SHERMAN, WILLIAM TECUMSEH, General. Autograph letter signed ("W.T. Sherman General"), to John A. Lynch, Washington, D.C., 12 July 1873. 3 pages, large 8vo, one tiny tear at fold.
THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER THE DESTRUCTION OF COLUMBIA, S.C., SHERMAN CONFIDENTLY DENIES THAT HIS ARMY SET FIRE TO THE CITY.
A fine letter which provides a revealing footnote to the still unresolved question of the wartime destruction of Columbia, a controversy which has raged for years since the War. Sherman's Army entered Columbia, one of the South's major commercial depots, on 17 February 1865, driving out a Confederate rearguard. Columbia's warehouses were full of baled cotton and loose cotton had apparently been strewn in the streets; buckets of liquor were offered to the advance Union brigades by certain residents, according to General O.O. Howard, and many Union prisoners of war and slaves freed. Around midnight night a fire began, near the market house square. Fanned by a strong wind, it spread rapidly in spite of the Union soldiers' attempts to control it. Much of the central district was reduced to rubble by the time the fire ebbed on the morning of the 18th. Sherman was unmercifully attacked in the rebel press, which accused him of having ordered the city set afire; the charges were exacerbated by postwar claims for compensation by British owners of destroyed cotton stores. "I thank you for the interest manifested in the letter....& have no doubt there is much in what you relate. The only interest I have in the burning of Columbia is in its true history. The recent revival of the question grows out of the Cottom Claims owned by English subjects and sent...before the Joint Commission [to reconcile war claims between Great Britain and the U.S.]. Judge Hale the Agent of the U.S. se ems to be satisfied that he has enough positive testimony, and would not receive mere conjectural explanations.
"It is enough for him that the firing was not done by the Authority of the U.S. The fire once begun the prevailing wind accounts satisfactorily for its spread. There were enough causes for the beginning of the fire in the Acts of the Enemy in firing Cotton in the Streets, in the burning of the bridges & depots all of which is known to have occurred before we entered the town.
"After we entered [Columbia] there remained one escaped prisoner who hated the town worse than the Army did. Also the Negroes [freed slaves], whose angry feelings were manifest and the cause you alledge of the Public whipping Post near the Market house was one & may have been the real cause...."
For Sherman's official account, which omits several of the explanations offered here, see his Memoirs, Library of America edn., 1990, pp. 758-62; a letter from a Southerner on the subject, ibid., Appendix, p. 967; a letter from a Union prisoner, who says he saw Confederates setting fire to the depot and warehouses, ibid., p. 988; and the 1872 testimony of General O.O. Howard on the burning of Columbia, before the Mixed Commission on American and British Claims, ibid., Appendix pp. 980-87.