February 17, 1865
“The truth is,” wrote Union Gen. William T. Sherman shortly before leaving Savannah, “the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel she deserves all that seems in store for her.” The destruction Sherman’s army had caused on its way to Savannah had surely made Georgia howl, but it was mild compared with what detested South Carolina was to face. Here the war had started, and now the first secessionists were to get retribution. One of his soldiers wrote home, “If we don’t purify South Carolina, it will be because we can’t get a light.”
After leaving Savannah on February 5, 1865, Sherman’s 60,000 men took a direct line toward Columbia, the capital. Able South Carolina men had long since left for the Confederate armies in distant states, and the Union soldiers faced only token resistance from any organized Rebel troops. Sherman’s men foraged liberally upon the native population, and everywhere left little more than clusters of black chimneys to mark the sites of where towns had been. One soldier joked that the name of the town of Barnwell should now be changed to Burnwell. Still, the march was grand and spectacular.
By the night of February 15, the first of the Union soldiers had reached the Congaree River across from Columbia. The next day they sighted their cannon on the State House across the river and fired shells into the heart of the city. Other members of their forces laid pontoon bridges and crossed the river. On the morning of February 17, the advancing blue horde was met by the mayor of Columbia, who surrendered the city and was in turn assured by Sherman that the city and its inhabitants would not be harmed. Even so, as the blue soldiers marched into Columbia, some could be heard to sing, “Hail, Columbia, happy land. If you don’t burn, I’ll be damned.”
Fascinating Fact: Confederate troops evacuated Charleston, S.C., the same day that Columbia was occupied by Sherman. The next day Old Glory again flew over Fort Sumter.