CLOSE

Fall of the South: The Burning of Columbia

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
arrow
History
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.

 
 

Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.

 
 

Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.

 
 

The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library of Congress // Public Domain
arrow
History
The Key to Robert E. Lee's Puzzling Death Might Be Hidden in a Photo of His Earlobe
Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee died five years after the Civil War ended, the cause of his death had doctors stumped. He had been in poor health, but his specific illness was a mystery; there weren't many clues beyond symptoms Lee had described in letters. “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere,” he wrote to his wife in 1863.

This was before electrocardiograms and x-rays existed. There were no obvious physical findings to support a formal diagnosis, either. Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his gripes and treated him with everything but the kitchen sink: hot mustard plasters and footbaths, doses of turpentine or ammonia, and enemas, all of which were standard medical treatments in the Civil War era. Without a robust medical history to guide them, the doctors diagnosed stroke, rheumatism, and pneumonia in the months leading up to Lee's death.

Now, new research from East Carolina University sheds light on the age-old question of what actually caused Lee's demise, thanks to the discovery in a photograph of a crease running diagonally across Lee’s right earlobe. According to the case study, recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, the crease is a physical sign that Lee likely died from heart disease.

Richard Reinhart, an emeritus professor of medicine at East Carolina University and author of the paper, says earlobe creases can help detect heart disease. Some previous reports have pointed to heart disease as the cause of Lee’s death based on written evidence, but “until now there hadn’t been an actual physical finding supporting this diagnosis,” Reinhart tells Mental Floss. “His earlobe crease is the only piece of objective physical evidence that helps back it up.”

Photo of Robert E. Lee showing a crease in his right earlobe
Virginia Historical Society

The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973, and there have since been more than 120 studies investigating the link. Scientists aren’t sure why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients, but researchers have suggested that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that forms a crease over time.

Reinhart, a history buff who has a particular interest in the life of Lee, saw a close-up photo of the general at the Virginia Historical Society one day and noticed the wrinkle on his ear. Aware of the possible link between earlobe creases and heart disease, he began poring through Lee’s personal letters and attending physicians’ notes, as well as previous reports of Lee’s illness, to see if his symptoms jibed with a failing heart.

It turned out the symptoms correlated well: Lee initially had an episode of chest pain in 1863, which progressively worsened when he exerted himself and eventually took on characteristics that would be recognized today as heart disease. And in the months before his death in 1870, he began to have chest pain even at rest, which suggests a heart attack was imminent.

“The constellation of symptoms, I believe, are readily explained by heart failure due to progressive coronary artery disease,” Reinhart says.

In an age where advanced medical diagnostic tools weren’t yet in play, a physical feature like an earlobe crease would have been a useful visual cue had doctors known it might signal heart trouble. But even if they had known, could they have done anything to help Lee? One option—a nitroglycerin-based substance called amyl nitrite, which dilates the coronary artery for better blood flow to the heart—had been documented in the British medical journal Lancet in 1867 but wasn’t used much clinically. Salicylate, the precursor to aspirin, which today's physicians recommend for preventing heart attacks, had been around since before the Civil War. But the idea of using it as an anti-platelet drug wouldn't occur for decades.

“Understanding heart disease back then was in its relative infancy, and I don’t think there’s anything that would have turned Lee’s condition around,” Reinhart says. “Even today, I believe the outcome from his final illness—end-stage heart failure—may not have been much better, given that the mortality rates for it are still significant.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios