When Columbia South Carolina Burned

Harriott H. Ravenel.
(Mrs. St. Julien Ravenel.)
March 12, 1898.

Mrs. President and Ladies, Daughters of the Confederacy: It is with great hesitation that I address you this afternoon, for what I have been asked to do is to give you my personal narrative of the burning of Columbia, in 1865 what I there saw, heard and knew. Now, it is essential that a personal narrative should be in the first person, and therefore the charge of egotism is not to be escaped. Moreover, the story of this burning has been written by abler pens than mine, and you may well weary of an oft-told tale. Yet, as our president assures me that she is aiming to preserve the truth of history, I am reminded of what an artist friend of mine tells me of photography. He says that, in order to photograph a large picture perfectly, it is necessary to put the camera in three or four positions in front of it, and take as many photographs, each from its own focus or, as we should say, point of view. These four negatives are then placed together and another made which unites them all and gives a real and correct picture, in true and perfect proportions. So I hope, by combining these various accounts, each given from its own standpoint, our Confederate history may come to be written with the force of sincerity and truth.

I must begin my narrative at that very distressing period of our history in the month of January, 1865, when we learned that General Sherman, having left Savannah, was marching northward, along the west bank of the Ashley, leaving a broad swath of desolation behind him. The prospect of checking his progress was extremely small at any time, and when we heard that the troops in and about Charleston, instead of falling back on Columbia and uniting with the small force under General Beauregard, were to fall back to North Carolina, by way of Cheraw, even that hope vanished, and every man looked at his neighbor and asked: What next?

I should premise that at this time we were living in the north-eastern part of Columbia. I can’t tell the name of the street, for there were never any names on the streets, and you had to guess at them; but we were a little southwest of the asylum, and of the then Charlotte Depot, and just across the street from the Columbia Male Academy, a large brick building in the center of a large, open square. I mention these points because they were of importance at the time. The family consisted of my mother (Mrs. Edward C. Rutledge), my husband, and myself, our six children, my white nurse, Mrs. Collins, and a number of servants.

Dr. Ravenel was then chemist in charge of the very large laboratory in the Fair Grounds buildings, where were prepared almost all the drugs, medicines, styptics, etc., used by the army, and also a quantity of alcohol and whiskey for medical purposes only. The first thing that showed us how near the danger was an order from Richmond, “Prepare to remove all chemical and medical stores to some convenient point in North Carolina. Chemist in charge to go with them and establish his laboratory as soon as possible, wherever he may find suitable.” We at once considered as to what was to be done. Probably every other woman in Columbia was considering the same question. Shall we go, or shall we stay?

To go meant horrible discomfort. To stay meant we did not quite know what! For ourselves I promptly decided to stay. It would have been almost impossible to move such a family as ours single-handed and clearly Dr. Ravenel could not go with us. We had no shelter elsewhere provided, and we, like most other families, had already laid in stores of provisions and fuel which it would have been impossible to move, and very bad to leave behind. Altogether, to us to stay seemed best, though many of our friends decided otherwise. In this we were very much influenced by what we had heard of the condition of Savannah. That city had been in the possession of the Federals for some months. Families had (we heard) been protected; no very great injury had been done to person or property. This was hearsay, and we were glad when we heard that Mrs. John Church, who had been in Savannah all during the occupation, had come up to Columbia, traveling on a safe conduct from General Sherman. She was staying with Mrs. McCord, the mother of our president, and I at once went to see her. She confirmed what we had heard of the comparative immunity of Savannah, but looked alarmingly grave when I told her of our intention of remaining. She “could not advise us to do so,” she said. On the contrary, if possible, go.

A Federal officer whom she had known well in former years, and who had befriended her in Savannah, had advised her, while giving her passports, not to be caught by the Union Army in any city or town of South Carolina, and most especially not in Columbia “it was the cradle of secession and must be punished.” She herself meant to leave at once. I went home with a very heavy heart; but for us the die was cast. The laboratory train was to go in the morning, and we had to remain. For the next three days, it was nothing but going vehicles of every kind and trains loaded with every conceivable thing. We busied ourselves with bringing into the house, and storing in the upper rooms, whatever we could. It was suggested by my little daughter that “Yankees did not eat rice, and would not be apt to trouble it”; so we put our small supply of tea, sugar, and coffee, and also bacon and flour, in the bottom of the tierces, heaped the rice on top, and it proved a useful device.

We sent away, by the laboratory train, a big box of valuables, which we never saw again. And we tried to convert our Confederate money into anything of any value whatever. I have never understood why one man should have made me a present of two pairs of children’s shoes in return for three hundred dollars of Confederate money, unless he knew that the shoes would be stolen when the enemy came, and preferred that a compatriot should have them. Some things that we wished to keep with us, we sewed around our waists, and these we saved, but it was very uncomfortable a belt of double eagles is as disagreeable a girdle as a penitential iron one could be. We had also to dispose of some silver half-dollars, for which I had exchanged an ever-to-be-regretted silver waiter. The half-dollars were sent from Richmond to the laboratory, to be made into lunar caustic, with which to cauterize the soldiers’ wounds. Dr. Ravenel suggested that he could, if I wished, have my big waiter weighed and exchanged for an equal weight in coin it would be better for the caustic, being made of purer silver. I most certainly did not wish it. I hated to part with my waiter; but things were very black then, and the thought of six starving children was dreadful, so with groans I consented.

When the canvas bags came home five hundred dollars in silver we were in consternation. I had quite forgotten the size and weight. And where could it be hidden? At last we decided that each person old enough should put ten dollars in her pocket, and I solemnly called in old Martha, the housekeeper, and confided the teaspoons and twenty-five dollars to her care, and she was absolutely faithful. The rest I sewed up in black cloth and buried, going into the garden at two in the morning, in a rainstorm, when no one would be about, and digging a trench with a fire shovel (the only tool to be had without waking the gardener). It made me feel like Guy Fawkes! I may observe here that we nearly lost this buried treasure, for when, a month later, we went to look for it, we found that the ground-moles had cut the cloth and carried off many of the dollars. We had to dig for them, and found them at intervals all along their runs, some as much as thirty feet away. We found all but five or six.

But I am making too long a story of it. At last (when you are expecting anything, however horrible, the time seems long until it comes) at last we heard the sound of guns across the river, and knew that Sherman was approaching, shelling as he came. We lived, as I have already said, in the northeastern part of the city, and he, of course, came from the south. The shells did not at first reach us, but they fell thickly enough around the State House and college buildings, then used as a hospital. I was on the front porch early in the morning, listening to the guns, when I saw a buggy, driven by a servant, stop at the front door. A young lady, who looked very ill, was lying back in it, with a baby in her arms; and the servant called out to ask if I would take them in, as their house was under fire, and they had been obliged to leave it. Of course I brought them in, and found the baby was only one week old and the mother much exhausted. We did what we could put them in my own bed, fed, and kept them quiet, and the young mother soon revived. But there was something awfully biblical in the whole thing, and the warnings to Jerusalem rang in my ears. The next day their friends came and carried them off. The incident should be of interest to this society, which will recognize that the infant did not suffer in beauty or vigor, as she is now our young State president Mrs. William McGowan, in whose recent bereavement we all sympathize.

Soon after these refugees left us the shells began to fall about us also, the enemy having come farther up the river; but they were few and small, and beyond terrifying the servants, did no harm. That same afternoon we heard that General Beauregard had told the mayor that resistance would only bring destruction on the city; that he and his handful of men would withdraw at once, and that he the mayor must go early in the morning, surrender the city, and take what terms he could get. I believe that all did go that evening except a few regiments of cavalry, and we heard that they also would go the next morning, and would pass up the street between our house and the academy. We set to work at once to cook cornbread and bacon, all that we could, for we knew that it was the last time that we should be able to help the dear gray jackets. Early in the morning we heard the clang of steel scabbards, and the whole brigade passed by. They held out their empty haversacks eagerly, poor, dear fellows, and we wished that we had ten times the amount to give. At last, with blessings and sorrow at parting, and promises to “come back to you, ma’am,” they went; and we felt that freedom and happiness went with them.

While they were still in sight, a servant came running to say that the Yankees were going down Main Street. We went to the street in front and looked westward, and saw crossing it an endless blue column, with glittering arms, and flags flying in all the pomp of war. Our spirits sank, for we saw our conquerors. We should now have applied for a guard. Had we had one we should have been spared much. But I was too unwell to go myself to General Sherman’s quarters, at the other end of town, and just as my mother was preparing to do so a clergyman, a neighbor of ours, came and offered to apply for us; he was going on his own account, and would get one for us also. We accepted the offer, and waited, expecting him, until it was too late to go ourselves. But I suppose he was unsuccessful, for we never saw him again.

Our first trouble came about an hour after the entrance, when two horsemen rode into the yard, and came into the house, saying they had come to look for arms. Of course they found none. I had a pistol, but it was safely hidden. But they ransacked the house and helped themselves to all the small things they fancied whatever they could put into their pockets or holsters; they did not make bundles. We had no plate then, but they took trinkets or things like silver card cases, silver-topped dressing cases, ornaments of any kind, and one or two pieces of clothing which pleased them, such as lace jabots and a silk shawl, which one carefully concealed under his coat. At last they rode off, assuring us that they would call again. After their departure, things continued perfectly quiet for some hours.

We saw in the far southwest a great blaze, which we heard was the S. C. R. R. depot burning, but this was over long before dark. The servants told us that all the shops on Main street had been broken open and plundered, and that the soldiers took some, burnt some, gave some, as one girl said, displaying a piece of colored cloth which had been given her.

Dark came on, and no guard had been brought us. Most of the ladies in similar plight had fled to the asylum; but we felt sure that if we left the house we should lose everything in it, and resolved to remain. Old Martha came in great distress and told us the kitchen was filled with soldiers, and “they did talk awful.” She begged me to take my daughters to my cousin’s, a square away, for they had a guard, and would be safe. “Oh! Miss; why you no get a guard?” Accordingly she and I went with the little girls through a perfectly dark and silent street to my cousin’s, and left them there, under the protection of a decent looking young man, who seemed to look upon his bayonet as a talisman of protection. When we returned, instead of going into the kitchen, Martha came and sat down at my feet, as I lay upon the bed. “My place is here,” she said. I was so tired, I consented to lie down a while, and my mother and Mary Collins went to the attic windows, which commanded the whole town. I believe I went to sleep, but not for very long, for at nine precisely my mother called to me. I jumped up. She called from the staircase, “Four rockets have gone up, one at each corner of the town, all at the same moment.” Martha groaned. She had evidently been told more than she cared to tell. “That’s it, Miss; Lord hab missy on us! it’s beginning.” I don’t think that it was ten minutes before there came, at the same instant, knocking and pounding on the front and back doors. The panels would have given way, so we opened them. Such an awful sight! The hitherto deserted street filled with a throng of men, drunken, dancing, shouting, cursing wretches, every one bearing a tin torch or a blazing lightwood knot. The sky, so dark a half hour before, was already glowing with light, and flames were rising in every direction. We had no time to look at it, however; our own affairs took all our attention.

A crowd had burst in and, disregarding our remonstrances, spread themselves over everything, and from that time until morning a roaring stream of drunkards poured through the house, plundering and raging, and yet in a way curiously civil and abstaining from personal insult. Unhappily, they found plenty to plunder, for, although, as I have said, we had sent away our most valuable things (which we lost on the road), I had in charge a number of trunks belonging to friends of mine, which were in the house. These they fell upon, and tore to pieces. We had no plate except the teaspoons in Martha’s pocket; but there were many things that attracted them pretty things, pictures, china, and trinkets. They tore up the carpets, and took blankets and sheets. Men’s clothes were in great demand, and dresses that they admired. One small man walked off in a blue silk dress, and holding a lace parasol over his head.

They took, too, what groceries they could find; but the rice did not give up its secrets, and many things lay hidden therein. Their effort was to spoil what they could not carry away; but we soon found our presence was a check upon them, and that encouraged us. When I say that they had a certain sort of civility, I mean in this way: My mother, who was a very courageous person, did not show any agitation in her manner, and suddenly a man turned upon her and said, “Old lady, why don’t you look scared?” “Because I do not feel so,” she answered. He nodded at her approvingly, and made her a present of her own scissors, which she was very glad to get.

They generally spoke to us as “lady” and, although they swore horribly, they seldom swore at us. Then, too, if a number of men were fighting over a trunk or a closet, spoiling more than they stole, and I would go and stand by, not saying a word, but looking on, they would become quiet, would cease plundering, and would sometimes stop to tell me they were sorry for the women and children, but South Carolina must be destroyed. South Carolina and her sins was the burden of their song. They were all more or less excited by drink; but in the early part of the night it was not as bad as later on.

The glare of the burning town was awful, and I expected at every moment to be consumed. The servants behaved admirably, and repeatedly extinguished fires which had been set in the kitchen and out-building. We had to watch the sheds, for a man would snatch up a book, kindle its leaves at his torch, and throw it out of a window, and we should have been in flames many times if we had not got out at once on the piazza roof and extinguished the blaze. The worst danger was under the house, which was open, and stored with wood. To our horror, we saw two men kindling the pine. Why it did not blaze up I do not know; but it burnt slowly, and as soon as they went away I called the coachman, and he was able to put it out, and remained there on guard the rest of the night.

Our preservation came, I think, from their desire for plunder. To plunder first, and then burn, was their plan. So they did not set fire until they were leaving (they came in gangs), then they would throw a torch or handful of blazing paper into a closet, or behind a curtain, and go, and we generally had two or three minutes to fight the flames before the next set came in, and that saved us; but it was dreadfully fatiguing work.

About two o’clock in the morning, the house behind ours, and the one across the street, burnt down, and ours seemed in such danger that we took the four little children, whom we had kept in bed, and my mother took them across the street into the academy square, where many burnt-out people had taken refuge. Before this, the children had had a great fright, for some of the men had rushed up to their bed and, after pulling them about, had plunged their long knives repeatedly between them into their mattresses, to find if anything was secreted in it, thinking that the children were put there as a blind. So the poor little things went willingly enough.

By this time, it was very bad. The men who came were ruder and fiercer. We knew them for horsemen from their boots I suppose Kilpatrick’s men.

One of the servants came in and told us that he heard that General Blair had his headquarters at Mr. Wallace’s, opposite the asylum, and that by sending there we might get a guard. It seemed the only chance, so my nurse volunteered to go, and Cassio (the servant) went with her. She was gone about an hour, and for that hour old Martha and I held the fort alone. It is no exaggeration to say that this was a terrible time. They assured us they meant to burn the house; “they had express orders from headquarters to burn it; we must go out at once.” They tried to persuade Martha to leave me, jeering and hooting at her for fighting for her slave owner, her nigger driver. But they only made the old woman furious, and she never stirred an inch from my side. Then they tried to terrify me; but by this time I was satisfied that they had orders not to hurt the woman, and, moreover, drunk or sober, every man in that army was acting under orders, and obeying them, so I told them that I had endured the whole night to save the house for my children, and that if they burnt it they would burn a woman in it. They stamped about and swore a great deal, but at last told me I was “damned plucky,” and went. That was the worst.

Mary came back at last. General Blair was very sorry, but was too sleepy to do anything. However, a young Irish soldier whom she had met in the street volunteered as a compatriot to come back and help her for the sake of the “swate Irish tongue,” and help he did, getting the next comers out as quickly as possible, and pretending to be a guard, although he had no bayonet to show. Some of the officers who were quartered in a house nearby looked in about this time, but said that, though they were sorry, they could do nothing the night was the soldiers’; they could do what they liked, under orders. When the little Irishman appealed to them to allow him to help us, “for the ladies have had it hard enough anyhow,” they told him to do the best he could, and walked off, absolutely indifferent.

However, morning was coming, and at reveille our little friend told us all must stop. He himself took nothing, but he had seen something upstairs that he would like very much to have; would I give it to him? He had just kept out about twenty ruffians, and I would have given him anything I owned, as I told him. He vanished for a little while, and reappeared in a purple velvet cloak and doublet, and white satin hose, an old fancy dress of Sir Walter Raleigh. He thought he looked lovely, and it was a small reward for all he had done for us.

As he said, at the first tap of reveille, the men still remaining made for the gate. When the drum had ceased, hardly one was to be seen. They passed away like ghosts at the cockcrowing. We stood on the steps and looked at a wild and woeful sight. The whole center of the town was a blackened heap. Ruined houses were on every side. For ourselves, we had escaped better than we could have hoped we were all alive and well; after all our losses, much remained, and we knew how much could be borne.

For the three days that the army remained, we, in our devastated corner, saw nothing of interest. All was profoundly quiet. When the immense column of men, cannon and baggage wagons filed past us, on its way to North Carolina, it seemed like a world in arms. Last of all came the mounted guard, looking into every house and yard to see if any straggler might be concealed there. But stragglers there were none, or few, for the admirable discipline of General Sherman’s army cannot be too highly estimated. They greatly mistake who attribute the horrors of that night to accident or insubordination. The skilful commander held his men in the hollow of his hand, and said to them, “So far shalt thou go, and no farther.”


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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