February 17, 1865: Columbia falls to Sherman

Burning of Columbia

The 13th Amendment

New York Times:

The Legislature of Louisiana has ratified the Constitutional Amendment for the Abolition of Slavery. On the 13th Gov. HAHN sent to the House an official copy of the Act of Congress; the House adopted a ratifying joint resolution at once, by a unanimous vote; the Senate voted on the 17th, the same way, with but one dissenting voice, and the Governor immediately approved the act and caused it to be officially promulgated.

Sherman’s troops take Columbia, as evidenced by a dispatch from Gen. Howard from the city. Many parts of the city were burned, and there is controversy over the source of the fire. Sherman blamed fleeing rebels for setting cotton bales afire, and the wind for spreading it; other accounts cite drunken Union soldiers as having set fires intentionally. As we see from General Woods’ dispatch below, the latter were at least partly responsible.

Charleston, blockaded from the sea and now cut off by rail from the interior, was doomed by the fall of Columbia.




Columbia, S. C., February 17, 1865.

The following operations of this command will take place to-morrow: The Fifth Army Corps, Major General John A. Logan commanding, commencing at 7 a.m., will complete the destruction of the Southern Branch of the South Carolina Railroad as far south as possible, detailing for that purpose two divisions of his corps. The Seventeenth Corps, Major-General Blair commanding, will commence at 7 a.m. the destruction of the South Carolina Railroad northward toward Winnsborough, using as far as practicable the entire strength of his corps. The track and ties will be torn up and fired, and the First Regiment Engineers Michigan Volunteers, following, will twist the rails. All trains of the army will close up with their respective corps, and as soon as everything is across Broad River the pontoon bridge will be taken up. That part of it belonging to the Left Wing will return, passing up the west bank of the Broad River. The department cattle herd will cross Broad River to-night. Lieutenant Colonel William E. Strong, chief of staff, will superintend the destruction of the public buildings, cotton, railroad depots, machine-shops, and manufacturing establishments.

By order of Major General O. O. Howard:


Assistant Adjutant-General.


Columbia, S. C., February 17, 1865.


Assistant Adjtuant-General, Fifteenth Army Corps:

MAJOR: The troops first entering Columbia were met on the roadside by citizens of every grade, who most unwisely furnished them with great quantities of intoxicating liquors, bringing it out in buckets, cups, and vessels of every description. As a result the confusion prevailing throughout the town was increased tenfold, and at night, in obedience to the direction of the corps commander, the brigade on duty as guards in the town was relieved by the First Brigade, commanded by Brevet Brigadier-General Woods, and every practicable measure was promptly adopted to prevent the spreading of the conflagration that was rapidly spreading over the entire town, and to arrest the countless villains of every command that were roaming over the streets. As strong patrols as could be furnished by the brigade were distributed throughout the town.

I am, major, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Brevet Major-General.

New York Times:

Major-Gen. Dix:
The announcement of the occupation of Columbia, S.C., by Gen. SHERMAN, and the probable evacuation of Charleston, has been communicated to the department in the following telegram just received from Lieut-Gen. GRANT.

EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.

CITY POINT, 4:45 P.M., Feb. 18, 1865.
Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, War Department:
The Richmond Dispatch of this morning says:

SHERMAN entered Columbia yesterday morning and its fall necessitates, it presumes, the fall of Charleston, which it thinks has already been evacuated.

U.S. GRANT, Lieut-General.

From the Richmond Whig, Feb. 18.

The Charleston Mercury, of Saturday, announces a brief suspension of that paper, with a view to its temporary removal to another point. This is rendered necessary by the progress of military events, cutting it off from the mail facilities for distributing its paper to a large portion of its subscribers, while the lack of transportation renders its supply of paper precarious.

SEMMES has been made a Rear-Admiral, and will take command of the James River Squadron.
(Signed) U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

Richmond Daily Dispatch:

The fall of Columbia.

Columbia has fallen. Sherman marched into and took possession of the city yesterday morning. This intelligence was communicated yesterday by General Beauregard in an official dispatch.

Columbia is situated on the north bank of the Congress river, just below the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers. From General Beauregard’s dispatch it appears that on Thursday evening the enemy approached the south bank of the Congress and threw a number of shells into the city. During the night they moved up the river, and yesterday morning forded the Saluda and Broad. Whilst they were crossing these rivers, our troops, under General Beauregard, evacuated Columbia. The enemy soon after took possession.

Through private sources we learn that two days ago, when it was decided not to attempt the defence of Columbia, a large quantity of medical stores, which it was thought impossible to remove, were destroyed. The female employees of the Treasury Department had been previously sent off to Charlotte, North Carolina, a hundred miles north of Columbia. We presume the Treasury lithographic establishment was also removed, though, as to this, we have no positive information.

The fall of Columbia necessitates, we presume, the evacuation of Charleston, which, we think likely, is already in process of execution. It is impossible to say whither Sherman will next direct his columns. The general opinion is, that he will go to Charleston and establish a base; but we confess we do not see what need he has of a base. It is to be presumed he is subsisting on the country, and he has had no battle to exhaust his ammunition. Before leaving Savannah, he declared his intention to march to Columbia, thence to Augusta, and thence to Charleston. This was uttered as a boast, and to hide his designs. We are disposed to believe that he will next strike at Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a hundred miles north of Columbia, on the Charlotte and Columbia railroad; or at Florence, South Carolina, the junction of the Columbia and Wilmington and the Charleston and Wilmington railroads, some ninety miles east of Columbia.

There was a report yesterday that Augusta had also been taken by the enemy. This we do not believe. We have reason to feel assured that nearly the whole of Sherman’s army is together at Columbia, and that the report that Schofield was advancing on Augusta was untrue.

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2 Responses to February 17, 1865: Columbia falls to Sherman

  1. From “Love & Valor – Intimate Civil War Letters Between Captain Jacob and Emeline Ritner.” Captain Jacob Ritner, from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, was in the 25th Iowa Infantry, which was in the first brigade of Union soldiers to enter Columbia.

    [Fragment of Jacob’s Letter—Evidently soon after the capture and burning of Columbia, South Carolina, on February 17, 1865]

    I have no sympathy for rebels any place, especially in South Carolina. But no man, even if he had a heart of stone, could stand by and see women and children in such distress and not help them. I thought what if you and our children were in such a situation, how thankful I should be to anyone who would help you. It is supposed that the city was fired by escaped prisoners, as they were heard to threaten all sorts of vengeance against the city. I hope that whoever did it will be arrested and hung.

    One of the beauties of the “peculiar institution” was brought prominently to my notice that night, and that was that the white folks were more afraid of their own Negroes than they were of our soldiers. They did not dare to go into the street without a guard. “Why” they said, “the niggers will kill us” and were dreading what the Negroes would do after we left. But there are a thousand things I will have to tell you about when I get home—it would take too long to write them. A great many citizens and Negroes, men, women, and children, are trying to follow us through, and are having a miserable time in the mud and rain. General Woods had our train searched today and found over 3,000 lbs. of tobacco and other kinds of plunder brought from Columbia.

  2. Report from Colonel George Stone, 25th Iowa Infantry, who was commanding the first brigade of Union solders that went into Columbia, SC.

    My next engagement with the enemy was at the city of Columbia, captured by my command on the 17th day of February, [1865] an official account of which, with the casualties, and the number of prisoners, was made to you, under date of the 19th of February . . .

    Everything being now in readiness, the signal was given, and the assault made by all the regiments at the same time. The result proved no mistake either in planning or the execution. Before the enemy was hardly aware of it, we were right into the skirmish pits and scattering them in every direction. The Thirtieth Iowa here captured 23 prisoners. I accompanied this regiment in the charge, and can by personal observation testify to the gallant manner in which they made it. In front of the Island are a number of small bayous running parallel to the river about 20 feet wide and waist deep; few stopped to find logs on which to cross, but plunged in, holding guns and cartridge boxes above the water. The enemy seeing his skirmish line destroyed, and the eagerness with which our success was being followed up, became confused and soon broke, leaving our way open to the city . . .

    When within a mile of the city, a carriage was discovered approaching, flying a flag of truce. It proved to contain Mr. Goodwyn, Mayor of Columbia, and the city aldermen, who came to offer terms of capitulation. I refused anything but an unconditional surrender. After some words had passed, they unconditionally surrendered to me the city of Columbia . . . When near the suburbs of the city I noticed some of the advanced skirmishers, say fifteen in number, being driven back by apparently a battalion of rebel cavalry. I at once called a corporal and three men, who happened to be near me, and put the mayor and aldermen in the corporal’s charge, and with Major Anderson took about forty of my flankers and advanced on the cavalry. The corporal was instructed that in case one man was killed or wounded he should at once shoot the mayor and his party. Joining the retreating skirmishers with the forty flankers we speedily dispersed the rebel cavalry, having no more trouble in gaining the city.

    Proceeding to the State House with Captain Pratt, I planted the first United States flag on that building. To Iowa alone is credit to be given for capturing the capital of the State that has been disloyal since the days of John C. Calhoun, and the contemplated Capital of the Confederacy, as none but Iowa troops were engaged.

    I was absent from the brigade about an hour in placing the flag on the state-house, and when I rejoined my command found a great number of the men drunk1. It was discovered that this was caused by hundreds of Negroes who swarmed the streets on the approach of the troops and gave them all kinds of liquors from buckets, bottles, demijohns, &c. The men had slept none the night before, and but little the night before that, and many of them had no supper the night before, and none of them breakfast that morning, hence the speedy effect of the liquor. I forthwith ordered all the liquor destroyed, and saw fifteen barrels destroyed within five minutes after that order had been given . . . (Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of the Rebellion; Published under the authority of the Iowa General Assembly)

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