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[156]

Letter from General Hampton on the burning of Columbia.

We propose at some future day to publish in full the facts concerning the burning of Columbia, and to fix beyond all controversy the responsibility for that outrage upon the laws of civilized warfare. But in the meantime we put on record the following letter which General Wade Hampton addressed to Senator Reverdy, Johnson and which he read in the United States Senate at the time:

Wold woods, Mississippi, April 21, 1866.
To Hon. Reverdy Johnson, United States Senate:
Sir — A few days ago I saw in the published proceedings of Congress that a petition from Benjamin Kawles, of Columbia, South Carolina, asking compensation for the destruction of his house by the Federal army in February, 1865, had been presented to the Senate, accompanied by a letter from Major-General Sherman.

In this letter General Sherman uses the following language:

The citizens of Columbia set fire to thousands of bales of cotton rolled out into the streets, and which were burning before we entered Columbia. I, myself, was in the city as. early as 9 o'clock, and I saw these fires, and knew that efforts were made to extinguish them, but a high and strong wind kept them alive.

I gave no orders for the burning of your city, but, on the contrary, the conflagration resulted from the great imprudence of cutting the cotton bales, whereby the contents were spread to the wind, so that it became an impossibility to arrest the fire.

I saw in your Columbia newspaper the printed order of General Wade Hampton, that on the approach of the Yankee army all the cotton should thus be burned, and from what I saw myself I have no hesitation in saying that he was the cause of the destruction of your city.

This same charge, made against me by General Sherman, having been brought before the Senate of the United States, I am naturally most solicitous to vindicate myself before the same tribunal. But my State has no representative in that body. Those who should be her constitutional representatives and exponents there are debarred the right of entrance into those halls. There are none who have the right to speak for the South; none to participate in the legislation which governs her; none to impose the taxes she is called upon to pay, and none to vindicate her sons from misrepresentation, injustice or slander.

Under these circumstances I appeal to you, in the confident hope you will use every effort to see that justice is done in this matter.

I deny, emphatically, that any cotton was fired in Columbia by any order. [157]

I deny that the citizens “set fire to thousands of bales rolled out into the streets.”

I deny that any cotton was on fire when the Federal troops entered the city.

I most respectfully ask of Congress to appoint a committee, charged with the duty of ascertaining and reporting all the facts connected with the destruction of Columbia, and thus fixing upon the proper author of that enormous crime the infamy he richly deserves.

I am willing to submit the case to any honest tribunal. Before any such I pledge myself to prove that I gave a positive order, by direction of General Beauregard, that no cotton should be fired; that not one bale was on fire when General Sherman's troops took possession of the city; that he promised protection to the city, and that, in spite of his solemn promise, he burned the city to the ground, deliberately, systematically and atrociously.

I, therefore, most earnestly request that Congress may take prompt and efficient measures to investigate this matter fully. Not only is this due to themselves and to the reputation of the United States army, but also to justice and to truth.

Trusting that you will pardon me for troubling you,

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


We add the following brief report of the proceedings of the Senate on the presentation of the letter of General Hampton, as showing the spirit of the times:

Mr. Sherman said he could not allow this charge of this most impudent Rebel against the whole army to be entered upon the records without some answer. The charge of General Sherman in relation to the burning of Columbia was in an official report, and was fully sustained by reports of other officers. General Sherman did not charge that Wade Hampton gave an explicit order on the subject, but simply that his previous order in relation to the burning of cotton, &c., led to that result. Mr. Sherman read from various official reports to confirm the charge against General Hampton.

Mr. Fessenden objected to the practice of taking up the time of the Senate in reading letters addressed not to the Senate but to individual Senators, and especially on matters pertaining to private controversies between persons not members of the Senate.

Mr. Johnson moved the reference of General.Hampton's letter to the Committee on Military Affairs, or he was willing to have it lie on the table.

Mr. Fessenden hoped it would not be referred or ordered to lie on the table, but that the Senate would refuse to receive it.

Mr. Conness said that a man who would attempt to destroy the Government of the United States would certainly not hesitate to [158] burn a city. He hoped the letter of Wade Hampton would not be received or considered at all by the Senate.

Mr. Johnson then withdrew the letter of General Hampton.

Times have changed since 1866. General Sherman, in his Memoirs published in 1875, maintains that Columbia was burned by accident and not by design, and makes this most remarkable admission [Memoirs, volume II, page 287]: “In my official report of this conflagration I distinctly charged it to General Wade Hampton, and confess I did so pointedly to shake the faith of his people in him, for he was in my opinion a braggart, and professed to be the special champion of South Carolina.”

In other words General Sherman coolly admits that he deliberately made in his official report a false charge against a soldier opposed to him in order to injure him with his own people. We expect at the proper time to show that this admission is fatal to some other statements made by “the General of the Army.”

But, fortunately, the character of Wade Hampton was always above reproach, and now, after a career which has made him the idol of his people and the admiration of the world, he goes to take his seat on the floor of that Senate which in ‘66 denied him the simplest justice.

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