The 65,000-man army of the infamous William Sherman, virtually unopposed since leaving Atlanta in flames before the cold of winter, entered Columbia on 16 February 1865. Departing four days later, they left this American city “reduced to ashes and a trail of destruction that could not be described in any of the city’s newspapers, simply because none had survived the onslaught. Commonly heard during the pillaging as a pistol was pointed to “the bosom or the head of woman, the patient mother, the trembling daughter, was the ordinary introduction to the demands of the robbers: “Your gold, silver, watch, jewels.” Sherman’s actions bore the tacit approval of Abraham Lincoln.
The Sack and Destruction of an American City
“At about 11 o’clock, the head of the column, following the deputation – the flag of the United States surmounting the carriage – reached Market Hall, on Main street, while that of the corps was carried in the rear.
Hardly had the troops reached the head of Main street, when the works of pillage was begun. Stores were broken open in the presence of thousands within the first hour after their arrival. The contents, when too cumbersome for the plunderers, were cast into the streets. Gold and silver, jewels and liquors, were eagerly sought.
No attempt was made to arrest the burglars. The authorities, officers, soldiers, all, seemed to consider it a matter of course. And [woe] to him who carried a watch with gold chain pendant; or who wore a choice hat, or overcoat, or boots or shoes. He was stripped by ready experts in a twinkling of an eye.
It is computed that, from first to last, twelve hundred watches were transported from the pockets of the owners to those of the soldiers. Purses shared the same fate; nor was Confederate money repudiated.
The experience of the firemen in putting out the fires . . . were of a sort to discourage their farther efforts. They were thwarted and embarrassed by the continued interference of the soldiery. Finally, their hose was chopped with swords and axes, or pierced with bayonets, so as to be rendered useless. The engines were in some cases demolished also.
Robbery was going on at every corner – in every house – yet there was no censure, no punishment. But the reign of terror did not fairly begin till night. Among the first fires at evening was one about dark, which broke out in a filthy purlieu of low houses, of wood, on Gervais street, occupied mostly as brothels.
Almost at the same time the enemy scattered over the Eastern outskirts of the city, fired severally the dwellings of Mr. Secretary Trenholm, Gen. Wade Hampton, Dr. John Wallace, J.U. Adams, Mrs. Starke, Mr. Latta, Mrs. English and many others . . . in the heart of the most densely settled portion of the town; thus enveloping in flames almost every section of the devoted city.
The wretches engaged in this appointed incendiarism were well prepared with all the appliances essential to their work. They did not need the torch. They carried with them, from house to house, pots and vessels containing combustible liquids, composed probably of phosphorous and other similar agents, turpentine, etc., and, with balls of cotton saturated in this liquid; with which they overspread floors and walls, they conveyed the flames with wonderful rapidity from dwelling to dwelling.”
(A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, William Gilmore Simms, USC Press, 2005, excerpts pp. 61-62; 64-65)