Sherman’s march and conquest from Chattanooga to Atlanta to Savanah to Columbia was what broke the back and heart of the Confederacy and led to the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee less than 3 months later. Had it not been for Sherman’s bold move, which had never been done before in America’s history, who knows how much longer the war between the states would have continued and how many more Americans, Union and Confederate, would have died.