Colonel George Stone Describes the Capture and Burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 1865.

After completing his March to the Sea by capturing Savannah, Georgia in December 1864, Major General William T. Sherman took his army north into the Carolinas early in 1865. In mid-February, Sherman’s army captured Columbia, South Carolina, the capitol of that state. Leading the way into Columbia was a 15th Army Corps brigade consisting of the 4th, 9th, 25th, 30th, and 31st Iowa Infantry regiments under the command of Colonel George A. Stone. In his official report, Stone describes the capture of the city and the chaos and burning of the city that followed.

HDQRS. THIRD BRIG., FIRST DIV., 15TH ARMY CORPS

Near Columbia,S.C., February 19, 1865

CAPTAIN:  I respectfully report the action taken by my command in capturing the city of Columbia:

On the evening of the 16th instant I received orders from Brevet Major-General Woods to have my command in readiness to cross Broad River in the boats of the pontoon train at a point to be designated by Colonel Tweeddale, of the First Missouri Engineers, and so soon as crossed to move at once on the city. The point of crossing designated was about half a mile above the wreck of the bridge and about two miles above the city of Columbia. We expected to have effected a crossing and to have moved on the city by daylight, but the current of the river was so strong the engineers did not succeed in getting a line across until 3 o’clock of the morning of the 17th instant. At 3.50 o’clock I sent over two loads of sharpshooters, under Captain Bowman, of my staff, with instructions to put them out as pickets or skirmishers, the center of his line to be opposite the crossing and at least seventy-five yards distant, with the flanks resting on the river. He had particular instructions to keep his men quiet and not to reply to any firing of the enemy unless satisfied they meant an attack on him. I went over with the advance of the first regiment, Thirty-first Iowa, Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins, and made a personal reconnaissance of the ground. I found I had landed on a small island about 200 yards in length, 25 yards in width, and in the shape of a crescent. I at once put up a line of works and by this time four regiments had crossed. The enemy was now discovered to be very active, their skirmishers annoying us considerably. From a movement of troops toward his right, I was satisfied the enemy was endeavoring to re-enforce his line, and that to insure success I should at once attack without waiting for the remainder of the brigade. Accordingly I made the following disposition of my troops for the attack: The Thirty-first Iowa, Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins commanding, was moved across the island toward the north, nearly parallel with the river, until I found his left about opposite the enemy’s right. I next ordered up Major Abernethy, commanding Ninth Iowa, with his regiment, his right resting on Colonel Jenkins’ left, and his (Major Abernethy’s) left toward the river, with directions that when the assault was ordered he should change direction to the right on the double-quick in order to turn the enemy’s right and also strike him in the rear. These dispositions being made to my satisfaction, I returned to the island and ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts to assault directly in front of it, the Twenty-fifth Iowa, Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer commanding, to follow as a reserve, and sent word to Lieutenant-Colonel Nichols, commanding Fourth Iowa, to join Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer as fast as his men had crossed. Everything now in readiness, the signal was given and the assault made by all the regiments at the same time. The result proved no mistake, either in the planning or the execution. Before the enemy was hardly aware of it we were right into his skirmish line. The Thirtieth Iowa here captured thirty prisoners. I accompanied this regiment, and can by personal observation testify to the gallant manner in which they made the assault. In front of the island were a number of small bayous running parallel with the river, about twenty feet wide and some of them waist deep. Few stopped to find logs on which to cross, but plunged in, holding guns and cartridge-boxes above the water. I found Colonel Palmer’s brigade of infantry, of General Stevenson’s division, and apparently a regiment of cavalry, were the troops disputing the crossing. Having driven the enemy in our front, and noticing a demonstration on his right to turn my left, I ordered a halt and commenced throwing up a line of works while waiting for the advance of Brevet Brigadier-General Woods’ brigade to get over. So soon as I discovered this brigade had commenced crossing, I moved for the city, easily driving the regiment of cavalry that disputed our advance.

We had arrived within about a mile of the city, when a carriage displaying a flag of truce approached containing Mr. Goodwin, mayor of Columbia, and the city aldermen, who came to offer terms of capitulation. I refused anything but an unconditional surrender, which, after few words, he consented to and unconditionally surrendered the city of Columbia. I joined the party in the carriage, accompanied by Major Anderson, of the Fourth Iowa, and Captain Pratt, of General Logan’s staff, and left the brigade under the temporary charge of Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins, Thirty-first Iowa, and preceded the column about half a mile. When near the suburbs of the city I noticed some of the advanced skirmishers, say fifteen in number, being driven back by apparently a battalion of rebel cavalry. I at once called a corporal and three men, who happened to be near me, and put the mayor and aldermen in the corporal’s charge, and with Major Anderson took about forty of my flankers and advanced on the cavalry. The corporal was instructed that in case one man was killed or wounded he should at once shoot the mayor and his party. Joining the retreating skirmishers with the forty flankers we speedily dispersed the rebel cavalry, having no more trouble in gaining the city. I proceeded to the state-house with Captain Pratt and planted the first U.S. flag on that building….

I was absent from the brigade about an hour in placing the flag on the state-house, and when I rejoined my command found a great number of the men drunk. It was discovered that this was caused by hundreds of negroes who swarmed the streets on the approach of the troops and gave them all kinds of liquors from buckets, bottles, demijohns, &c. The men had slept none the night before, and but little the night before that, and many of them had no supper the night before, and none of them breakfast that morning, hence the speedy effect of the liquor. I forthwith ordered all the liquor destroyed, and saw fifteen barrels destroyed within five minutes after the order had been given.

Brevet Major-General Woods now sent me word to guard the private property of the citizens and take possession of all the public buildings. I did so immediately upon receipt of the order, distributing my five regiments throughout the city and appointing Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins, Thirty-first Iowa, provost-marshal. A number of buildings were fired during the early part of the evening, but the fire was promptly put out before it had gained much headway. A great many drunken men were now showing themselves in the streets from, I should think, every regiment of our corps, the Seventeenth Corps, and some even from General Kilpatrick’s cavalry. My command was so scattered throughout the city I found it necessary to have a stronger guard, and therefore applied through my acting assistant adjutant-general to Brevet Major-General Woods twice, once in writing, for one or two more regiments for patrolling the city, but received no re-enforcements. About 8 o’clock the city was fired in a number of places by some of our escaped prisoners and citizens (I am satisfied I can prove this), and as some of the fire originated in basements stored full of cotton it was impossible to extinguish it. The fire engines were ordered out, but the flames could not be stopped; the buildings were old, nearly all wooden ones, and the wind blowing almost a gale. At 8 p.m. I received orders that I was relieved by Brevet Brigadier-General Woods and I sent the brigade to camp about one mile out of town, but remained in the city myself, working all night to assist in extinguishing the fire.

Very respectfully, Captain, your obedient servant,
GEO. A. STONE,
Colonel, Commanding.

Capt. FRED. H. WILSON,
Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., First Division, Fifteenth Army Corps.

Report of Colonel George A. Stone, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLVII, Part 1

Both sides blamed the other for starting the fires although the exact cause remains unknown. On theory is that retreating Confederate soldiers set cotton on fire to prevent it from falling into Union hands. To many Union soldiers, the South Carolina state capitol was one of the birthplaces of secession, and they were all too happy to destroy it even without orders (Sherman himself denied ordering the burning though he did order buildings of importance to the Confederate war effort destroyed). There may have been more than one cause. Although the Columbia civilian fire department and Union army soldiers fought the blaze, they were overmatched by the windy conditions and much of central Columbia was destroyed.

 

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