Category Archives: history

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Cold Harbor

This is the twelfth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the “Associates,” the principals in the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that built the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad. This week, I return to the Civil War, specifically the battle of Cold Harbor.

In an earlier article on this site (May 23, 2014), I spoke about Cold Harbor as a battle which witnessed General Ulysses S. Grant at his worst and at his best. At his worst, because he failed to insure adequate surveillance of his enemy. Lee exacted a bloody, unnecessarily costly price, a fact that Grant acknowledged in his memoirs. It’s difficult to fathom today. On the morning of June 3, 1864, Grant ordered an attack of 60,000 Union soldiers across open ground. Along a seven-mile line, Lee’s soldiers stood safely behind log and earth barriers. The Confederates stacked logs with openings at eye-level, where a soldier could stand and fire his rifle with little danger of being struck by return fire. Artillery units were primed to bombard the enemy. Most of the slaughter was over in eight minutes. Seventeen hundred men lay in windrows. Another nine thousand lay wounded on the field, expecting their commander to request a truce so they could be retrieved from the field.

In New Garden, I lend the battle a personal touch, illustrated by the plight of two brothers at dawn of the fateful day:

Perry McDougal’s thoughts drifted to Hemlock Lake. If he survived the war, he would return there and never leave. He would marry Gloria McBride and have at least ten children. He would gladly leave the war behind him and never speak of its horrors.

It was the only cool part of the day, but Perry was all perspiration. He knew the Federals’ failure to attack the previous day had given Lee too much time. Perry knew it. His brother Tom knew it. All sixty thousand men about to make the frontal assault knew it.

Perry nervously opened his cartridge box, fingering its contents. The paper encasing the ball and powder grew damp with perspiration.

Somehow Perry calmed down as his hands dried.

“Tom,” he whispered.

“Yeah, Perry,” Tom whispered back.

“If you make it, tell Pa I didn’t shirk. I didn’t waver.”

“Shut up, Perry. You’ll make it. Don’t bring us bad luck.”

And then came the horror of the rebel barrage:

The sun then appeared to flash above the horizon, but, no, that wasn’t east. Twenty-five thousand rebel muskets fired, along with over a hundred cannon.

Tom glanced left. Perry had pushed left, as if doing so might save his brother.

The glimpse was horrible. A head, a limb, then the entire mass of his brother disintegrated before him, just as the shock of the rebel explosion threw him to the ground.

Tom awoke, unable to hear anything. He crawled to his right, safe, he thought, in a swale. Minnie balls whistled around him or thudded in his comrades’ bodies, now lying in rows like fallen dominoes.

It wasn’t much, but Tom recognized it instantly. Somehow the blade of a pen knife had survived the volley. Tom could make out the engraving, “Perry A. McDougal” with “1863” beneath the name. Tom had bought the knife in Baltimore for Perry’s birthday last November. The brothers had been safe at the time, pulling artillery duty outside the city. Tom grabbed the blade, then fell back into the swale. He had seen nothing resembling his brother. Tom lay still through the day’s scorching heat, soaked in sweat, with black flies and mosquitoes waiting for him to die. At nightfall he crawled back into the safety of the Union camp.

New Garden, pp. 277-278.

“Unconditional Surrender” Grant had never suffered a defeat on the battlefield. Rather than admit one now, Grant attempted to negotiate a truce, as if the battle had been a draw. Lee would have none of it. Grant persisted, asking that Lee demonstrate humanity toward the “suffering from both sides.” Finally, on Tuesday, June 7, Grant acknowledged defeat and Union soldiers recovered their brethren under a flag of truce. Only two Union soldiers remained alive on the field. Any other survivors had crawled back into Union lines under cover of darkness. For many, the delay had sealed their doom or cost them an arm or a leg from prolonged exposure. For all of them, Grant’s pride had inflicted unnecessary misery.

As I stated earlier, Cold Harbor also illustrated Grant at his best. He was not immobilized by the horrible loss. Instead, he planned and executed the next critical step. On the same day he acknowledged the defeat, he sent General Phil Sheridan with two cavalry divisions toward Charlottesville. Lee had no choice but to order cavalry General Wade Hampton to respond in kind, taking his cavalry to intercept Sheridan. The cavalry served as Lee’s eyes, scouting the enemy’s movements. Without Hampton near Cold Harbor, Lee could no longer keep an eye on Grant. Ten miles downriver from Cold Harbor, Grant’s engineers laid a half-mile pontoon bridge across the James River. Had Lee learned about the crossing in time, he could have destroyed Grant’s army. The Union army’s deliberate withdrawal across the James allowed Grant to “steal a march” on Lee. By Monday, June 13, the Yankees were safely across the James and Grant had set up headquarters at City Point (modern day Hopewell).

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Trouble at Mono Pass, the sequel to New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, Californi

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Mariposa Indian War

This is the ninth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my last post, I wrote about the Carmel Mission. This week, I turn to the Mariposa Indian War, one of all-too-many tragic engagements between white Americans and the native tribes in the American West.

Among the sources I cite at the conclusion of New Garden are Barrett and Gifford’s Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, Miwok Material Culture (republished by Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Association); Sarah Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush; H.W. Brands’ The Age of Gold; and Lafayette Bunnell’s Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851.

I employed these sources when I adapted Bunnell’s account to the story. Jack Grier, New Garden’s main character, heads up a Gold Rush trading company, Sierra Dry Goods. Jack becomes a captain in the state militia organized to punish the local tribes after two of his men are killed at one of his trading posts. In actuality, the tribes attacked the trading post of another supplier, Jim Savage. I have modeled Jack’s role after that of Captain John Boling, who served under Savage. I deviate from Bunnell’s account where necessary to bring interest to the story.

First, I give the reader an understanding of the native tribes’ presence in the Sierra Nevada long before the California Gold Rush, in a chapter captioned “Two Hundred Generations” (pp. 115-116).

Twenty-seven thousand years ago, their ancestors crossed the Bering Strait land bridge to Alaska. Twelve thousand years ago, their ancestors migrated to California and lived primarily along the coast and southern California. Five thousand years ago, their ancestors migrated inland.

By 1849, more than two hundred generations of Miwoks and Yokuts had lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The men had hunted deer, bear, and smaller game. They had fished the Sierra’s rivers. The women had experimented with native plants and made use of their properties for both food and medicine.

***

More than two hundred generations of Miwoks and Yokuts had lived in harmony with the land. They had no need to plant crops. They lived in the world’s most abundant garden, which only required harvesting.

By 1848, smallpox and other diseases brought by the Spanish had cut California’s native population in half, from 300,000 to 150,000. Two years after the discovery of gold, the state’s native population fell another 50,000. By 1851, the white miners’ destruction of forests and game threatened the survival of the Sierra Nevada tribes. After an Indian raid on one of Savage’s trading posts, the whites used the attack as an excuse for driving the tribes out of the mountains to a reservation in Fresno.

The war was more of a “herding” or gathering of the tribes, with limited armed engagements. The tribes included the Ahwahnechee, whose members consisted of a mix of the Miwoks of the Western Sierra and the Monos of the Eastern Sierra. As the “war” neared its end, two soldiers murdered the son of Ahwahnechee Chief Tenaya. Bunnell recounts Chief Tenaya’s reaction. I have replicated Bunnell’s account on pages 124-125 of New Garden, except to expand on it (in italicized language) to provide for a dramatic impact on Jack’s life (expanded later in the story):

Kill me, Captain. Yes, kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill my race if you had the power. *** [W]hen I am dead I will call to my people to come to you, I will call louder than you have heard me call; that they shall hear me in their sleep, and come to avenge the death of their chief and his son. Yes, sir, American, my spirit will make trouble for you and your people, as you have caused trouble to me and my people. May you grieve the death of your son as I shall grieve the death of my mine.

The Mariposa Battalion ultimately succeeds in removing the local tribes to a reservation, but Tenaya’s curse haunts Jack later in the story.

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

 

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: Three Great Hikes

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Mono Pass Trail

Mono Pass Trail

Monday, June 22

With confidence comes great hiking. The greatest reward for volunteering is the ability to explore this park on an extended basis. So, over a three-day period, I planned three of my favorite hikes: Mono Pass, Dog Lake, and Gaylor Lakes. The first is an 8-mile hike to an ancient trading route used by the tribes on either side of the Sierra Nevada. My blisters still required frequent attention to the moleskin, but I enjoyed the pleasant weather and cobalt blue skies. I took many photos along the way and passed a half dozen other hikers. I engaged in a friendly chat with two hikers from San Francisco. One hiker from Santa Barbara told me he had tired out the day before but his wife had told him to spend at least another day on the trails before returning home. What’s up with that?

I made the return hike to my car with pretty good speed, ready for a hot shower before another cold night. The moleskin held up well, but I decided to limit my next day’s hike to a short one.

Tuesday, June 23

Me at Dog Lake

Me at Dog Lake

I slept until 8:00, not easy to do when dawn breaks at 5:30. I took my time preparing for the day, but reached the Lembert Dome parking lot by 10:00. Then it was up the trail to Dog Lake. This is just a three-hour hike, but the “up” was longer than I remembered. I’d say it accounted for 70% of the trail. But the effort was well worth it, to an often-disregarded lake blessed with dragon flies (and, apparently for that reason, a welcome dearth of mosquitoes). Subalpine forest surrounds much of the lake but mountains of red metamorphic rock beckon to the east.

Dog Lake Vista

Dog Lake Vista

Two San Diego women had already reached the lake when I arrived. We talked about sports (the Chargers’ quarterback, NC State alum Philip Rivers) and books. They seemed excited to discuss my two historical novels. Hopefully, they will explore them on line. I took their photo on their smart phone and they returned the favor with my photo on my iPhone. We went our separate ways as I explored the shoreline. I ran into them again as we somehow reached the parking lot around the same time. We exchanged waves as I returned to camp to gather a change of clothes for a shower. I lazed around the rest of the day.

Wednesday, June 24

Cyndi agreed to join me on one of my favorite hikes, Gaylor Lakes. All of the work is in the first section of the hike. The hike begins at the Tioga Pass eastern entrance with a half-mile, 500-foot elevation gain ascent. That will certainly clear out your lungs. The view from the ridge is well worth the effort. Dana Meadows, Mount Dana, and Mount Gibbs spread out before you to the south. The Cathedral Range lies to the west. Two alpine lakes lie on the north side of the ridge only a quarter mile descent away. The hiking along the lakes is easy, with very little up and down.

088

Gaylor Lakes (from earlier year)

We did not begin the hike until about 11am, but there was absolutely no reason to hurry. Cyndi reached the ridge effortlessly while I huffed and puffed behind her. We took our time circumnavigating the crystal-clear alpine lakes and occasionally were rewarded with glimpses of trout. We then proceeded up several stretches of granite until we reached an outcropping that overlooked Tioga and Ellery Lakes, among others, as well as Tioga Road. We ate lunch and relaxed before making the return trip. My only regret is that I left my iPhone in the car. That just means that if I want pictures, I’ll have to return with my phone sometime in the next three weeks. It’s well worth a second effort.

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Father’s Day

Wishing all the dads out there a Happy Father’s Day week. There’s an interesting history behind the holiday if you’re interested in finding out more: www.history.com/topics/holidays/fathers-day.

I cannot believe that my now 28-year-old daughter used to be this little. Time sure flies by.

Me and my girl circa 1988.

Me and my little girl circa 1988.

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Levi Coffin’s Early Struggles with Slavery

Greensboro Historical Museum (Source: MuseumTrustee.org)

Greensboro Historical Museum (Source: MuseumTrustee.org)

I count among my many privileges the opportunity to serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum, located in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is a beautiful museum filled with wonderful artifacts and operated by a lean but talented and dedicated staff. My service includes occasionally serving at several stations for tours.

One of my stations is “Debating Liberty,” which contains several exhibits related to the causes of the Civil War. Several of the exhibits within the station tell the story of young Levi Coffin’s advocacy on behalf of a runaway slave, Ede.

Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad, was born in the Quaker community of New Garden, near modern-day Guilford College, and he lived there until he moved to Indiana in 1826 when he was 28 years old. His family was fervently anti-slavery and their views were well-known in the local community. While Quakers opposed slavery as part of their religious principles, one must understand that very few participated in the Underground Railroad, an illegal activity.

When his family lived in New Garden, Levi assisted runaway slaves in various ways. On one occasion a young slave, Ede, showed up at the home of Levi’s parents. She had taken her infant child to a wooded area to hide from her master, Dr. David Caldwell, when she learned that he planned to give her and her infant child to Dr. Caldwell’s son, who lived more than 100 miles from Greensboro. Ede was married to another slave (owned by a different master) and had three other children who would remain behind with Dr. Caldwell.

Ede and her infant child had spent several nights in the woods when the child became ill. She sought shelter and protection at the Coffin home due to the Coffins’ reputation. Levi’s parents took Ede and her child into their home, although it was a crime to harbor runaways. Levi then went to visit the Caldwells in an effort to dissuade Dr. Caldwell from bringing charges against his father and to prevail upon Dr. Caldwell to keep Ede in his household as a servant.

Ede and her infant (Photo by: Jim Gray)

Ede and her infant (Photo by: Jim Gray)

Dr. Caldwell was a prominent Guilford County citizen. He served as a physician, Presbyterian minister, and school master of a boys’ school (less than a mile from my current home). The young people of the community liked Dr. Caldwell for his wit and good humor. Dr. Caldwell graciously received Levi into his home and, after talking about a host of other matters, Mrs. Caldwell entered the room. Levi informed the Caldwells that Ede and her child were being cared for by his parents. Mrs. Caldwell expressed her thanks that Levi’s mother had cared for the child and said that she had only reluctantly given her consent to Ede being separated from her family.

Levi asked whether his father had done right in taking in Ede and her child in violation of the law, thus making himself liable for a heavy criminal penalty if Dr. Caldwell was disposed to prosecute.

Dr. Caldwell told Levi that he had preached a very good sermon and he feared Levi might give up the prospect of becoming a preacher if he was not successful in his first effort. He said Levi’s father had done right and need not fear prosecution. Ede could come home and Dr. Caldwell would not send her away.

Thus, Levi Coffin could cite an early success in his struggle against slavery, a campaign he said he waged until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I will discuss the significance and legal limitations of that famous document in my next article.

Until then, if you live near Greensboro or are coming through in your travels, make a stop to tour the best historical museum between Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

SOURCES:

Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (Second Edition). Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1880 (available electronically from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html).

Greensboro Historical Museum, greensborohistory.org.

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The Color of Money

Fire Chief gas pumpMy father was the hardest working man I’ve ever known. During the first part of my childhood, he worked in the coalmines of West Virginia but was badly injured in a coal mining accident when I was eight years old, which left him out of work for a year. By the end of his recovery, he was up to his eyeballs in debt but still had to support his wife and five young children. He took a gamble and left our home in Midway, West Virginia to become a Texaco service station owner in Newport News, Virginia. For a year he lived in the gas station, working fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, and spent his nights on a cot in the cinder block stock room among the cases of oil and transmission fluid. He used the stockroom sink to bathe himself at the end of each day.

In 1963, he decided he could make a go of it and in July moved our family from the cool breezes and poverty of Appalachia to the sweltering heat and economic opportunity of Newport News. I was nine years old when we moved into a three bedroom, un-air-conditioned, one-story brick home, two blocks from the Texaco station.

In West Virginia, the Slab Fork coal mines never entered the children’s daily routine. In Virginia, Brentwood Texaco replaced the home as the center of family life. The one-story, glass and metal-paneled structure sat on a one-acre lot at the corner of two busy streets. The waiting, or concession, area was probably fifteen by twenty feet, surfaced with a green and white vinyl floor. Large glass panels and a glass entry door made up two of the walls. A third wall was lined with a soda machine and shelves of candy, chips, headache remedies, and cigars. A bread shelf, cigarette machine, pay phone, and a door to the work bays lined the fourth wall. Chrome and red vinyl padded chairs lined the glass walls. A steel frame, three-drawer desk and a single chair sat in the middle of the room.

The station had two work bays separated by a cinder block wall. One bay had a single-post hydraulic lift to elevate cars for oil changes and repairs. The other bay had no lift, but was used for other repairs and car washes. Fifty feet from the building stood two “islands” of gas pumps, one parallel to Beech Drive and the other parallel to Willow Drive. We pumped regular gas from the red Fire Chief pump and high test from the silver Sky Chief pump.

All the floors were concrete and the rest of the property was surfaced with asphalt – a combination hard on sore feet. The odors of cigarette smoke, gas, oil, and grease fumes hung thick in the air as car traffic hummed by and military jets roared in the background.

A Sinclair station stood across the street. Another competitor operated an Esso station two blocks away. Three men competed for the neighborhood’s auto repair business. Demand exceeded supply by two gas stations. The competition ultimately fell by the wayside.

But not yet.

We got an early lesson about family business. My two sisters kept the books and counted the money at the end of each day. My older brother Bob pumped gas, washed cars, and changed tires. An exceptional student and basketball player, he had to drop the sport to work at the gas station after school. I was old enough to push a broom, so I swept the floors and learned how to clean the rest rooms. My younger brother Ralph enjoyed a two-year grace period before joining the labor force. One year after our move, I graduated to pumping gas and manning the cash register.

While my father expected all of us to contribute our sweat to the family business, my parents stressed the importance of education and expected us to make good grades and stay out of trouble.

When I started making friends in my all-white neighborhood, I learned that they spoke differently from my childhood friends in West Virginia. Most significantly, they made frequent use of the “n” word. My father had always forbidden use of that word in our household. I never knew much about racial tension in West Virginia, as there were very few blacks in my county and those few blacks lived six miles away in Beckley. Newport News had very different demographics, with blacks making up forty percent of the population. Some of my newfound friends said blacks should not be allowed to sit in the same restaurants as whites. I just listened and honestly found it bizarre that anyone would think that way. I did wonder if perhaps I was not as smart as they were.

One evening when I was ten years old, my father summoned me to the gas station to pump gas and manage the cash register while he repaired cars and changed tires. Repair business was particularly good that evening. Several men sat in the concession area while my father worked on their cars and trucks. A black landscaper, Willie, left his pick up truck for Dad to fix a flat tire and to make an engine repair. Willie did not sit in the concession area. Instead, he left to get some dinner. Another three customers brought in their cars for service just as Willie left.

Dad completed the repairs of the vehicles customers had left at the station before Willie arrived. He then drove Willie’s truck into one of the bays and began work. He had popped the hood and begun work when a white customer came out to the bay and asked him why he had started working on that “n$%&*@’s” truck before working on the white customers’ cars.

Source: Flickr.com

A Texaco station. Source: Flickr.com

My father, nicknamed by some of the customers as “Big Bad John” because of his prior occupation as a coal miner and his bull-of-a-man physique, put down his wrench and grabbed a service rag to wipe his hands. In later years, I wondered what was going through my father’s head—he was up to his eyeballs in debt, only had an eighth-grade education, and struggled to support a large family in a neighborhood business where he relied primarily on the patronage of white customers.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he calmly replied. “If you can’t wait, you are welcome to take your business somewhere else. I’ll understand.”

The white customer was stunned. He did not know what to say. He muttered some words under his breath and returned to the concession area. He would wait. Willie was next in line. And whatever the man might have said to the other waiting customers did not persuade them to leave.

Dad dove back under the hood to complete the engine repair. He then removed the flat tire and took it outside the building to “Big Red,” his 1950’s fire-engine-red tire-changing machine. As this bull of a man did his work, I thought about what my father’s response might mean to the family business. So, I asked, “Dad, why are you working on Willie’s truck instead of that white man’s?”

My father did not mince words. “Willie’s money is the same color as everybody else’s,” he said. “He needs his truck so he can work tomorrow.”

Enough said. My father was no living room liberal. To him, everyone who worked hard deserved to be treated with the same respect. He had little use for people who did not work hard. In more protracted discussions over the years, he reiterated the same belief about people of different faiths. Black or white, Catholic or Jew, rich or poor, it just did not matter. Profit or loss never entered the equation. Everyone had to wait his turn. No one sent another person to the back of the line because of the color of his skin, the house in which he chose to worship, or the size of his bank account.

We can sit here in the comfort of this time and place and say, “Of course Mr. Gray treated a black customer just like everyone else.” But it was a different era. It was a different place. You could cut the racial tension with a knife. Fifty years later, I still wonder if the white customer who failed to send Willie to the back of the line learned as much from that moment as I did.

Copyrighted by J. Edward Gray

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February 1865 – The War Comes Full Circle to South Carolina

The seeds of rebellion were sown in South Carolina, not in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, but a full year earlier in April 1860, at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Charleston. Not getting their way on a pro-slavery convention plank, the Fire Eaters – Southern politicians hell-bent on breaking away from the Union – walked out of Charleston’s Institute Hall after two days. Unable to nominate a Presidential candidate under the arbitrary rule that the nominee must win two thirds of the votes of all the delegates (including in that number the delegates who had walked out of the convention), the Democrats adjourned until June in Baltimore. There, the convention nominated U.S. Senator Douglas of Illinois. Infuriated, the Southern delegates held a separate convention and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge as their Presidential candidate.

Former Whigs nominated another candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, as the candidate of the Constitution Union Party. The table was set for Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican Party vowed not to allow expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed. One by one, the states of the Deep South seceded after Lincoln’s election.

It was with this national recollection of events that Sherman prepared to march his 60,000 soldiers into South Carolina after making Georgia howl and tendering the City of Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. Initially, Grant had considered commandeering Sherman’s troops to Virginia to aid in the destruction of Lee. But Sherman prevailed on Grant to allow his troops to march through South Carolina to take the fight out of its citizens and troops.

After a month of planning, Sherman’s troops (the Army of Tennessee under General Oliver Howard and the Army of Georgia under General Henry Slocum) began the march into South Carolina on February 1. The Confederate troops in Sherman’s way numbered only 20,000, and split their forces between Charleston, SC, and Augusta, Georgia. Sherman initially feinted Howard’s troops in the direction of Charleston and Slocum’s troops toward Augusta, thereby generating the illusion of complying with the Confederates’ expectations. But while crossing swamps and rivers during one of the state’s rainiest Februaries, the Yankees cut northwest through the state in the direction of the state capital, Columbia.

Once the Confederates grasped the truth, it was too late. They could do little more than burn cotton and tobacco in Sherman’s path, presumably to keep the North from profiting from the crops. Sherman could not have been happier. He had no intention of burdening his troops with the products, and would have burned them to keep the South from selling it to support their war effort.

By the time Sherman’s troops reached Columbia, with the state burning in its rear, the mayor and other leaders surrendered the city to Sherman in hopes that Columbia would be spared. Unfortunately for the Columbians, Confederate General Wade Hampton had filled the downtown’s streets with piles of smoldering cotton before retreating. Cotton and whiskey are a dangerous combination, especially in the windy conditions that prevailed on February 17. While the commanding officers issued orders to protect private property, the night saw many more fires lit, and by the next day one third of Columbia lay in ashes.

Sherman blamed Hampton for the fire, having left behind him “lint, cotton, and tinder.” [Foote, Red River to Appomattox, p. 795] But Sherman shed no tears over the event. The burning of Columbia was consistent with his belief that the war would only end when “the hard hand of war” destroyed the spirit of Southern soldier and civilian alike. Lieutenant Ensign H. King of the 15th Iowa probably spoke for most of Sherman’s troops:

The burning of Columbia, S.C. February 17, 1865 (Source: Wikipedia)

The burning of Columbia, S.C. February 17, 1865 (Source: Wikipedia)

South Carolina, the nation state of John C. Calhoun, the hot-bed of treason, the first state to Rebel, the most defiant aider and abettor of the Rebellion, pays this small price for her crime. To our mind, the punishment is but commensurate with the crime.

[Woodworth, Nothing but Victory, p. 624]

SOURCES:

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