part of a volume entitled History of the Ninety - Third Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry: From Organization To Muster Out --Statistics Compiled by Aaron Dunbar Sergeant, Company " B", Revised and Edited by Harvey M. Trimble, Adjutant
Submitted by Jeffrey MacAdam, to whom every reader should be grateful.
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This web page is two of four of Chapter X.
On the 17th, General Slocum, with the left wing of the army, crossed the Saluda River at Zion Church, and then the French Broad River, above Columbia, destroyed the bridges and railroad about Alston, and proceeded directly to Winnsboro, the county seat of Fairfield County, due north of Columbia, and about twenty-five miles distant. On the 17th, General Wood's division, of the Fifteenth Corps, was skirmishing with the enemy early in the morning. General Stone's brigade, of that division, crossed the French Broad River, in pontoon boats, before daylight that morning, and were covering the laying of the pontoon bridge across the river. The enemy made only a faint resistance. The bridge was laid but a short distance above Columbia, at a point where the river was about one hundred and seventy-five yards wide. Before 10 o'clock in the forenoon, after the bridge was laid, and while the troops of the Fifteenth Corps were crossing the river on it, the mayor of Columbia rode out and surrendered the city to General Stone, and he immediately moved his brigade into the city. Soon after, General Sherman and Howard crossed the river, on the pontoon bridge, and rode into the capital city of South Carolina. They found everything quiet. At 2:30 o'clock p.m., that day, the Ninety -Third Illinois crossed the French Broad River, on the pontoon bridge, and marched into and trough the city of Columbia, with colors flying. After having marched five miles, the regiment went into camp one mile east of the city. The city was, of course, plundered to some extent by foragers and stragglers, but not nearly to the extent claimed by some critics of the army. That night, the greater part of it was burned. That was a most terrible calamity, and a most terrific thing to witness. The heart of the army then, as well as the heart of humanity since, cried out in sympathy, but in vain. It made all shudder, while the city burned, to contemplate such possibilities of war. But, that the Federal army was responsible for it, none who were there then believed, nor has it ever been, nor can it be, so demonstrated. Much has been written, and more said, on that subject, and different and contrary opinions are still adhered to by fair and honest people. The probability is that the truth lies between the two extremes.
What were the facts? Gen. Wade Hampton had ordered the rear guard of his Confederate cavalry, to burn all the cotton in the city before leaving there. The cotton was largely in the southern and southwestern portion of the city. There were small quantities elsewhere through the city. The wind was blowing from the south and southwest all day, during the last half of the afternoon it increased in strength until it became a gale, and so continued until nearly midnight. Thousands, who were there in and with the army, can now, still, well remember and testify to this. The Confederate rear guard piled the cotton bales in the street, near the different places where they found them, cut the ropes and bagging that held the bales together, and set the cotton on fire. In the early part of the day, the wind carried burning cotton to the nearest buildings and caused them to take fire. Soon after Stone, with his brigade, reached the city, there were a considerable number of fires, so ignited, in the southern and southwestern parts of the city. The soldiers of that brigade, and others of General Wood's division, then arriving, assisted the citizens in subduing the flames. Before the middle of the afternoon, all the fires of any consequence were extinguished. But the burning cotton was still smoldering in the streets. As every one knows, who has the benefit of observation, it is very difficult to completely extinguish fire in cotton, and particularly in large quantities, when once well ignited. So that, while the flames were mostly, if not entirely, subdued, there was still a good deal of smoldering fire among the cotton. When the wind rose to a gale, later in the afternoon, this loose cotton was carried all over the city. It was blown through the streets, into the yards, lodged in the small trees and shrubbery and on the roofs of houses. It was everywhere. The main street in the city was ragged with tufts of cotton. Many of those tufts were partially blackened. Showing that they had been on fire; and some of them were smoking, showing that they were still on fire. Every man in the army who marched through the city of Columbia that day, can well remember what a gale of wind there was, and from what directions it came, and how it whirled and swirled through the city and carried those half-blackened tufts of cotton and other debris everywhere. Late that afternoon, the fierce wind rekindled the flames in the 'smoldering piles of cotton, and in the larger bunches that had been carried away from the piles, and carried fire with them, and the flames were again communicated to the surrounding buildings. A little after dark, the fires began to spread, and by 9 o'clock in the evening it was a conflagration. It was not gotten under control until 4 o'clock the next morning. General Sherman, Howard, Logan, Wood, Stone, and many others, and General Wood's whole division, worked hard and faithfully all night, endeavoring to subdue the flames; and only succeeded in doing so after the wind subsided, and after the main part of the city had been destroyed. A small portion of the city was saved; but it was not much, compared with what was burned. Such was the origin and cause for the rapid spreading of the great fire that destroyed the city of Columbia. There are very many reasons to believe it, and the writer has no doubt of it. The testimony of one's own eyes always induces conviction. But, while that is true, it is scarcely to be doubted, that, after the fire was started, and was well under headway, there were flames there that must have been kindled otherwise than a heretofore stated. There were in the city, that night, a considerable number of rescued Federal prisoners, and about two hundred who had escaped from the cars while being conveyed from there to Charlotte, and who had returned to the city that day, beside a number of political prisoners who were released on the entrance of the army. All these had been confined there, and many of them abused and suffered indignities until they were full of vengeance. And it is not to be doubted that some of them obtained their revenge, that night, by spreading the flames, more or less, after the fire was under way. General Sherman, and Major Nichols, of his staff, both frankly admitted this.
But General Sherman boldly charged the origin of the fire, and the responsibility for it, upon General Hampton, as being caused by the orders issued by him for the burning of the cotton by his rear guard. It is true, that general Hampton afterward said, that he gave a positive order that no cotton should be burned. And his word must be accepted to that extent. But he did not say, however, that none was fired. His order either reached his rear guard to late, after a former order had been to burn it, or else it was fired in violation of his order that it should not be burned. Certain it is, that it had been fired before any Federal troops reached the city; and fired, too, by the rear guard. Numerous citizens said so then, and those who had suffered pecuniary losses in cotton severely denounced general Hampton and his soldiers for it. And that the Confederates were burning cotton, is clearly manifested from the correspondence on that subject between General Wheeler and general Sherman, which transpired only a few days before then. General Sherman said, very positively, that long before any public building was fired by his order, the whole city was swallowed by the conflagration. Mr. James McCarter, a prominent citizen and business man who lived there, fully exonerated general Sherman from any responsibility for it. Major Nichols told the whole story about as it was nearly to the truth as any man could arrive at it. But, since it is not probable that the responsibility for it will ever be any more definitely fixed than it has heretofore been, further discussion of the matter can be of but little, if any, practical utility, unless it might possibly modify the extreme views still held, in some quarters, regarding it. It was simply one of the possible results of war; and war, particularly internecine war, has always been, and will always be, attended by such calamities, events wholly unintended by any one responsible for the conduct of affairs, but which, nevertheless, always shock the better elements of civilization, and cause all manner of bitterness and recrimination. And this calamity was much deplored, not only by the army there p[resent, but by the people generally throughout the Northern States. Doubtless, it would have been more deeply deplored, had the suffering city been any other, Charleston alone excepted, than the capital city of South Carolina. There were some good people who then felt, and said, that the visitation, even had it been deliberately inflicted by the army as punishment, was no more than adequate atonement for the treason of that state; but the better judgment was, and still is, that it was, even from that point of view, too severe upon those people, especially women and children, who were not responsible for the rebellion, nor leaders of it or in it, and who were, at all only a very small loss of human life, was indeed a great consolation, and about the only one, except that the army was not responsible for it. History has already fully acquitted General Sherman and his commanding generals and his army of that charge, which was then immediately made, with much bitterness and denunciation, by some Confederate leaders who were not there. And history will, no doubt, ultimately leave it, where it properly belongs, among the unpremeditated and unintended possible calamity of war.
On the 18th and 19th, the Ninety-Third Illinois remained in camp. Many visited the ruins of the burned city. On the 19th, John Templeton, wagoner of Company G, was mortally wounded by the accidental explosion of shells. He died on the 25th, and was buried at Columbia. The explosion was caused by the dropping of a shell onto the hard road, at the river bank south of the city, while shells were being unloaded from wagons and thrown into the river, the shells having been taken from the Confederate armory. The shell that was dropped exploded, and that caused the explosion of three wagon-loads of shells then at the river bank and being disposed of as before stated. A captain and four men were instantly killed, and about twenty others wounded, some of them mortally. There were about thirty men engaged there. The captain and one or two of the men were literally blown away, so that no part of their bodies or clothing was to be found anywhere. They were mostly of the Sixty-Third Illinois. On the 18th and 19th, the arsenals, armories, machineshops, factories, railroads depots and warehouses and public buildings, that had escaped destruction in the conflagration of the previous night, were all destroyed, under orders for that purpose. On the 20th, starting at 7:15 o'clock a.m., the Ninety-Third Illinois marched seventeen miles, on the road leading to Camden, the county seat of Kershaw County, and camped, at 5 o'clock p.m., at Muddy Springs. The day was fine, and the roads good. On the 21st, starting at 1 o'clock p.m., the regiment marched seven miles, and went into camp at 11 o'clock p.m. The country was barren, but the roads were good. Notice was received that no more hardtack would be issued until further orders. Everybody is mad to-night. On the 22nd, starting at 8 o'clock a.m., the command marched twelve miles, and camped, at dark, at Peay's Ferry, on the Wateree River. The regiment was placed on guard at the crossing of the river, and also over a corral of "picked up" horses and mules. The brigade crossed the river. On the 23rd, the regiment crossed the river, the Wateree, at 6 o'clock a.m., and marched fifteen miles during the day. Passing through Liberty Hill, a very pretty place, on the route, the command camped, at 3:15 o'clock p.m., near Flat Rock, in Kershaw County. Our brigade had the advance of the army to-day. We got plenty of forage. The country was hilly. After destroying the railroad from Columbia to Winnsboro, and burning the bridge over Wateree River at Camden, the Fifteenth Corps crossed that river at Peay's Ferry.
On the 24th, starting at 8 o'clock a.m., the Ninety-Third Illinois marched fifteen miles, and camped, at 6 o'clock p.m., near West's Corners. Rain fell nearly all day. Foragers from department and corps headquarters, with some others, captured twenty or thirty wagons of a refugee train, with mules horses, provisions. About 4 o'clock this afternoon, a rumor was started, probably by foragers, that a large body of the enemy was moving upon us. It caused our trains to be closed very quickly. Only a rumor.
General Slocum, with the left wing, reached Winnsboro on the 21st. On the 23rd, the Twentieth Corps crossed the Catawba River, (one of the tributaries to the Wateree River), and General Kilpatrick's cavalry followed that night. Then those forces made a demonstration against Charlotte, North Carolina, to which place General Beauregard, and the Confederate cavalry had retreated. General Cheatham's corps, of General Hood's old army, which had been cut off by the rapid movements of the left wing of the army, was also expected to reach there very soon. The Twentieth Corps waited, at Hanging Rock, until the Fourteenth Corps could cross the Catawaba River and reach that place. The waters of the river were greatly swollen by recent rains, which caused some delay. When the Fourteenth Corps reached the Twentieth, both moved directly to Cheraw, South Carolina. On the 22nd, General Kilpatrick reported to General Sherman, that eighteen of his men had been murdered by Gen. Wade Hampton's cavalry, and left in the road, with labels on them threatening a similar fate to all foragers. General Sherman immediately replied that such conduct left General Kilpatrick no alternative but retaliation, man for man; and added: "Let it be done at once." He said it was pretty nonsense for General's Wheeler and Beauregard, and such vain heroes, to talk about our warring against women and children, since they know we have a perfect war right to collect provisions and forage. He said: "I want foragers to be regulated and systematized, so as not to degenerate into common robbers; but foragers, as such, to collect corn, bacon, beef, and other such products as we need, are as much entitled to our protection a skirmishers and flankers. If our foragers commit excesses, punish them yourself, but never let an enemy judge between our men and the law." And he immediately notified General Hampton, that he had ordered retaliation, man for man, for those already murdered, and added: "Of course you cannot question my right, 'to forage on the county.' It is a war right as old as history. * * * Personally I regret the bitter feelings engendered by this war, but they are to be expected, and I simply allege that those who struck the first blow and made war inevitable, ought not in fairness to reproach us for the natural consequences. I merely assert our 'war right' to forage, and my resolve to protect my foragers to the extent of life for life. That ended the matter.
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