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Who burnt Columbia?
testimony of a Confederate cavalryman.

By B. L. Welles, of Charleston, S. C.
[We have already published conclusive testimony, fixing the responsibility of this outrage on the laws of civilized warfare; but we propose to add to it from time to time and to hand down the perpetrators of the deed to deserved infamy.

The following interesting reminiscence of an eye witness is a strong incidental proof that Sherman's troops and Sherman himself were the responsible parties.]

Columbia, S. C., was burnt on the night of February 17th, 1865, during the occupation by Sherman's army, and while that General was in the town. I do not suppose any candid mind informed of the evidence, circumstantial and direct, oral and documentary, doubts where the responsibility for the crime lies. Still it does no harm to have cumulative evidence on so interesting a subject. What I have to relate proves, I think, that General Sherman found no fire in the city, when his troops entered, and that he was in entire and undisputed possession for hours before the conflagration. From this it follows that the burning could have been done by no one else, and therefore must have been done by him. It would be agreeable to find some other solution, for, as General Sherman now holds an official position, he is, according to the principle of representative government, our servant, and one, therefore, naturally is very loth to believe against him even the testimony of one's own eyes. A few months since I noticed a most remarkable plea in his favor advanced by “The Nation,” a respectable and ably conducted newspaper published in New York. The editor generally strives to bear himself fairly towards his opponents in argument, though not always in a style entirely free from flippancy or self-righteousness. The idea expressed was, in substance, that because General Sherman holds a high rank in official circles, therefore any statements made by him about matters concerning himself [110] and others were to be accepted as conclusive, and that it was “very bad form” to listen to evidence to the contrary from any one, even from one claiming to be suffering under an unjust charge. In other words, the testimony of the prisoner at the bar in his own favor proves incontestably his innocence. Rather than adopt such an absurd view as this, I would prefer to endeavor to become more credulous about the psychological influence of names than Tristram Shandy's father, and then one might believe that General Sherman has been borne down to savagery by the weight of his Indian name, without involving his own moral responsibility. I have ample hereditary cause to know something of the Indian mode of warfare, and had abundant personal opportunities after the retreat from Columbia to study General Sherman's style. I must confess that the family resemblance between the two is startling.

In the latter part of the month of December, 1864, the cavalry division in which I was serving as a private, was in winter quarters near Petersburg, Virginia. The campaign, which was, I believe, the bloodiest of the war, had not been long ended.

Our division, consisting of two brigades, each composed of three regiments, had come to Virginia from the South early in the spring with full ranks and in excellent condition. Now, our numbers did not much exceed those of one ordinary regiment of the maximum numerical strength. Thus had our division been boiled down in the devil's cauldron of war to a very small residuum.

At the time of which I am speaking we were doing picket duty a few miles from camp, and were suffering a good deal from cold, so that we all thought it a great nuisance. We were very much pleased therefore to hear the news that we were under marching orders for Columbia, S. C., then threatened by Sherman. Any change is agreeable to soldiers in winter quarters, whose only variation from the dull monotony of camp life is picketing. Moreover square meals were to us pioneers of the Tanner system, a recollection of the dim, and shadowy past, while we regarded ourselves as being about to go to a land comparatively overflowing with milk and honey. Our joy, however, was not entirely unalloyed by regrets at leaving, for we had great pride in the army of which we were a part, and in the fame of our incomparable chieftain; and the soil itself was endeared to us by kindnesses received from its self-sacrificing people, and by the bones of our many comrades reposing in it.

We soon found ourselves in front of Columbia awaiting the approach of the enemy. General Hampton, who had until then commanded all [111] the cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia, had come to take command of the cavalry rendezvoused at Columbia. He had at about this time been appointed a Lieutenant-General; there were, if I mistake not, but two other Lieutenant-Generals of cavalry in the Confederate service, Generals Forrest and Wheeler. Of all the officers of this grade in the army, my impression is, only two attained the rank who had not received a technical military education, and these were Generals Hampton and Forrest, both of the cavalry. It is needless to attempt a description of the distinguished soldier and statesman Hampton, whose brilliant services in war, and his exalted wisdom in peace, which resulted in the liberation of his State from bondage, have made his name known and honoured by the English-speaking race everywhere.

Besides our division, there was in front of Columbia but a very slender force of cavalry, consisting mainly of fractions of regiments from the West, in a more or less demoralized condition, some of whom proved more of a nuisance to the friends than a terror to their enemies. The consolidation of our command with the garrisons of Charleston, Savannah, and some other places, took place after the retreat from Columbia.

The importance of holding Columbia did not arise from its strategical value, for it possessed very little of this for friend or foe. It was protected by no fortifications, nor was there military stores there of any practical importance. It was for these reasons deemed not impossible that Sherman would not come in force against the place, as no military reasons existed for his doing so, and that if a feeble demonstration were made against it, we might be able to frustrate it.

As the capture of the city was needless strategically, it follows that its subsequent destruction was without a vestige of justification or excuse.

The desire of our commander to keep the town intact from the enemy doubtless did not proceed so much from his instincts as a soldier, as from his feelings as a man. This place had been for several years an asylum of refuge for the homeless, not only from its own State, but also measurably from all parts of the Confederacy. Being far from the coast, and remote from where the tragedy of war had hitherto been enacted, and food being accessible, it was supposed to be a safe retreat for the impoverished, weary wanderers from once happy homes. Thither had fled from the advance of the invader, and too frequently from his torch, enfeebled, gray-haired men, bowed down under the weight of years and misfortunes, tenderly-nurtured women, ill able to withstand the buffets of adversity, gentle maidens in the first bloom of loveliness, and innocent little children, crying aloud to God for bread [112] in the agony of hunger. These poor beings had painfully struggled to this narrow strip of dry land in their deluge of ruin, and now wet, exhausted and shivering, were still bearing themselves with fortitude in their forlorn plight. Hard must have been his heart who could push them back into the cruel waters. I do not envy that man, “despite his titles, power and pelf” who could find it in his nature to withhold from them pity and respect.

These refugees had brought with them whatever trifling remnant of their lost fortunes or mementoes of their loved homes they could manage to save from the wreck — jewelry, silver, pictures, and other heirlooms, silk dresses, valuable shawls and lace; in short, whatever had been saved and could be sold were disposed of to Jews and blockade-runners' agents, and the pittances thus realized sufficed to keep away actual starvation. Every house was packed to overflowing with occupants. To save these poor non-combatants from pillage (for no one, or very few, apprehended the utter destruction which it is since known was then deliberately planned,) it was determined to hold our ground as stoutly as possible against any attack that might be made. We were not kept long waiting, for soon some of the advancing columns of Sherman's army, with the remaining ones in supporting distance, were encountered. I am unable to give an accurate, technical account of the military operations, and therefore shall not make the attempt. I would say, however, that some rather tall fighting, in a smallish sort of way, took place, and that we made it as hot for them as our limited numbers would admit of. When did troops, who had had the proud honor of being a part of the army of Northern Virginia, ever fail to do their duty gaily when the grand thunder of battle pealed? When our beloved Lieutenant-General put himself at our head, his manly form dilated with enthusiasm, and his eyes flashing, and called, “Troops from Virginia, follow me!” I almost believe our horses would have charged riderless, and I know that his cavaliers would then as now, and always, follow him for life or for death. Soon, however, it became apparent that in spite of all efforts we could not for long withstand the overwhelming numbers against us. We checked them for a time, but retreat was unavoidable unless reinforcements could be sent us, which was impracticable. Oh! it was sad and humiliating for strong men to know that they must turn their backs upon the city and leave its helpless population to their fate, though the terrible doom awaiting them was not imagined. Our intrepid leader had blown in vain his last bugle-blast for the sorely needed succorers; he was forced to submit reluctantly to the inevitable. [113]

The retreat from Columbia was decided on, and to our brigade was assigned the position of rear guard. Our gallant, and brilliant divison commander, General Butler, personally superintended our operations, which were necessarily of a delicate nature. The retreat is sometimes termed an evacuation, but I should suppose, incorrectly so, as the place was unfortified, and no troops had been operated from, or quartered in it; they had simply been manoeuvered in its neighborhood, not from it, and had merely passed through its streets in retreating, when it was necessary to do so. Only non combatants had occupied the city. The final withdrawal took place on February 17th, but on the previous day, or during the night all troops had been brought across the river. It was on this day or the previous day, I think, that Sherman shelled this city of women and children without the slightest military or moral justification or excuse, and without the smallest chance, or purpose of injuring any one but non-combatants. I happened to witness the scene, as I had been dispatched through the town with an order. The new State-house, then incomplete, but an imposing structure, was being used as a target apparently, for the shells were striking about that neighborhood to the infinite peril of many whose sex or tender years should have proved a secure aegis from violence.

On the morning of the retreat, our brigade, which, as already mentioned, was the last body of Confederate troops to leave the town, marched out at an early hour. At some distance behind the main body followed a small detachment of ten or twelve men, which halted just outside of the town and took up a position on the crest of a bill beyond the Charlotte depot, over-looking the city. I was one of that detachment. The object of thus posting us, was, I suppose, to observe the enemy and to prevent the rear guard from being surprised. This body was, at the time, covering the retreat of a portion of our wagon-train, and would have been obliged, if necessary, to skirmish for its protection, but this would have occurred at some little distance from the town. From the lower level of the streets our appearance must have been that of the front of a column of some size, and not merely a handful of men which would discourage small detachments from ascending the hill to molest us, and was, no doubt, so intended. We had been strictly ordered to fire no shots under any circumstances, relying upon our sabres alone, as no excuse was to be given to the enemy for inaugurating violence in the streets. Below this little eminence stretched out the city, plainly to be seen from where we were. The road which we occupied ran at right angles to the street down which Sherman's column entered, and, before long, we saw the line of blue pouring steadily like a river [114] towards the other end of the town. It was a very impressive spectacle, and I am not likely to forget it, while I live. For the information of my many worthy friends in the militia, I would say, that their sweetly-pretty parades do not at all remind me of the scene then before me. Up to this time there had been no fires in the town except an accidental one in some military stores kept at a railroad depot, which did no damage elsewhere, and which is admitted to have had no connection whatever with the subsequent conflagration at night. On this hill I remained for several hours, and in the meantime the city had been completely and peacefully occupied by Sherman's forces. At one time a few infantry skirmishers had been thrown out towards us, and some harmless bullets from long range had whirred over our heads, but we did not return the fire, which soon ceased and was not renewed. It will be understood that being then a private, I have no memoranda written at the time, and that I would not usually take any special note of hours of the day, or even of dates. I am unable, therefore, to state the hour at which Sherman's entry began, or the number of hours during which our occupancy of the hill lasted. The facts which I relate, however, prove, it seems to me, the entire and undisputed occupation of the city by Sherman before any fires were visible. That is the vital point which, once admitted, makes it undeniable that the place was burnt with his responsibility. Undisturbed on an elevation, and watching with a keen and intense interest, which has photographed the scene forever in my memory, how could I have failed to notice the very thing that would have soonest challenged eager attention, a fire? General Sherman unconsciously corroborates the fact of our being on the hill referred to, and, I think, states the hour at which he saw us, either in his “Book,” or in some of his published letters on the subject. He mentions that after the occupation had been some time completed he was riding towards the Charlotte depot, but was advised not to do so by some of his men, as “rebel videttes” were visible on the hill beyond, as he himself saw. Such, unless my memory deceives me, is the substance of his statement.

I am able to remember at what stage of the retreat General Hampton left the city, by the following incident. Shortly before we had taken up our position on the little hill, which I have been alluding to, and when we were quite near it, I had obtained permission from my commanding officer to return to the town for a few minutes, and had dashed back accordingly, as fast as spurs liberally applied could take me. As I turned a corner with furious speed I suddenly found myself confronted by a small column of horsemen, coming on a walk from an [115] opposite direction, into which I was madly charging. I made a strenous effort to check my mare, but she was a hard-mouthed brute, the villainous curbchain snapped, and a very serious collision was only prevented by the dexterity of the leader of the band. You may faintly imagine my amazement and discomfiture, when that leader proved to be General Hampton, followed by his staff and couriers. Thus was I very near performing a feat never yet achieved by mortal man, single-handed, unhorsing that peerless knight. I explained my strange proceeding, feeling very foolish about it, but was dismissed on my errand with a kindly smile, and a wave of the hand, as the General rode out of the town.

It will be necessary for me to explain why I had returned to the city where there were no Confederate troops to whom I could have been sent to carry dispatches from my officers. I must confess that the cause was no more and no less than the recollection of the whereabouts of a few dozen of Madeira. It is a refining wine, one inspiring noble impulses, and therefore no true cavalier would hesitate to run the risk of a few vulgar bullets for the sake of its delicious perfume. It is altogether different from whiskey, which, it is said, will make a man steal. Apropos of that, Sherman's regiments were chiefly recruited where whiskey is the vin du pays. My earnestness in my mission will, at all events, not be doubted when it is remembered that Confederate cavalry-men furnished their own mounts, and when I mention, that I bestrode a war-horse worth $3,000, whose valuable life I was thus risking. This sounds well, suggestive of the resplendent days of chivalry, but lest it should be thought that my prowess in drawing the long bow is greater than my skill with other weapons, I will be obliged to say, that the said $3,000 thus invested were the proceeds of only twenty pounds sterling (about the equivalent of $100 gold), part of a remittance which I found awaiting me on my arrival at Columbia. This amount was exchanged for me into Confederate money by a benevolent trader, with a generosity worthy of a descendant of some of the stowaways by the “Mayflower,” as I afterwards discovered that he had not “shaved” me to a much greater extent than twenty-five per cent.

Besides the quest for wine I had another, and perhaps a better, reason for my private raid. A lady of my acquaintance in the city, a refugee, had a small store of rare wine, which had been saved in some way from the general wreck of her home, and it was almost the only article of value saved. It was possible by selling some of this from time to time (blockade-runners' agents the purchasers) to procure necessary food. This was not the only use made of the slender supply however, as many a sorely wounded soldier could with gratitude attest. [116]

This kind lady was so unduly complimentary as to suppose that I would know beforehand if a retreat was decided on, and could therefore furnish her timely warning. Of course this was a mistake, as I was only a private, but still I had been asked to bring her the desired information, and had promised to do my best. The precious wine would have to be destroyed when it became certain we were to leave the city behind us, for then the wary traders would no longer purchase it, and if seized by the enemy on his entry it might contribute to produce drunken excesses. I had not known absolutely that we were to retreat until the night before — up to that time still hoping that reinforcements would render this unnecessary, and since that time it had been absolutely impossible for me to leave ranks. This, therefore, had had been the first opportunity for fulfilling my promise.

Pouring the fragrant contents of the bottles on the ungrateful ground was a very disagreeable libation to witness, so I lessened it as much as possible by putting as many as I could manage in my overcoat pockets and saddle holsters, and fastening others to my saddle-tree by straps. I do not suppose one horse and man every carried so many bottles before. Meanwhile time was flying, and so must I be, unless desirous of testing the penetration of the enemy's rifles, or the cheer that he furnished to his uninvited guests. So I had to mount in hot haste and away in my loaded down condition, not cutting as graceful a figure I fear as romantic young Lochinvar, judging from the difficultly suppressed mirth of the ladies, but more resembling doubtless the worthy Gilpin, though more fortunate than he. I got my bottles through unbroken. Not that it was any laughing matter for the poor ladies, for they were losing almost their last resource, but “'tis better to laugh than to cry” says the proverb, and it is certainly more becoming to the sex, even charming in spite of being blockaded from the fashions and fabrics of Werth. Not knowing how soon I might make the sociable acquaintance of some of Sherman's men, I made all possible speed in returning to my command, keeping a sharp lookout at every street I crossed, expecting momentarily to hear “the still small voice” not of conscience, but a minnie bullet.

When I reached the hill, where my detachment was posted, the advance guard of the enemy was already in the town. In passing through the streets I had seen no one except an anxious female face at an upper window occasionally, and a few drunken negroes where the commissary stores had been. I saw no Confederate cavalrymen or stragglers, and no fires, and cannot believe that I could have failed to see them, if they had existed, for one's eyesight becomes almost preternaturally sharpened under such circumstances. [117]

At a late hour in the day our little detachment was withdrawn from the hill; we halted that night seven or eight miles from the town. As three of the regiments in our division had been raised in South Carolina, of course very many of the officers and men were leaving behind them in Columbia, near and dear relatives of the tender sex. As we retreated through the streets that morning we had encountered from many a window sad pleading looks and tearful eyes. For any one with a spark of manhood in his composition to leave under such circumstances was a hard trial, but to those thus compulsorily deserting their families it was painful in the extreme. At first the greatest anxiety was felt as to how the entering army would behave, but after we had seen it for several hours in peaceful possession, the worst danger was supposed to be over, and the poor dejected fellows cheered up a little. By night, from a reaction of feeling, the men were quite bright and jolly. Chatting and smoking over the camp fires we all came to the conclusion that the devil was not so black as he was painted after all. My mess discussed the Madeira which I had brought with great satisfaction, the wine shaken into such a muddy condition, as to be unrecognizable, and drunk from tin cups. Oh! outraged Bacchus! Soon the men were all peacefully sleeping on that soil for whose freedom they were struggling, all dangers and anxieties for the time forgotten, but they were booted and dressed ready to mount at a moment's notice. A chilly wintry night was succeeded by a gloomy leaden gray dawn. As the cavalrymen aroused themselves a strange sight met their half-blinded eyes. Great clouds of heavy black smoke were drifting through the camp, and their horses in alarm were straining uneasily at their halters. At first it was supposed, that the woods in the neighborhood were on fire, but investigation soon proved that this was not the cause. Then the solution of the phenomenon broke upon the men in a horrible revelation; it was the smoke from burnt Columbia. Heart-rending and baffling description was the scene then witnessed. The poor fellows realized that thousands of women and children, among them their nearest and dearest, were crouching, roofless and foodless, in the pitiless winter air, or had met a worse fate. Groans were extorted from strong men, and tears wet the cheeks of grim veterans. The scene is too painful to recall and the theme too sickening to pursue further.

Such had been the fate of Columbia. A deed had been consumated shocking to the public conscience of christendom, unparrelleled since the savage red man had raged in unchecked violence through our primeval forests. [118]

Some months afterwards I was on my way to the Trans-Mississippi department, the Army of Northern Virginia, hitherto the invincible guardian of liberty, had fallen, the lion's heart at length pierced by the brute force of overwhelming numbers, those rifles were silent whose glorious echos will forever live to awaken a response in the breasts of brave men. Organized resistance everywhere in the East was known to have ceased, but it was rumored that the debris of our armies would still rally round the Southern Cross beyond the “Father of Waters.” This proved to be incorrect, but at that time I had no means of being better informed, as the usual modes by which news is circulated, the mails and the telegraph, had been for a long time suspended. I was unparoled, still having the right to bear my humble but undisgraced weapons — a wanderer, but not a fugitive from our scattered armies. It was necessary for me to pass through Columbia, in order to continue my journey, and I supposed it would be impracticable to do so, except secretly by night. It was midnight, my poor jaded beast and I, both equally fatigued, hungry and forlorn, plodded on our lonely way through the deserted streets of once beautiful Columbia. There was no light, except that of the moon shining dimly overhead, which served to reveal by its cold, sombre rays the sepulchral scene. Not a sound but the solemn echoes of my horse's hoofs broke the profound silence. Around me was a city of the dead, a sea of ashes, out of which loomed up from ghostly ruins hundreds of blackened chimneys. Never until then did I fully realize the extent and thoroughness of the destruction and the boundless misery which must have been the result. God forbid that the skeleton in the national closet should be needlessly dragged to light, but, remember, the burning of Columbia has been charged upon Hampton's cavalry by General Sherman.

Surely it is permissible for one to deny the commission of the crime who, though himself but an insignificant drop in the ocean of war, still takes a soldier's pride in the fair fame of his old command, whose honor he holds as sacred as his own. As justly might the right of denial be withheld from Mr. Conkling if charged with Mr. Garfield's foul murder. History will be written, and the muse must not hold a lying pen. It should be written in the spirit of liberality and charity learned from the divine sermon once delivered from Judea's mountain height, but it should also be written with due regard to Jehovah's injunction, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

Not to the privates or subaltern officers of the corps which burnt Columbia attaches the moral responsibility. A soldier is but a machine which is set in motion or stopped at the will of his superiors. [119]

Sherman's is the guilt, and as far as he may be forgiven by his victims — the venerable men, innocent women and helpless babes whom he devoted to destruction--to that extent may he find pardon when God's bugle sounds the reveille for the judgment day.

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