Columbia historians are sponsoring a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of what they consider the city’s worst day — when possibly as much as two-thirds of the city burned to the ground as occupying Union troops moved in towards the end of the Civil War.
The February 17, 1865 burning has always been one of the more controversial moments in American military history. For generations the name of Union commanding general “William Tecumseh Sherman” was seen as almost a dirty word in South Carolina largely because of the incident, although historians have debated for more than a century whether or not he was truly to blame for the incident.
“It’s a fascinating piece of American history that’s affected the psyche of South Carolinians and Southerners for a long time,” State Department of Archives and History director Eric Emerson said. “It’s something we probably need to address and take a hard look at.”
The fire began the night after Columbia surrendered to the advancing Union force under Sherman’s command. Emerson said the next 12 hours were full of confusion as retreating Confederates pulled out and occupying Union troops entered. Not helping the matter were prisoners-of-war who had escaped from a Confederate prison on the edge of town and slaves who knew they were now free but had no place to go. Amidst the chaos, Emerson said both Union and Confederate troops helped themselves from a liquor warehouse in the town.
The resulting confusion left it unclear where the fire began that night, and hindered efforts by local fire companies and Union provost troops to fight it. The old State House and several churches were among the buildings lost in the fire. While accounts from the time suggest up to 450 structures and perhaps two-thirds of the city were destroyed, there were no conclusive records to specify the total damage. There are also no reliable tallies showing total number of people who died in the blaze, Emerson said.
Emerson said historians will likely never know the actual cause of the fire, so placing blame is not important. “That’s been the focus for so many books and so many articles,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And it’s really counterproductive as historians because it really doesn’t matter. It’s the results of that fire that are the important things.”
As they get ready for the February date, several organizations announced a series of events that will mark one of South Carolina’s darkest nights. The events that begin this month include lectures, bus tours of Civil War sites, dramatic performances, and dedications of new historical sites and markers. The city has also created a new website with information on the fire itself and commemoration efforts to mark the anniversary.
“More and more, travelers are seeking an authentic experience that connects them to a destination’s past and present,” Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports, and Tourism President & CEO Bill Ellen told reporters on Friday. “During this commemoration, visitors to Columbia will see how far we’ve come.”
Besides dozens of events, historical groups will also unveil a handful of markers at little-known or previously inaccessible Midlands Civil War sites. Among these are old fortifications south of town that were build to defend the city in the preceding Battle of Congaree Creek.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said the sesquicentennial will also be an opportunity for Columbia to show off its historical sites and present-day attractions.
“This commemoration is an opportunity for all of us not only to mark this important moment in our history, but also to take stock in how far we’ve come as a city and as a people,” Benjamin said, according to WIS-TV. “Columbia has literally risen from ashes over the past 150 years to become a model progressive city of the new South, and we want everyone to come out and help us celebrate.”