SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY
UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY
Fifty-sixth Annual Meeting Address
New Views on the Burning of ColumbiaTheodore Rosengarten
[Editor's note: James Reston, Jr. (1941- ) wrote requesting a correction to the third paragraph: "I was born in New York, have never been a columnist for the New York Times (that's my late father [James Reston, born 1909]), and began my retracing of Sherman's march across the south as a New Yorker project. My southern roots come from having been educated at Chapel Hill, and having taught creative writing at U.N.C. from 1971-1981." --Feb. 1999]
Lincoln freed the slaves, but Sherman won the war. That's what a boy growing up in New York City learned in public school, when people in my neighborhood still were celebrating the defeat of Hitler in the war which for them and their children would always be the war. As for the War Between the States, well, it had happened a long time ago in a faraway place, and my ancestors weren't in it--they were living in a shtetl in eastern Europe and probably had not dreamed of coming to America. But I was an American boy, born in Brooklyn, and it was impressed upon me that the Civil War was my war too. The newspapers that came into our apartment were counting down the last surviving Civil War veterans and widows, most of them southerners, while the heroes who leapt from the textbooks and caught my imagination were venerated with no regard to which side they'd fought on. Lee with Grant, Jackson with Sherman, Smith with Sheridan--American heroes all. (In the political realm, however, there was no match for Lincoln.)
Imagine my astonishment when, fifteen years later, I heard Mary McCarthy, Howard Levine, Michael Hess, and other critics of the war in Vietnam, people I thought were on the same wavelength I was, compare 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, pacification, strategic hamlets, free-fire zones. You had to wonder whether without Sherman the atom bomb might not have been dropped.
For a little book that appeared in 1984, titled Sherman's March and Vietnam, James Reston, the Virginia-born columnist for The New York Times, got in his car and retraced the route of Sherman's army, asking people along the way for their thoughts about Sherman. In Atlanta, which burned more thoroughly than Columbia, Reston found more humor than rancor at the mention of Sherman's name. "General Sherman, where are you now that we need you?" read bumper stickers lampooning the fast-food architecture and helter-skelter zoning of the wildly growing city. In the countryside, Georgians told Reston that Sherman sure had used more violence than he'd needed to. But, heck, that's what war is, too much violence, Reston's informants seemed to shrug. The South happened to be on the receiving end, but there have been plenty of wars since in which southerners have fought on the winning side, on the dishing-it-out side. At West Point--the military academy, not the Georgia town--Reston spoke to military planners, southerners by birth, who sympathized with Sherman, because his reputation was under siege, like theirs was, in the nasty climate surrounding the war in Vietnam. What they did not know, however, is that Sherman had come home to a hero's welcome. He had carried the torch of righteousness and republicanism. Even Quakers praised him for doing the right thing in the right way in the right place. Loved as he was in the North, he was popular in all sections of the country, even the South.
People everywhere wanted to see Sherman, hear him. As a speaker he was neither eloquent nor humorous. Phlegmatic would describe his style, if the word were still in use. At train stop after train stop his message was the same: the United States should develop its economic power through tariff-protected industries and interlocking transport systems. The demand for Sherman was so phenomenal that Mark Twain's theatrical agent tried to talk him into going on tour. Sherman declined the man's services and went out on his own.
Speaking to the Society of the Army of Tennessee in 1867, Sherman offered a history lesson and a moral. "The North had fastened slavery on the South," he told the friendly gathering of his former adversaries; "the North had shared in the profits of slavery and cotton and consequently... should be charitable and liberal in the final distribution of penalties to the South." To southern audiences he brought a message of reconciliation wrapped in hostility to radical reconstruction. He opposed the military occupation of the former Confederate states and had called upon Congress to accept the legitimacy of the existing insurrectionary state governments. In the matter of controlling the Negro, he supported the program of white supremacy. In turn, white southerners were kind enough to remember him not for burning Atlanta and Columbia, but for offering generous terms of surrender to Joe Johnston and his tattered army a month after Lee capitulated.
Sherman's popularity survived the publication of his memoirs, in 1875, despite the fact that he insulted the South's wartime leaders and wondered out loud about the soundness of southern mentality. In 1879, while General-in-Chief of the United States Army, Sherman toured his old southern battlegrounds. In Chattanooga and Atlanta, he was toasted and fêted at balls given in his honor. Crowds in Savannah, St. Augustine, and New Orleans pressed to catch a glimpse of him. In New Orleans he shared a box at the theater with John Bell Hood, who had led the Army of Tennessee in a series of gallant but disastrous maneuvers against him.
But Sherman's popularity did not survive the publication of Jefferson Davis's apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, in 1881. Davis charged Sherman with committing atrocities against southerners by ordering the evacuation of non-combatants in Memphis and Atlanta, and by punitively setting fire to Columbia. Davis's readers now included a generation of men and women who had been impoverished by the war without having had the consolation of fighting in it. Embittered by military occupation on top of defeat, and speechless with rage over the ascendancy of the Negro, in theory if not in reality, they were ripe to accept a revised view of Sherman. It did not matter that the general had shared their prejudice toward blacks. They believed in the good life of the world he had helped overturn; they were busy manufacturing the myth of a golden age, and more fires than Sherman could ever have attended were added to his name.
For the next hundred years, a majority of white southerners accepted Davis's judgment as gospel. But opinion was never unanimous. In the first half of this century, historians of the South, men born in the South, tended to exonerate Sherman personally. E. Merton Coulter and Clement Eaton, past presidents of the Southern Historical Association and partisans of the Old South, found little to distinguish Sherman's appetite for destruction from any other general's. Efficiency, not cruelty, was Sherman's God, wrote Coulter, paying him a backhanded compliment. By and large, outside of military circles, Sherman's admirers could be found only in the North. Then, in the 1960s and '70s, even those friends abandoned him.
Befuddled by the change in Sherman's reputation, I began reading the source material to try to discover the real Sherman. What did he do and what didn't he do, particularly when he came through Columbia, in February, 1865? Do new studies of Sherman and the events in Columbia have anything new to say? Wasn't the question of who was responsible for the burning of Columbia exhausted a long time ago? Are there other questions that ought to be asked, questions that have gotten lost in the national game of pinning the tail of guilt on the donkey? Perhaps old accounts of the fire have something to teach that has been overlooked.
A good place to start is John F. Rhodes's "The Burning of Columbia," an essay Rhodes thought would sum-up and put an end to the controversy. A past president of the American Historical Association and author of a history of the Civil War as well as the classic The History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, Rhodes published his views in 1900, by which time most living Americans had been born since the war and had no first-hand knowledge of it.
The "undisputed" facts Rhodes mustered were these: "Sherman, with his army of 60,000 left Savannah on February 1, 1865, and reached the neighborhood of Columbia on February 16. The next day Columbia was evacuated by the Confederates, occupied by troops of the 15th Corps of the Federal Army, and by the morning of the 18th, three-fifths of the town lay in ashes."
As it turns out, even these assertions are open to challenge. Marion Brunson Lucas, in a careful, well-crafted study, Sherman and the Burning of Columbia (1976), questions how much of the city actually burned. But fruitful to a new inquiry into the origins of the conflagration is Rhodes's description of the motley crew who started fires: Confederate stragglers; Union soldiers in varying degrees of sobriety; escaped Union prisoners of war, fresh out of hiding; common convicts recklessly let out of jail; disgruntled citizens and Negroes--slaves and free people of color; army followers; and the ubiquitous but shadowy "rabble." "All these classes named had a hand in the sack and destruction of Columbia," Rhodes concluded, breaking the mold of blaming one side or the other.
Rather than close the door on the subject, as he imagined he was doing, Rhodes's finding should lead us to ask more questions. For example, just who made up this unnamed "rabble" and what were they doing in Columbia? Did they include desperate farmers and planters thrown out of work by the blockade of their crops? How about tradesmen and mechanics, sunk into joblessness and poverty in the shattered economy? Perhaps foreigners trapped in the city, or natives and army deserters whose southern nationalism had been drained by suffering and a string of defeats? Is "rabble" a label for a class of people who had combined socially or politically before the war, or was their unity an accident of circumstances, a phenomenon that would evaporate in normal times? We know that martial law had been declared in Columbia eight days before Sherman got there, before it was known for certain that he was coming. Was this "rabble" that very crowd from whom the propertied classes needed protection--the crowd that historian George Fort Milton identified as "the scum who had taken charge of the city between Wade Hampton's departure and Sherman's advent"? An understanding of who the "rabble" were and what they were doing awaits an inquiring historian. Such an investigation is sure to revise the total picture.
The debate over who set the devastating fires had heated up before the embers cooled. Sherman and Hampton exchanged letters while Sherman was still in the state, each man blaming the other for what had happened. Sherman accused Hampton of setting fire to the cotton piled in the city streets as the Confederates retreated; Hampton replied that he had countermanded orders to burn the cotton and that Sherman was lying. Later, in fact, Sherman admitted he had indicted Hampton without proof, for the purpose of shaking the people's confidence in him, but whether Hampton had issued orders to burn or not to burn was immaterial because he, Sherman, had had to ride his horse on the sidewalk to avoid the flaming bales when he entered the city.
William Gilmore Simms had taken refuge in Columbia only to watch his possessions go up in smoke. There was no doubt in his mind that Sherman had ordered the fires. "It hath pleased God," he wrote, a month later, "in that awful Providence which is so inscrutable to man, to visit our beautiful city with the most cruel fate which can ever befall States or cities. He has permitted an invading army to penetrate our country almost without impediment; to rob and ravage our dwellings; and to commit three-fifths of our city to flames."
Now we know where Rhodes got his figures. Simms's bill of particulars, published with a list of the houses and buildings destroyed on the night of February 17, was dismissed as self-serving and erroneous by Harpers Illustrated, a Lincolnite magazine that had been reporting the war blow by blow for a northern audience since Fort Sumter. Taking Sherman at his word, Harpers has passed it down intact to our own time, so that the official federal version of events in Columbia can be found without alteration in works such as Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Mitchell's Decisive Battles of the Civil War, and George Fort Milton's Conflict: The American Civil War--which goes to show that historians may not always read the primary sources, but they always read each other.
Even accepting Sherman's construction, it does not necessarily follow that the cotton he found burning in the streets caused the fire which ravaged the city. Neither does it follow that if there was a different cause it was Sherman. "If I had made up my mind to burn Columbia, I would have burnt it with no more feeling than I would a common prairie dog village," he testified in 1872, with imagery derived from his post-war exploits against the Plains Indians, "but I did not do it." Neither did he regret that it had happened. "The burning of the private dwellings, though never designed by me, was a trifling matter compared to the manifold results that soon followed. Though I never ordered or wished it, I have never shed tears over the event, because I believe it hastened what we all fought for, the end of the war."
One could argue that the war would have ended not one day later had Sherman left Columbia the way he found it. In his thinking, the completeness with which his army had its way in Columbia and along the entirety of its march across the inland South was demonstrating the impossibility of southern independence. While remnants of Confederate defenders regrouped to try to offer resistance ahead of him, many individuals left the ranks and went home to defend their families and property. The burning of Columbia was but one of a thousand horrors incidental to the war, all of them justified by the outcome. This war, and everything it took to win it, had guaranteed the unity of the United States and made the nation into a world power. To the end, Sherman washed his hands of responsibility for the fire and refused to confer any significance on it apart from the "results" of the war.
Historians of the Union side have adopted his tone as well as his explanation. "However it happened, it happened," wrote Bruce Catton, in This Hallowed Ground. "It may have been this way, it may have been that way," Catton waffled, belittling the question. Now what kind of statement is that for a scholar to make? Why doesn't it matter how the city burned? Assuming that justice was with Sherman, and guilt for the war with South Carolina, Catton concluded, "If Sherman's soldiers had not found fire in Columbia, they would have started fire of their own."
Yes, apparently that was so, the Federals found fire, put it out in some places and spread it in others. But Catton's formulation is too glib for me. I don't ask for the names of the people who struck the matches or threw torches made of cotton soaked in turpentine into buildings where people were seeking shelter, but I do want to understand why people did what they did and what they thought they were doing. Knowing something rarely means indicating a strict cause and effect. Knowing, in the historical sense, is understanding the contexts. So while it may be futile to try to single out the arsonists, it is possible and necessary to discover how and why the fires occurred. The destruction of Columbia did not have to be deliberately planned. It was enough for it to happen in an atmosphere that made it clear that property was expendable, and that actions resulting in the massive destruction of property were central to the strategy of the war. What needs to be explained is the environment which conveyed the message to Sherman's veteran army that destroying property in Columbia was permissible; shooting people was prohibited but the burning of buildings, if not explicitly ordered, would go unpunished and might even be tacitly approved of by the higher-ups.
Look again at Simms. On first reading I thought: well, he doesn't get it, he just doesn't understand. What do you think the army is there for, Simms, sixty thousand trained wreckers, if not to leave the place different than they found it? Then I came to see that Simms understood only too well the meaning of events. That it was not only his property and the property of his friends that was expendable, but that he himself and they, too, were consumable and replaceable in the eyes of their enemies. The war was revealed as a fight against property and propertied people. The existence of a whole social class was targeted through a policy of destroying its property. Lives, however, were not taken. Columbia was no My Lai, and while comparing Sherman's operations with American actions in Vietnam satisfies some need of both critics and defenders of the recent war, it should be emphasized that the mass killing of noncombatants was never contemplated or permitted as a way to terrorize the enemy into laying down its arms or to destroy its war-making potential. Furthermore, in Vietnam, it was the landed gentry we were trying to prop up, and the peasant class we were trying to humble.
Nevermind the Federal respite in Savannah--that was a tease and a lie, an episode that left Simms momentarily surprised when the sack of Columbia unfolded. Had the soldiers shot people in the streets Simms could not have been more outraged. What were some of the depredations Sherman's men were guilty of? Why, they wrote their names in pencil on the marble floors of the new state capitol building; they threw rocks at the bronze statue of George Washington; they busted up "forty beautiful sculptured capitals." They did not kill anyone, but they did something worse--they tried to unmake a civilization. Simms deeply deplored the wasting of libraries, and modestly refrained from listing his own grievous loss of eight thousand books. Up in smoke went the wealth of Dr. R.W. Gibbes, including a portfolio of fine engravings and paintings by illustrious artists, a cabinet of fossils and sharks teeth once hailed by Louis Agassiz of Harvard as the finest collection of its kind in the world, prized relics of American Indians, one-of-a-kind documents relating to the American Revolution. What could be the purpose of destroying these things except to do away with a civilization? Nearly alone among eye-witnesses, Simms downplayed the role of liquor in inspiring the fire-setters. The fire was the work of sober intent, as he saw it. In the editor's notes to the 1937 edition of Simms's narrative, Alexander Salley quotes a federal officer who laid out the historical task the army had assumed in this last phase of the war--the destruction of the upper class. The "aristocrats" had lost their honor when they seceded from the Union; now they'd lost their houses, too, and tomorrow they would have no name--no influence, that is, in the post-war order. Salley cites this as evidence of a pervasive inferiority complex, the true force and motive, in Salley's opinion, behind the burning of the capital.
It was a pretty little city before the fire, well laid out and park-like. Its trees and gardens delighted visitors who found Columbia's attention to its appearance exceptional for a marketing center. In the several square blocks known as "Cotton Town" were located offices and warehouses of the brokers who bought and sold much of the midland and upcountry crop. Because trade was paralyzed by the federal blockade of the coast, Columbia's warehouses, basements, and outbuildings were bursting with cotton in 1865. The city was bursting with people too, its pre-war population of 8,000 having swelled to more than 25,000, half-white, half-black. A prisoner-of-war camp inside the city limits held some 1,200 Federals, all officers. Confederate Generals Hampton and Butler, Beauregard and Johnston, Wheeler, and Lovell all were squeezed into Columbia. Johnston was without a command at the time, Hampton and Wheeler had come down from Virginia, while Beauregard commanded all Confederate forces in the area. The task of keeping Sherman from crossing the Congaree fell to Butler and Hampton.
Sherman almost didn't come. Grant had wanted him to establish a base in Savannah and ship his army to Virginia, where Lee was stubbornly entrenched. Three things changed Grant's mind: first, Sherman's success in crossing Georgia, devouring and destroying food that would have gone to feed Lee, and demoralizing the population; second, the disintegration of John Bell Hood's army, in Tennessee; and third, Lee's attitude itself. Grant correctly surmised that Lee was going nowhere, that he intended to make his last defense the defense of Richmond. Sherman was pleased. He wrote Grant that he planned to push into South Carolina with a healthy army whose morale was "now so perfect." He wanted the war to end, surely, and he was working to bring that about, but he was also aware that he was conducting an experiment in managing an army that would yield useful lessons for the country in the years ahead. Besides, his soldiers were itching to cross the Savannah and leave their footprints in the hotbed of secession.
Still, no one could say for sure which Sherman would visit South Carolina, the Sherman who had laid waste to Atlanta, or the one who had protected Savannah. The march to the sea had been virtually uncontested; the troops hadn't had to work very hard and had eaten well. Consequently, they were in a good mood. Sherman's army was a safe place for a soldier to be. The chances of getting killed or wounded or of contracting a lethal disease were half what they were in other units. Sherman protected his soldiers. He wanted to win, certainly, but winning came to mean gathering and increasing his strength, to where the appearance of his able-bodied army in carefully selected encounters away from the enemy's large concentrations, was a specter that overwhelmed and frightened the opposition and sent them running.
In advance of the march, Sherman had studied a copy of the 1860 census enumerating the people, livestock, and agricultural produce of Georgia county by county. Abandoning his supply lines and living off the fat of the land, Sherman's army moved with unprecedented mobility through the breadbasket of the Deep South. In Savannah, Sherman relaxed and put a guard over the city. He talked freely to the white residents about the day when Georgia would resume her place in the Union. He had no desire to punish southerners, he said, or to tamper with race relations. Slavery was at an end, but he would leave the fate of the Negro up to them. He believed the Negro was inferior to the white man, whether it was biology or history that made him so, and he had evaded War Department attempts to make him enlist blacks as soldiers.
Yet there were some who knew in their bones what was in store for South Carolina. Before Sherman set out for the sea, Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in her diary: "Although Sherman took Atlanta he does not mean to stay there. Fire and sword are for us here; that is the word."
The holiday ended for Sherman's army when it crossed the Savannah. Instead of hard roads running parallel to the main streams that made marching through Georgia a picnic, the roads in South Carolina tended to cross the streams and rivers, now bloated by rain. The terrain was low, and the army had to bog its way through swamps. The country was, in Sherman's words, "in a state of nature, with simply mud roads, nearly every mile of which had to be courderoyed."
The army advanced in four columns, across a thirty mile swath, raising four columns of smoke--smoke from anything that would burn: houses, barns, fences, crops, woodlots, and the very pine forests. Sherman's right wing feinted toward Charleston and the left wing toward Augusta, freezing the defenders around the cities. Both wings crossed the Edisto River, and then it became apparent that the whole army was going to Columbia.
On Thursday, February 16, the Federals reached the west bank of the Congaree, overlooking the city. A first volley came from Confederate gunners who lobbed shells into the Union camp "contrary," Sherman complained, "to civilized warfare." Federal artillery returned the favor, taking aim at the city's railroad depots and other inviting targets. What happened inside the city, from the moment the Federals were sighted through the morning they left the city, has been told in hour-by-hour detail by several first-rate historians whose narratives draw on the hundreds of recollections penned by people who were there. I could not improve on the narrative of the fire written by Charles Royster in his brilliant new book, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans. In fact, I ought to append it in full right here. Also useful and impressive is Lucas's dispassionate account which I mentioned earlier.
In bare outline then: Mayor Goodwyn surrendered the city unconditionally to the Federals and secured first from Sherman's lieutenants and then from the general himself promises to protect life and property. The mayor was glad to see Wheeler's cavalry leave, and he remarked that he expected the Federals to be easier on the city than its defenders had been. Sherman toured the still smoldering ruins of the main railroad depot, the city arsenal, and the market, then went to his quarters to sleep. Cotton, meanwhile, was burning in several streets, and balls of flaming cotton were flying on the wind. Columbia had experienced many fires in its history and had built an extensive waterworks and four strategically placed firehouses manned by volunteers. But there wasn't enough firefighting equipment in the state to combat the fires that were being stoked in Columbia that day. And while some federal soldiers pitched in to try to put out the fires, others smashed fire engines and cut fire hoses.
At sunset, a large fire near city hall lit up the sky. A block away, flames shot up from the offices of the Southern Express Company; on the west side of Main Street, buildings down wind of burning cotton were catching fire. Shops were burning on Taylor Street, and soon there were fires everywhere. By midnight a single fire was burning over an area nine blocks long by four blocks wide. Witnesses would later compare the drone of the wind-driven blaze to the noise of a waterfall. Eerie towers of fire from the steeples of churches on Marion Street loomed over the flames that were consuming houses next door. Bull Street was on fire, five blocks east of Assembly. The old State House burned like a chunk of fat-lighter, and the new granite-walled State House blistered. Marble sculptures of eminent South Carolinians, the pieces noted by Simms, including a statue of John C. Calhoun in a Roman toga, personifying the genius of liberty, dissolved, Royster reports, "in a quicklime puddle."
By this hour General Sherman was up and walking the streets, by fits ordering his subordinates to fight the fire and silently looking on as the conflagration spread. He might as well have told the officers to walk on water for all the effect they had. By six in the morning, however, the wind had shifted and died down, and the fire was at last contained. Miraculously, the only two verified deaths occurred when troops under the command of Union General John G. Oliver, acting on orders to restore discipline, shot and killed two of their own men; scores more were shot and wounded. The number of disorderly soldiers and civilians rounded up by army patrols reached 2,500.
Sherman spent Saturday, the 18th, receiving petitioners--mainly burned out residents seeking assistance. He wrote elliptically in his journal, "Columbia burned fire high wind. Cotton in the streets fired by the enemy and the general animosity of our own men--great distress of the people." The people surveyed their losses. Four hundred buildings had burned to the ground. The business section of the city, the largest churches, the wealthiest residences lay in ashes. And the destruction wasn't over. All day Saturday and Sunday Federal soldiers continued to set fire to Confederate arms and ammunition, to factories and munitions piles, to the city gas works and machinery in the railroad yards--all burned, blasted, disabled. Another thousand bales of cotton were torched, this time in a controlled fire. Railroad tracks were lifted and twisted into corkscrews and shapes dubbed Sherman's neckties.
On Sunday, while his men prepared for departure, Sherman received a group of ministers and businessmen who pleaded for food and for protection from the blacks. Curiously, eyewitness accounts scarcely mention the blacks until the Federals were getting ready to leave, except to give examples of loyal servants insulted and manhandled by the Yankees, and of individuals who tried to embrace the invaders only to receive kicks for their trouble. The picture that emerges from the recollections of the whites is of a momentarily excited but politically passive black caste. Once the federal army withdrew, however, the Negro was perceived as a threat. Their authority diminished by the beating they had taken, and their means of defending themselves destroyed, the whites were understandably frightened. With or without a change in his demeanor, the Negro took on the role of enemy and bore the brunt of his defeated master's fear.
Sherman gave the petitioners fifty-five head of cattle and one hundred old muskets in working condition. Early Monday morning, the 20th, the army marched out of the city in three columns, one taking Main Street north to the Winnsboro Road, one going out Taylor Street toward Camden, and one keeping close to the twisted rails of the Charlotte Railroad. In fact, the Federals had resumed their march toward the railroad junction at Goldsboro, North Carolina. Once they crossed the state line, all burning, looting, and foraging ceased. The army gave more to the people of North Carolina than it took, some soldiers observed, by way of redistributing the wealth of South Carolina to the state that was the last and most reluctant to secede from the Union.
As I said, this sketch of the burning of Columbia relies heavily on the trustworthy narratives of Charles Royster and Marion Brunson Lucas. To Lucas, the chief culprits were cotton, wind, and whiskey. He credits Federal soldiers with making heroic, if vain, efforts to put out the fires. In Royster, fire, disorderliness, confusion, anarchy, and looting were the ecology of the city, so to speak, when Sherman's soldiers entered and partook of the existing animus and mood, adding to it a vindictiveness reserved for South Carolina. Their officers failed to check them, acting with uncharacteristic laxity and incoherence, and some complicity with the desires of the troops.
On the Confederate side, speaking with Royster and Lucas, it is even easier to point out the failures of command. Sherman mentioned that Generals Hampton and Butler seemed to have lost their heads. Lucas notes "a trend in bad judgment" that included mishandling the cotton, failing to destroy huge stocks of whiskey--a point Sherman harped on--and neglecting to work out a plan of surrender. Had the defenders cooperated with each other and withdrawn sooner they might have declared Columbia an open city in an effort to spare it from attack. Yet when it became obvious that the Federals could not be repulsed, nor the Confederates reinforced, the generals still were promising miracles.
In truth, there was not much they could do but leave to fight another day. Sherman had more options than they did. He could not control the wind, but he could have enforced soldierly discipline twelve hours earlier than he tried. He could have stopped the trophy hunting and ordered the whiskey spilled in the gutters. In the midst of the fire he talked and behaved as though he knew things had gotten out of hand. Yet it was the judgment of his junior officers and of residents of the city with whom he spoke during the night, that whether through indecision or exhaustion, miscalculation or a motive of revenge, he allowed his unspoken will to have its way.
Conduct that strikes Lucas as innocent seems purposeful to Royster. What Sherman achieved in Columbia by giving or withholding orders was consistent with the lessons he'd learned at Vicksburg and Memphis, in 1862 and '63. "There is no enemy divided between peaceable innocent civilians and military combatants," is how Royster reads his mind. "There were only rebels whose diverse means of resistance to the United States government formed a continuum of treason." In Memphis, Sherman had held whole neighborhoods responsible for shooting at forage trains. He ordered the expulsion from the city of families who had relatives in the Confederate army--the punishment worked, and sniping stopped. He ordered the burning of all farms, houses, and crops on the west bank of the Mississippi for a distance of fifteen miles down river from the city and imagined solving the sectional conflict by re-populating the South with people from elsewhere. He wondered, says Royster, "at what point on the scale of increasing violence would southerners give up their resistance?" To inflict military defeat would not be enough. A Colonel Flint, one of the southern-born officers James Reston interviewed for his book linking Sherman with Vietnam, sees Sherman's edge in the belief that winning the military struggle was not his only or even his primary mission. Rather, his mission was punitive and psychological, and had to be felt by the civilians behind the troops. Sherman articulated the aim of his operations in Georgia and the Carolinas by saying he wanted to strike at the enemy's "inmost recesses," a sophisticated phrase that connotes the "inland resources" of a would-be nation which regarded its hinterland as impenetrable, as well as the will of the people to resist.
His mission was terror. Call it genius or knavery, but it was Sherman's loose control over his army as it passed through Columbia that produced the element of terror he sought. His alternating states of talkativeness and taciturnity the night of the fire may have indicated a man who had lost control, but that very lapse led to a desired effect. Likewise the kid-glove treatment accorded Savannah, after the burning of Atlanta and before the call on Columbia, may have induced a state of hopefulness in some, but its real offspring was the kind of terror that comes from not knowing, a state of mind that makes planning impossible and puts incredible strain on leadership.
Sherman's mission, as it was carried out in Columbia, profoundly affected the psychology of the North, too. By burning Columbia or letting it burn, Sherman gave his countrymen what they had been craving for nearly four years of war--clear and unadulterated victory, compounded of the defeat and punishment of the enemy. In 1864 and '65, his army had come to stand for momentum, while Grant was hunkered down near Petersburg. Even the mild-mannered Harriet Beecher Stowe, no friend of Sherman on the race question, declared as late as 1880, the passing of time having failed to revise her view, that she could see "God's flaming purgation of slavery from the land in the form of Sherman's march."
So an important context for Sherman's strategy was the approval of the people in whose name he was fighting. Here is another point where the comparison of Sherman with the United States in Vietnam breaks down. The country was torn apart over what policy to pursue in Vietnam, and violent disagreement at home demoralized our troops in the field. But in the United States in 1865, soldiers and civilians, officers and enlisted men, were in agreement: South Carolina should be punished. The historian Alan Nevins described the change that came over Sherman's army when it crossed the Savannah and sensed it was heading northward toward home. "`Every soldier felt he was in the heart of the enemy's country and it was his duty to do all the damage possible to the enemy,'" he quotes a veteran of the march. Houses were set on fire "`so near the road...it became so hot our ammunition trains were obliged to go out in the fields to pass. If we halted to rest in a little town, it would be but a short time before houses all about seemed to be in flames." The scene was repeated "`all across the state.'" Not only did no one have orders "`to do this work of destruction, but on the contrary it was strictly forbidden.'" Yet it happened. An Illinois major recalled, "The army burnt everything that it came near in South Carolina, not under orders but in spite of orders."
Thus, in spite of orders, but according to some unspoken, universal feeling of necessity, the following towns were burned by Sherman's army on the way to Columbia: Grahamville, Barnwell, Blackville, Midway, Lawtonville, McPhersonville, parts of Orangeburg and Lexington, and numerous crossroads settlements. The town of Hardeeville disappeared; buildings spared from flames were dismantled to make shelters for troops. Ironically, the more widespread the destruction, the more difficult it was to find leaders who could talk about ending the violence. When Hampton threatened to kill on the spot Union soldiers caught foraging, Sherman retorted, "If the civil authorities will supply my requisitions, I will forbid all foraging. But I find no civil authorities who can respond to my calls for forage and provisions and therefore must collect directly from the people." This is the sarcasm of a general who has the upper hand. It is also a design to destroy people's faith in their leaders, to show them that their government is a house built on sand.
Upon crossing into North Carolina, Sherman wrote to Major General Terry at Wilmington: "The people of South Carolina instead of feeding Lee's army will now call on Lee to feed them." Of course, Lee could do no such thing, and was hard pressed to feed himself. General Sheridan's cavalry raids in the Shenendoah Valley had left Lee "marooned in a wasteland of resources and dependent on railroad transportation for all his subsistence." Now Sherman had cut the railroads. The plan of starving the enemy had come to Sherman and Sheridan independently, and demonstrates another level of agreement on the Union side, this one between field leaders of allied armies. "I believe the destruction of subsistence resources to be everything," Sheridan wrote Grant in the summer of 1864. The sentiment was Sherman's exactly. "I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock and issued to the troops not less than 300 sheep. The people are getting sick of the war."
Destruction of the fruits of labor and the tools and symbols of social identity was the strategy of all federal forces in the eastern theater. It had the approval of the President, of the people at home, and of the soldiers in the field. In this climate of consensus, where the distinction between enemy combatants and civilians evaporated, Sherman's concept of war came perilously close to replacing political policy itself.
There was agreement of a different kind on the victims' side. The punishment they were feeling seemed to have no relation to a crime, the effect no reasonable cause, as if not only the laws of society but the laws of nature, too, were being violated. Possessions--matter itself--were ephemeral. Complex, sentient individuals counted for nothing against the force and logic of fire. It was humbling and provoking at the same time. Residents driven screaming into the streets during the burning of Columbia were strangely reticent afterwards. What had happened to them wasn't communicable. Mary Boykin Chesnut commented on the difficulties people had in talking about their experiences. "Without concert of action," she wrote, on April 3, 1865, "everybody in Columbia seems to have suppressed the first letters written by them after Sherman's fire." She cites the example of three women who destroyed or did not send the letters they wrote in their "futile rage against the senseless destruction." Later, the words poured out of them, but different words.
In the nameless quality which made the experience of the fire impossible to communicate, the burning of Columbia goes to the essence of the last phase of the Civil War, which set the stage for decades of unforgivingness and retribution, in a drama that has not yet played itself out.
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