Diary of Orrin Brown—Feb 17, 1865

The burning of Columbia, South Carolina, February 17, 1865Diary of Orrin Brown, at Freshly Mill, near Thompson, South Carolina

Friday–Feb. 17th

We were on the road at 6 AM crossed the river and haulted about an hour for the 3rd Div. to pass. We passed through a very rich country today and our forces destroyed an immence amount of property in the line of Cotton, Corn, Buildings, Mills, etc. and we got any amount of forage such as Poark, Flour and Meal, etc. We marched 15 miles and went into camp about 1/2 mile from Broad river at about 4 PM. We are now in a very rough country the hills are timbered with Pine and Ceader and I saw some White Ash and White Oak timber today the first that I have seen since I have been in Dixie. The weather has been pretty warm today with a very high west wind which made the rebs houses and other property burn very well. I read 2 chapt. in the Testament today.

On 17 February 1865, Union troops captured Columbia, the South Carolina capital.  Much as the scenario played out in Atlanta, earlier and over a much, much longer siege, Southerners blamed the Yankees for wanton waste of private property as the city burned, while the Federals blamed fleeing Confederates with recklessly setting fire to supplies (in particular cotton bales resulting in high-flying burning ash) as they abandoned the town.  As well, there were prisoners of war with new found freedom roaming the streets, who were likely to harbor grudges as personal as patriotic.  However the blame is allocated—there seems plenty to go around—the effect was that much of the city went up in flames.

Howard’s Right Wing of Sherman’s Army were given the honor of reminding South Carolina of the price for being first in Rebellion.  As Civil War Daily Gazette reminds us, Sherman’s story was that Columbia was not “an important conquest”, but “simply one point on our general route of march.”  Yeah, right.  The troops of the XIV Corps and the XVII Corps knew the price to be extracted.

The more practical concern was how Sherman was going to get both columns across the Congaree River.  This is why Pvt. Brown and his Left Wing had diverted upstream, to pontoon the Saluda today, and prepare to pontoon the Broad River, above their convergence starting the Congaree.  The Right Wing had hoped to move in quickly enough to capture the bridges at Columbia, but the luck was with Wade Hampton‘s Confederate cavalry who succeeded in burning their bridges in retreat.



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