Recollections of the Burning of Columbia South Carolina

Recollections of the Burning of Columbia
Fannie E. Allen

Several thousand women and children, a handful of men, eighty-four squares of beautiful dwellings. Such was Columbia on February 14, 1865. On February 15, General Sherman and an army of sixty thousand men occupied the banks of the Congaree, on the Lexington side, and in two days the city presented the appearance of having passed through a rain of fire.

The shelling of the city commenced early Thursday morning. The shells fell thick and fast, in every direction, the arsenal and State House furnishing conspicuous marks. One fell directly at my mother’s feet, but, fortunately, the fuse had been extinguished, and the missile did not explode. The sudden attack and the fear of what was to follow rendered us numb with fear, and we scarcely had power to take ourselves to a place of safety.

Fortunately, my father, just home from the army, although nearly dead with consumption, was with us, and we felt more secure than thousands of others less fortunate.

After an almost sleepless night, we were all startled about day-break by a loud explosion. Hastily dressing and getting out, we learned that the South Carolina warehouse had been blown up, and the wildest rumors were afloat as to its cause.

The “swish-swish” of the pontoons being laid for the army to cross told us that Sherman intended entering the city at once. In less than an hour afterward the work of pillage and destruction commenced. Drunken soldiers, the worst corps in the army, had been sent over, accompanied by drunken Negroes, staggering around, insulting women and children, and taunting them with their helplessness. Darkness, that which we worst feared, fell, and with it began the crowning deed of all. A blaze was seen a little way off; the fire bell began to ring. Soon another blaze was seen, then another, until the whole town was a mass of flames. Soldiers, now crazy with drink, began to look for something more valuable than food or clothing. Houses were entered, and jewelry, gold and silver, plate anything of value was taken. This did not happen in every case. At some house an officer would stop, and that house was generally safe, as the officer would throw a guard around it. Such cases, however, were rare.

As the fire drew nearer our house on Assembly Street, we began to move the household effects out. A Yankee soldier, half drunk, came by and, seeing a trunk, wanted to open it. My brother, about fifteen years of age, attempted to stop him, but was silenced with an oath, and the trunk was smashed in and rummaged through.

With our house burned, we would have fared badly, but our neighbor, Mrs. T. B. Clarkson, who came over for protection, with her baby, had the servants to erect a kind of shelter with a few boards, and under this we stopped for the rest of the night. Sleep was impossible and, half dead with fright, we huddled under these boards, waiting for daybreak.

The scene that greeted our eyes the next day was heart breaking. On every side, where once there had been handsome dwellings, were nothing but blackened chimneys, and in the streets were women and children, weeping over their homes and not knowing where the food for that day was to come from.

The Taylor house, afterwards known as the Haskell place, for some reason was not destroyed, and, along with several others, we took refuge there. The few men in the city took charge of all the food and established a sort of commissary, where supplies were issued several times a day for several days, until outside supplies were received.

Looking back after all these years, the burning city, with the hundreds of drunken soldiers, the scream of shells, and the discharge of guns, seems like a dream, and my impressions through that awful time are hazy. I have endeavored to give only those facts which were stamped indelibly on my mind at the time.

A Southern Woman’s Recollections
A Southern Woman.
January, 1901

When General Sherman’s army entered the town of Winnsboro, S. C, the writer was a little girl, but distinctly remembers many events that happened. Her father was postmaster, and to this day has his commission, signed by President Davis. He hid a few miles out of town, so mother and children were left alone.

It was about the hour for breakfast when two “bluecoats” walked into our home. They took what they pleased, and frightened the children by repeated threats to shoot down our pet, a large Newfoundland dog, named Jack.

One of our near neighbors, Mrs. Wainwright Bacot, knew General Sherman; but he denied his identity. His generals used private residences for their headquarters, but he did not.

The army was preceded by “bummers,” and the little town was robbed at an early morning hour. The main army came in, and then fires broke out, and riot reigned. Kilpatrick or Kirkpatrick, a cavalry commander, galloped in and fought fire, else the entire town would have been ashes ere the sun went down.

No guards were given until nightfall. A drunken soldier at an early hour of the day staggered into grandma’s home. She put him on a cot; his drunken sleep kept him there; his gun and hat were placed at the front door; his mates, in passing, would exclaim, “This house has a guard.” At any rate, that house was not plundered.

Grandma gave breakfast to several soldiers. One, on leaving the table, picked up knife, fork and spoon and put them in his pocket. She walked up to him, and took them from his pocket, saying, “I thought you were a gentleman.” Grandpa gave his watch to a soldier, saying, “Here, you take it, then some of your fellows can’t steal it.” Our guards were drunken men, and our home was soon emptied; no food of any description was left in the pantry, the cows were driven off, and the chickens shot.

Our home was near the Baptist Church, an unfinished building, on a large lot; ours was the nearest well; the church and its grounds were used as a camp; our yard was full of soldiers, coming for water; chickens were fought in the pulpit. The Episcopal Church was burned at an early hour of the night; no other building near, so it was set on tire; the bell stolen. I heard that a young minister of this State wears a cross made from a piece of the melted bell, but, if my memory serves me right, no traces of either bell or communion service were ever found.

The Mount Zion College building was used as a hospital. One of our soldiers, a Mr. Manigault, died there only a few days before the army entered town, and was buried in the Episcopal graveyard. His new made grave was dug open, his coffin placed across the grave and split open with an axe, and left so. This was done by those who termed themselves soldiers. “Hunting for buried treasures” was the reason for such desecration.

Among my mother’s “keepsakes” was a dead baby boy’s hair, kept in a little silver wire case. This was rudely snatched from its sacred place and thrown into the fire.

An aunt lived a few miles from town, and had housed and nursed a sick soldier, “one of our men,” she thought. He gave her minute directions as to where and how to hide provisions and valuables. When the army of the blue marched near her home, this ungrateful wretch (for he was a spy) walked up to her and said, “Here I am again.” She was so frightened that her heart ceased to beat, and forever was still.

The two days that Winnsboro was occupied by Sherman’s men was a period of horrors such as this generation has never witnessed. The streets and vacant lots were filled with homeless families, many persons having nothing but the clothes they wore, for, when bringing bedding, raiment or provisions out of their burning homes, these were destroyed by the brutal soldiers, who jeered and exulted in their fiendish work. They stole much that was useless to them, for even Bibles were taken, one, I remember, belonging to a little girl friend, and to this day she would gladly recall it from beyond the Mason and Dixon line. This name was on the cover: “Mary R. Morrison, March 15th, 1855.”

Governor Aiken had had buried on the red hills around town barrels, boxes and crates of fine china and silver. All were found, carried off or broken.

Sherman’s men were inhuman in their treatment of women and children. I recall one soldier who had the instincts of a gentleman, for my mother asked why he was not stealing with his mates. His reply was, “I promised my mother to behave as a soldier.”

A few Sundays after the raid, a group of children, with their grandfather, were walking in the “Presbyterian woods,” and found a huge silver waiter, cut partly in two with an ax; some leaves were thrown over it and in a few days it was returned to its owner.

A few years after the war, some children were playing in the basement of a rented home and unearthed a little package containing old seals. These were sent to those who had hidden them and forgotten the Muir family, of Charleston.

The yards and gardens were perforated with bayonets, men searching for buried treasures.

A mother had for years kept an iced cake, from the wedding table of a brother (once editor of The News and Courier). Soldiers’ hands tore open the box, cut and ate the aged cake, with this threat, “If this makes us sick, we will burn your home.”

The army left no food in town, and for days the women and children gathered the corn from the deserted camps, left by the horses. This was boiled and eaten without salt.

Did not our women fight as hard as our men, for while the men were on battlefields, women and children at home starved and waited without a doubt?

Dear old Winnsboro was garrisoned by a Negro regiment. One Sunday morning, at the Methodist Church, just as the pastor was giving his text, a company of Negro soldiers marched in and seated themselves. A look of consternation swept over that congregation, when the pastor quietly raised his hands and said, “Receive the benediction.”

Daughters of the Confederacy, see to it that a true history is written, then place it in the hands of Southern boys. Thomas Nelson Page truly says, “The history of the South is yet to be written.”

I thank God that the sword of the South will never more be drawn except in defense of the Union, but I thank God equally that it is without a stain.


South Carolina Women in the Confederacy. Edited and Published By Mrs. Thomas Taylor, Chairman, Mrs. Smythe, Mrs. August Kohn, Miss Poppenheim, Miss Martha B. Washington, State Committee Daughters of the Confederacy. Columbia, South Carolina, The State Company, 1903.

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