Was the Burning of Columbia, S.C. a War Crime?

tags: Civil War, Burning of Columbia, William T. Sherman

Thom Bassett lives in Providence, R.I., and teaches at Bryant University. He is at work on a novel.

When Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops left Columbia, S.C., on the morning of Feb. 20, 1865, about a third of it lay in ashes behind them, with thousands left homeless. Within weeks, Southerners had begun to publish what they considered evidence of an orchestrated Northern atrocity. Ten years later, the dispute remained so sharp that Sherman felt it necessary to defend himself in his memoirs by accusing Confederates of setting the city on fire themselves. Even today, many neoconfederate websites argue that the burning of Columbia was a Union war crime. 

The truth is different: Columbia burned during the night of Feb. 17-18, 1865, but not directly because of command decisions by either the Confederate or Union generals ostensibly in control. While the Northern generals deserve some blame, the burning of the South Carolina capital was in reality a result of confusion, misjudgment and simple bad luck. It was, in sum, an accident of war. 

By 1865 Columbia was one of the few places of refuge for Confederates fleeing the Union onslaught across the South. It also retained a vital importance to the war effort, serving as a nexus for one of the last rail systems that could still get supplies to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered forces in Virginia. It was a production center, too: The city produced swords, rifles, shoes, socks and uniforms; the Palmetto Iron Works manufactured shells, minie bullets and cannon. Joseph LeConte, a chemistry professor at South Carolina College, provided indispensable war service by heading efforts to produce badly needed medicine and gunpowder.

In early January, Sherman, encamped at Savannah, Ga., decided to take Columbia during his planned march through the Carolinas. After sweeping aside the token resistance met along the way, Sherman’s troops arrived at the southern edge of Columbia on the morning of Feb. 17. They drove off a handful of Confederate skirmishers, circled around the city and entered it in force from the northwest. 

What the soldiers found was a city almost ideally situated to burn. Columbia was bursting with highly flammable bales of cotton. Its location made it ideal for cotton trading and transport, and overproduction during the war as well as the Union blockade resulted in tremendous amounts of cotton being stored in all available warehouses, basements and empty buildings. ...

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