The burning and looting of Southern towns and cities during the war was not isolated and limited to Sherman. The spectacle of Northern soldiers plundering the homes and cities of Americans in the South astonished even news reporters accompanying the invading forces.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
The Roar of Flames in Jacksonville
“. . . on March 28, 1863, [the Northern commander] received orders to evacuate Jacksonville and terminate the East Florida operation. At 8 AM on the morning of March 28, as the troops began boarding their transports, first one, then another, and finally a third column of smoke rose from the city [and] . . . Some of the troops began rioting, plundering, vandalizing, and setting the town on fire with torches.
On the day before, there had been warning that this might occur. That day, the New York Tribune correspondent reported: “The beautiful little cottage used as the Catholic parsonage, together with the church, was fired by some of the soldiers, and in a short time burned to the ground.”
The soldiers had plundered the church of any items of value and destroyed the organ, abandoning the building ahead of the flames, “celebrating the occasion by blowing through an organ pipe.” Now it was happening . . . before the horrified eyes of the reporter. From the deck of his ship, he reported the ugly scene before him:
“I am writing now from the deck of a fine transport ship, the Boston. From this upper deck the scene presented to the spectator is one of fearful magnificence. On every side, from every quarter of the city, dense clouds of black smoke and flame are bursting through the mansions and warehouses.
The whole city, mansions, warehouses, trees, shrubbery, and orange groves; all that refined taste and art through many years have made beautiful and attractive, are being lapped up and devoured by this howling fiery blast . . . Is not this war — vindictive, unrelenting war? Have we not gotten up to the European standard?”
There were other witnesses . . . Inside the city, Dr. Alfred Walton [reported]:
“Before we were ready to embark the [Northern soldiers] began to set fire to the city . . . On my way down I ran into . . . a church and groping through the smoke and fire I took from the altar a large gilt-bound prayer book with the inscription on the cover, “St. John’s Episcopal Church, Jacksonville.” Farther down on Market Street I entered a building that appeared to be some kind of office and from a table or desk I took a manuscript map of the city of Jacksonville.
Farther down I saw some Negro soldiers setting fires and from their songs and shouting they appeared to be having a good time [Davis, History of Jacksonville, p. 132].”
Calvin Rogers . . . pinpointed how and where he believed the fires had been started:
“One fire was set by soldiers of the 8th Maine . . . Another by the 6th Connecticut . . . a third fire was kindled by a mulatto soldier of Col. Montgomery’s Regiment, named Isaac Smith . . . ”
“The sight and roar of the flames, and the rolling clouds of smoke, brought home to the impressionable minds of the black soldiers all their favorite imagery of the Judgment Day, Col. [Thomas] Higginson observed . . . excited by the spectacle and sang and exhorted without ceasing.”
(Jacksonville’s Ordeal by Fire, Martin & Schafer, Florida Publishing Company, 1984, pp. 161-163)