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:
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]
- Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
- Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: the Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.