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Fall of the South: The Burning of Columbia

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For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the second installment of the series.

February 17-18, 1865: The Burning of Columbia

After leading his army on its famous march through Georgia to the sea in November and December 1864, laying waste to thousands of square miles as they advanced, in January 1865 General William Tecumseh Sherman rested his army in Savannah and received fresh supplies from the Union Navy, letting Confederate commanders guess what his next move would be. At last in February 1865 he headed north into the Carolinas, intending to crush the remaining Confederate forces between Georgia and Virginia and eventually join forces with Ulysses Grant’s army laying siege to Petersburg, Virginia.

The cradle of the rebellion, South Carolina was held in special contempt by Sherman and his men, who blamed the state for the Civil War and now felt it their right and duty to mete out a harsh punishment—even harsher than the one they delivered in Georgia, if that was possible. The terrible climax of Sherman’s march through South Carolina was the burning of the state capital, Columbia, on the night of February 17-18, 1865.

As Sherman’s army of 65,000 men approached the capital, the state government prepared to flee along with thousands of panicked residents, terrified by reports of Union depredations in Georgia and the southern part of their own state. One observer, Emma LeConte, described the chaotic scene in her diary:

The Government is rapidly moving off stores—all day the trains have been running, whistles blowing and wagons rattling through the streets. All day we have been listening to the booming of cannon—receiving conflicting rumors of the fighting. All day wagons and ambulances have been bringing in the wounded over the muddy streets and through the drizzling rain, with the dark gloomy clouds overhead… Nearer and nearer, clearer and more distinctly sound the cannon—Oh, it is heart-sickening to listen to it!

On February 17, the only defenders, a small force of Confederate cavalry, withdrew from the city and Sherman’s Union troops marched in unopposed. With most of the remaining inhabitants cowering in their homes, the streets were filled with of thousands of freed Union prisoners of war and former slaves, while Sherman’s troops soon helped themselves to any liquor they found, only adding to the chaos. One Union officer, Major Thomas Osborn, recalled, “when the brigade occupied the town the citizens and negroes brought out whiskey in buckets, bottles and in every conceivable manner treated the men to all they would drink.”

What happened next remains a subject of debate to this day. Sherman claimed that he never ordered the city’s destruction, and in fact explicitly ordered his artillery not to shell the city before it was occupied in order to protect lives and property. Union officers also blamed the Confederate commander for piling bales of cotton in the streets to be burned before retreating. However many of the city’s residents recorded seeing Union soldiers deliberately setting fire to buildings with torches—and Sherman’s failure to prevent his men from gaining access to copious quantities of alcohol seems negligent, at best.

Whoever was to blame, as darkness fell on the night of February 17, 1865, flames were seen rising from several areas in downtown Columbia. Now chaos descended as Union soldiers, freed slaves, and criminals looted in a drunken frenzy. LeConte painted the scene with vivid imagery in her diary:

By the red glare we could watch the wretches walking—generally staggering—back and forth from the camp to the town—shouting—hurrahing—cursing South Carolina—swearing—blaspheming—singing ribald songs and using [such] obscene language that we were forced to go indoors. The fire on Main Street was now raging, and we anxiously watched its progress from the upper front windows. In a little while however the flames broke forth in every direction. The drunken devils roamed about setting fire to every house the flames seemed likely to spare…

Their efforts were aided by nature, as a strong wind had begun blowing that afternoon, fueling the flames that leapt between the town’s many wooden buildings. LeConte continued:

The wind blew a fearful gale, wafting the flames from house to house with frightful rapidity. By midnight the whole town (except the outskirts) was wrapped in one huge blaze… Imagine night turned into noonday, only with a blazing, scorching glare that was horrible—a copper colored sky across which swept columns of black rolling smoke glittering with sparks and flying embers, while all around us were falling thickly showers of burning flakes. Everywhere the palpitating blaze walling the streets with solid masses of flames as far as the eye could reach—filling the air with its horrible roar. On every side the crackling and devouring fire, while every instant came the crashing of timbers and the thunder of falling buildings. A quivering molten ocean seemed to fill the air and sky.

Many observers remarked on the disaster’s spectacular quality. Another woman, S. A. Crittenden, later recalled: “We stood in the observatory and saw these fires… kindle, one by one, along the horizon’s verge. Soon they flashed out of the darkness, nearer and nearer, rose higher and higher, spread wider and wider, until nearly the whole city became one seething sea of billowy fire.” While these women obviously viewed the burning of Columbia as a tragedy, for his part Osborn found it beautiful:

One cannot conceive of anything which would or could make a grander fire than this one, excepting a larger city than Columbia. The city was built entirely of wood, and was in most excellent condition to burn… The flames rolled and heaved like the waves of the ocean; the road was like a cataract. The whole air was filled with burning cinders, and fragments of fire as thick as the flakes of snow in a storm. The scene was splendid—magnificently grand.

By the time the wind finally began to subside around 4 a.m., roughly a third of Columbia, including all the downtown area, had been completely destroyed, leaving some 30,000 residents homeless.

Some of these would join the growing column of refugees, black and white, following in the wake of Sherman’s army. At the same time huge numbers of freed slaves and dispossessed whites were simply roaming the countryside looking for food and shelter. Although some Union troops tried to help, there was little they could do as long as fighting continued, and their need for supplies often put them at odds with freed slaves. One former slave, Harriet Smith, lost everything: “I was present when the Union Army came and took all our provisions—they took everything they could lay their hands upon—I saw them take all my bacon—they did not spare either white nor black—The articles were all taken openly in broad daylight.”

Another freed slave, Robert Falls, recalled the chaos and confusion: “I remember so well how the roads was full of folks walking and walking along… Didn’t know where they was going. Just going to see about something else somewhere else. Meet a body in the road and they ask, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Don’t know.’ ‘What you going to do?’ ‘Don’t know.’” In the same vein Ezra Adams told an interviewer: “Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain’t nothin’, ’less you is got somethin’ to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin’ on liberty is lak young folks livin’ on love after they gits married. It just don’t work.”

Despite the bitterness of defeat, occupation, and the loss of their property, at least some former masters were kind to their former slaves. One freed slave girl, Hannah Plummer, remembered:

Marster told father and mother they could have the house free and wood free, and he would help them feed the children, but mother said, “No, I am goin’ to leave. I have never been free and I am goin’ to try it. I am goin’ away and by my work and the help of the Lord I will live somehow.” Marster then said, “Well stay as long as you wish, and leave when you get ready, but wait until you find a place to go, and leave like folks.” Marster allowed her to take all her things with her when she left. The white folks told her goodbye.

See the previous entry here.

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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.

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Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images
The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America
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Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.

For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that "the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government."

But Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise on the issue, and war broke out in April 1861.


Winning the war was clearly a higher priority for the Confederacy than conquering Latin America, but growth was certainly on the post-war agenda. The Confederate constitution included the right to expand, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis filled his cabinet with men who thought similarly. He even hinted that the slave trade could be revived in "new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande."

During the Civil War, Confederate agents attempted to destabilize Mexico so that its territories would be easy to snatch up after the war. One rebel emissary to Mexico City, John T. Pickett, secretly fomented rebellion in several Mexican provinces with an eye to "the permanent possession of that beautiful country." Pickett's mission ended in failure in 1861, but fate dealt the South a better hand in 1863. French Emperor Napoleon III seized Mexico, and the move provided the South with a perfect excuse to "liberate" the country after the Civil War.

Of course, Mexico was just part of the pie that the South hoped to inherit. Confederate leaders also had their eyes squarely on Brazil—a country of 3 million square miles and more than 8 million people. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Matthew Maury, one of the forces behind the U.S. Naval Academy, dispatched two Navy officers to the Amazon basin, ostensibly to map the river for shipping. Instead, they were secretly plotting domination and collecting data about separatist movements in the region. When the South lost the war, Maury refused to abandon his plans. He helped up to 20,000 ex-rebels flee to Brazil, where they established the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana. To this day, hundreds of descendants of the Confederados still gather outside Americana to celebrate their shared heritage of rocking chairs and sweet potato pie. In a strange way, a part of the Old South still survives—thousands of miles below the U.S. border.


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