Sherman the Pyromaniac
by Gail Jarvis
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
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
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
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
day.gold 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
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
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
The fires as well as the vandalism continued unabated for almost
Around four in the morning, a distraught lady confronted a Union
"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."
That day finally came 134 years later when New York City lost
343 firefighters and 98 vehicles in the collapse of the World
Trade Center. The city of Columbia, S.C. responded by raising
$354,000 to purchase and present a state-of-the-art fire engine
to New York City’s heroic fire department.