Eight years ago, I sat in the home of Nashville artist Jack Kershaw, drinking whiskey from a Jefferson cup and listening to the story of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina (February 17-18, 1865). Mr. Kershaw pointed to the various scenes in his terrifying painting of the fire: In the center, a drunken Yankee plays a piano that his fellow soldiers have dragged into the street and set aflame. In one corner, an Ursuline nun consoles a crying child as they watch their convent and school burn. In another, a Yankee soldier takes an ax to the hose of the Columbia volunteer fire brigade as they hopelessly struggle to put out the blaze. Citizens lose their pocket watches to Yankee robbers. Homes are invaded and looted, and, along with silver and china, Negro women are carried off by their Yankee liberators. Some survive their humiliation; others are left dead. All around, the city burns—hell come to earth. Above the pandemonium, almost grinning with approval, float the ghastly visages of General Sherman and President Lincoln.
Since that afternoon in Jack Kershaw’s parlor, the sack of Columbia has, for me, represented the horrifying extremes to which soldiers in the service of a Jacobin cause will go. For the technological advancements that converged in the mid-18th century, and for the Union’s practice of unrestricted warfare, the War Between the States has often been called the first modern war and Sherman, the consummate modern general. The groundwork for modern warfare, however, was laid more than half a century earlier. Across the ocean, in France, “liberty, equality, and fraternity” fired the levée en masse, bringing an end to the 150 years of limited war born at the Peace of Westphalia and informed by the theories of Hugo Grotius. “Restricted war,” wrote Italian political theorist Guglielmo Ferrero in 1933,
was one of the loftiest achievements of the 18th Century. It . . . can only survive in an aristocratic civilization. We are no longer capable of it. It is one of the fine things we have lost as a result of the French Revolution.
Unrestricted war, or “total war,” is identified not only by the brutality of its action and the innocence of its victims but by the passions that drive it. On this side of the Atlantic, “liberty, equality, and fraternity” appeared as “all men are created equal,” “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and “preserving the Union.” These unexamined nostrums justified (and continue to do so in the minds of many) General Sherman’s taking “the war to the people.” Today, thanks to the courageous and determined work of two men a century and a half apart, William Gilmore Simms and Prof. David Aiken of the Citadel, we can know in painful detail what “taking the war to the people” meant for the citizens of Columbia, South Carolina.
A City Laid Waste includes a 46-page Introduction by Aiken, followed by the complete text of Simms’ original newspaper account of the sack. “Already an internationally known author,” as Aiken tells it, Simms arrived in Columbia just days before the event. His account is that not only of an eyewitness but of a newspaper editor who spent the weeks immediately following the fire interviewing hundreds of other eyewitnesses and drawing up an extensive catalogue of the damage. His efforts were serialized as “The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of the City of Columbia,” in ten consecutive issues of the appropriately titled Columbia Phoenix, a newspaper that Simms himself started “so that our sons may always remember, and the whole Christian world everywhere may read.”
Starting the Phoenix, Aiken explains, was an heroic undertaking. Not a man “to sit in silence when there was a big story to be told,” Simms was “in his element whenever he turned his attention to the business of creating a newspaper.” A lesser man would have looked on the devastation with despair. Simms saw a duty to tell the story. All of Columbia’s printing presses had been smashed, and paper and ink were, because of the war, already in short supply. While Simms’ partner, Julian Selby, combed war-ravaged South Carolina for a press, Simms began collecting eyewitness accounts of the sack. Within a month of the fire, the first issue of the Phoenix went to press. On April 10, 1865, the final installment ran. After the war, Simms reissued the account as a pamphlet, tempering some of his rhetoric—or “responding” as Aiken reports, “to the newly imposed economic, cultural, and political dependency of the South.” Aiken’s handsome and carefully annotated edition is the first time the original Phoenix account has been in print since the serial run.
History is fortunate that Simms moved so quickly to publish. Aiken tells of the suppression of freedom of the press under Lincoln in the North (and in occupied New Orleans under Union general Benjamin “Beast” Butler). Simms had but a brief window between the departure of the Union forces from Columbia and the return of the occupying government, after which publishing the story might have been impossible.
Simms’ account hit a nerve, and Aiken exposes the errors in subsequent Yankee efforts to discredit it. It is small wonder that such efforts were made. Simms’ account is a primary-source document providing abundant evidence of Union war crimes: a fire deliberately set at an agreed signal in over 20 locations that resulted in the destruction of three fifths of the city; widespread looting and burning of private homes; destruction of personal libraries and art collections; wanton destruction of memorabilia collections (photos and personal treasures dear only to their owners and of no military value whatsoever); a woman in labor dragged into the street; mourners at a wake turned out into the street; killing of family pets in the sight of small children; pillaging of Negro quarters; rape and murder of Negro women; the burning of a Roman Catholic convent and its adjacent girls’ school; the desecration of sacred vessels used in Mass.
Simms’ account is worth the price of the book. Aiken’s Introduction makes it indispensable for anyone seeking a better understanding of the war and its attendant wickedness. The Introduction includes an excellent biographical sketch of Simms, beginning with his ancestors who, as Simms put it, “took a distinct part on the patriotic side” in America’s War for Independence. His father served as a volunteer under Andrew Jackson, fighting Creeks and Seminoles and at the Battle of New Orleans, subsisting for weeks on nothing but the meat of his dead horse, a story that greatly impressed Simms as a boy. Aiken’s account of the tragedies that befell Simms himself reminds us that the lives of great writers make good stories: risk taking, success, loss, and suffering. Simms lost his first wife, Anna, to tuberculosis and his second wife, Chevillete, to acute appendicitis. Anna bore him one child; Chevillete, 15; but only six in all lived to maturity.
Where Aiken’s work proves most valuable is in giving us the backstory that Simms’ newspaper account would not have provided. Now we can appreciate the gravity of Sherman’s war crimes—and lay to rest any doubt about his culpability. By describing the beauty and culture that thrived in Columbia before Union troops burned it to the ground, Aiken clarifies our understanding of the loss. A city of only 8,000, Columbia boasted magnificent public and private libraries, art collections featuring the work of European masters, an architectural heritage that included the work of James Hoban and Robert Mills, extensive ornamental gardens, and wide boulevards lined with magnolias, oaks, and chinaberries.
And Columbia was a center of learning. Two military academies trained young men. The South Carolina Female Collegiate Institute and the Columbia Female Academy educated young ladies. South Carolina College was among the best institutions of higher learning in the republic and a leading center of scientific research as well.
In contrast to the Puritan North, Columbia was, as Aiken points out, a center of religious freedom. Believers from five Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics built churches in Columbia. There was a Hebrew Benevolent Society. The Catholic Church also built the Ursuline Convent and girls’ academy that housed and taught 200 young women and boasted 17 pianos. The mother superior of the convent was the sister of one of the Catholic Church’s strongest defenders of the Confederacy, Bishop Patrick J. Lynch.
For no other reason, perhaps, than their having seen Gone With the Wind, many Americans know of the burning of Atlanta. Far fewer know of Columbia’s fate. If I could have asked for something more from Aiken’s Introduction, it would have been a comparison of the two events. Atlanta was an industrial and railway center, besieged, ordered evacuated, and then burned. Columbia, as Aiken explains, was a cultural jewel. The city was surrendered on terms. If there was any military justification for the torching of Atlanta (and I am not saying that there was), such did not exist in the case of Columbia, making the destruction of that city an even greater moral offense.
Aiken begins his acknowledgments by comparing his research of more than a decade on Simms with the planting of mint. It began innocently enough, but he was soon overtaken by it. Would that word of this volume spread with the same vigor. One obvious good effect would be some much-needed correction of the record on the War Between the States. It might also help inspire a reluctance to send our armies forth in the service of global democracy to wreak equivalent destruction on foreign cities and peoples.
[A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of the City of Columbia, by William Gilmore Simms (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press) 133 pp., $24.95]