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Chapter 43: march through the Carolinas; the taking of Columbia

Most of the swamp and the Congaree Creek were lying perpendicular to our pathway. The swamp for the most part had been cleared, drained, and placed under cultivation, but the rain had softened the surface so that on all our new roads our men sank into the mud at every step. It was worse for the horses than for the men, so that our cavalry was soon stalled. There was much of the swamp growth of small trees. The old existing roadway was a causeway 10 or 12 feet above the bottom land, having deep ditches on each side. An unaccountable accident must have overtaken some quartermaster of ours, for a long stretch of the side ditching was filled with overturned vehicles, such as army wagons and ambulances.

This overturning unfortunately occurred within direct range of the enemy's musketry fire. The fog at the time was so thick that it was difficult to get the teams involved out of the predicament. Fortunately for us, probably on account of the fog, as soon as we deployed our lines on both sides of the road and commenced firing, the enemy replied to us, without being particular as to direction. Owing to this bad aiming, coupled with the fog, we managed to save our trains.

Our men in their strong skirmish line became enthusiastic. They pressed the Confederates back, [118] mostly cavalry and artillery, from point to point, and worked away till they found their left flank. Just before that point the old game was repeated. A company of skirmishers 50 or 60 strong waded the approaches and the creek, the water being up to their waists. They gained sure footing on the other bank before the enemy discovered them, and fired a volley into the flank and rear of the Confederate line. This move created a panic there and a stampede. We succeeded beyond our expectations. The men, pressing down the causeway, quickly drove away the Confederate defenders who lingered after the departure of their comrades, and so we saved the bridge entire. At least two of our divisions hurried over and marched rapidly a mile and a half when they came upon another intrenched, well-defended line of battle. We had seen but little infantry during this rapid advance, but there was a fine display in one open space of Hampton's cavalry.

This cavalry made one desperate charge against our infantry line, but was quickly repulsed. It is said that for his handsome and persistent charge Wade Hampton was immediately made lieutenant general. Such was the story of a telegraph operator whom we met.

It was really time to encamp, for one of our brigades, which was already squarely up with the fighting troops, had marched 27 miles that day, the 15th of February. That night I encamped opposite Columbia; before retiring I issued orders that we continue the same onward movement the next day.

We had an uncomfortable night, for the Confederates fired into our camp from the other side of the Great Congaree. They succeeded in killing one officer [119] and several men, and wounded many more. It was our camp fires which exposed us. It was not long, however, before our energetic workers covered our exposed bivouac with traverses, i. e., high banks of earth well located. In the night the Confederate intrenched line straight before us was abandoned.

We were not long in crossing the open space between us and the Congaree Bridge for the Confederate batteries and sharpshooters on the Columbia side made it pretty hot for more than a mile of exposure along our bank of the river.

DeGress's battery was brought into position near the burning bridge and soon cleared the streets of Columbia, opposite from the enemy's cavalry. But as their sharpshooters continued their annoying business, Logan caused further shelling of that part of the city which was immediately exposed to his batteries' fire.

Just above Columbia there are two rivers, the Saluda and the Broad, which conjoin to form the Congaree. I proceeded at once to what was called the Saluda factory. Of course, the fine bridge there, having been previously covered with kindling and pitch wood, was quickly consumed. It did not take long for us to lay a new bridge. A cavalry regiment led the crossing, and our infantry was soon in place between the two rivers. We made a run for the next bridge over the Broad, following the Confederates in their rapid retreat; but we could not save the structure, for barrels of resin and turpentine had been emptied upon it, and the enemy's artillery from the other bank checked our advance. It did not take over half an hour for their furious flames to consume it.

We now had Slocum near by. I exchanged greetings with him through a staff officer. As a matter of [120] fact, Slocum had not been far back from Columbia for three or four days, and had delayed his approach for our coming. Of course, the next thing we did was to work across the Broad. We sent over one brigade-Colonel Stone's — in boats during the night, drove away the Confederate defenders from the other bank, made a good bridgehead, and commenced laying the bridge itself very early in the morning of February 17, 1865. We appeared to have infantry against us, said to be S. D. Lee's corps and Hampton's legion.

As soon as all the enemies in the usual way had been rooted out, captured or driven back, Stone's brigade began to march southward toward Columbia. The mayor of the city came out with several attendants to meet Stone, and he, at least nominally, turned over the keys of Columbia to him. At about eleven o'clock in the morning, Sherman and I, with our respective staff officers and a small escort, succeeded in crossing the new bridge over the Broad and proceeded to the capital of South Carolina.

Side by side Sherman and I entered the city and traversed the main streets. There was not much demonstration from the white people, but the negroes gave their usual exhibitions of delight, sometimes dancing upon the sidewalks, sometimes shouting and singing. I noticed that our own troops were unusually demonstrative in cheering for Sherman, and learned that traders and negroes had carried out buckets of whisky to them wishing to please and pacify the men. The soldiers had worked all night and marched to Columbia without a breakfast. Numbers of Stone's brigade were thus excited and soon intoxicated.

Somebody had caused to be taken nearly all the [121] cotton which was stored in the city and arranged it in long rows in the main streets, and then set it on fire. Certainly this was done before any of our men reached the city. The Confederate officers were themselves under orders to destroy the cotton to keep it from falling into our hands. They destroyed also provisions and other supplies, and it is undoubtedly the case that the Confederates set fire to the cotton and a few of the buildings, one of which was a railway depot. The wind was blowing a hurricane all the morning so that the fire quickly spread; as soon as one or two houses had caught and began to burn, the flames extended to the others.

I had gone on through the city and taken up my quarters at the College; but, noticing the extraordinary conduct of Stone's brigade, I quickly sent for another brigade to replace this, and then a little later for another. Finally, I had the whole of one division and a part of another guarding the city, and endeavoring to protect the inhabitants and save all that was possible from the flames. There were many imprisoned people-negroes, Union prisoners of war, and State convicts — who were let loose by our men. There were also criminal classes and drunken soldiers. All these elements, doubtless, were soon engaged in making bad matters worse, against my wishes and the orders of the other commanders. The ensuing great damage was originally owing to the fires set by the Confederate authorities.

I spoke of the depot being consumed. Near that was a magazine. The day before we entered some Confederates were said to be plundering there. They dropped a spark, perhaps from a cigar, where there was some powder upon the floor. The explosion was [122] fearful, and killed outright at least twenty Confederates and many more women and children. This explosion, which was an accident, may have also been the cause of the burning of the railroad station.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the horrors of that long night between the 17th and 18th of February, 1865. Sherman, Logan, and myself, with all the officers under our command, worked faithfully to care for the people who were exposed, and we did save many houses in different parts of the city. The flames would lick up a house seemingly in an instant and shoot from house to house with incredible rapidity.

The very heavens at times appeared on fire. A wide street was no barrier. Clusters of inhabitants would carry out all their valuables and sit upon them, and they were often guarded by faithful men. A large number of our men, who perhaps drank whisky for the first time when it was brought to them that day in buckets, became blindly drunk, and hundreds perished in the flames in spite of all the efforts of their comrades to save them.

It was about three o'clock the morning of the 18th when the wind changed to the opposite quarter, and after that, with little effort, we were able to arrest the progress of the fire, so that more than one third of the beautiful city of Columbia was suffered to remain untouched.

During the night I met Logan and Woods and other general officers, and they were taking every possible measure to stop the fire and prevent disorder. Nevertheless, some escaped prisoners, convicts from the penitentiary just broken open, army followers, and drunken soldiers ran through house after house and were doubtless guilty of all manner of villainies, and [123] it was these men that, I presume, set new fires farther to the windward in the northern part of the city. Old men, women, and children, with everything that they could get out, were huddled together in the streets. At some places we found officers and kind-hearted soldiers protecting families from the insults and roughness of the careless.

One instance in particular which I recall was the protection given to the house and family of the Rev. Dr. A. Toomer Porter, who had been a Confederate chaplain. Lieutenant McQueen, of Captain William Duncan's company, belonging to my escort, remained with this family or near it throughout the conflagration. He had the fires quenched as they came near, or protected wood that was heated against the flames by one contrivance or another. He was so kind and considerate that he won the affection of Dr. Porter and all belonging to his household.

Not long after we left Columbia, Captain Duncan, with his company, was on a scout toward the lower portion of South Carolina. He ran into some troops of Confederate cavalry in the darkness of the night. He fought them bravely and succeeded in saving his command, but left the generous and brave lieutenant so desperately wounded on the field that he could not be removed without endangering his life. He was finally placed in a Carolina household, where he was cared for, but where, owing to the excitement then existing in the country, his life was believed to be in peril. Dr. Porter chanced to hear of the wounded officer, and also of his weak condition and danger. The doctor immediately made his way to the house where he was confined by his wounds, stayed with him, and nursed him until he was able to move. Then he procured [124] as easy a carriage as he could get and brought him through the intervening Confederate and Union lines, a distance of several hundred miles, to me at Raleigh, N. C. This was just about the time of Johnston's surrender, and after we had heard of the surrender of Robert E. Lee's forces in Virginia. This act of Dr. Porter won my heart.

After many years of suffering from his wound and a shortened leg, better medical attendance and extraordinary skill on the part of a surgeon succeeded in restoring McQueen to complete health and robust condition. I have since visited Dr. Porter in Charleston, S. C., and can testify to the noble work of his life in educating young men, especially the sons of those who have been unable otherwise to provide the means for such educational advantages. He has also helped me in many ways in my efforts to extend the influence of educational institutions to all our people.

Just before we left Columbia to resume our onward march, the mayor of the city came to Sherman with much show of distress and asked him what he was to do to feed the large population that had been left homeless and destitute by this great fire. Sherman had a crisp manner at times when matters bothered him. He said to the mayor:

Go to Howard.

And I was told that he also remarked in pleasantry, “Howard runs the religion of this army.” And then he said again: “Go to him; he commands the troops that hold the city. He will treat you better than one of your own generals.”

I did not hear these remarks, but soon after his interview with Sherman the mayor came to me and put before me the same supply problem for solution. I caused a herd of cattle, which my commissary had [125] gathered, to be divided and gave one half of the cattle to the mayor, and also sent half of our rations to the new State House, to be stored there for the use of the impoverished people. The mayor was afraid that there would be no adequate provision for the future after the ration supply had been exhausted. He said again:

What can I do

I told him that if I were he I would organize foraging parties from the inhabitants of the city, and send them out into portions of the country which our foragers had not reached and have them make forced loans. He must give careful certificates, promising their redemption after the advent of peace and prosperity. Years afterwards I met the same gentleman who had been mayor at the time of our visit in 1865. He told me that he had followed the advice which I had given him in detail, and that the plan had worked so well that there was no want.

We actually commenced and completed the evacuation of the city the morning of the 20th.

The destruction of certain Confederate public property — that is, property made use of for furthering the interests of the war — was committed to me in Sherman's specific instructions.

The undertaking was accomplished by my inspector general, Lieutenant Colonel William E. Strong, whose name, a synonym for loyalty and devotion not only to the cause for which we fought, but to his commander, is held in special love and veneration by me. To aid him in his work he had Logan's inspector general, Lieutenant Colonel L. E. Yorke.

The following are the estimates of what were so destroyed: 1,000 bales of cotton, 19 locomotives, 20 [126] box cars; many more had been previously destroyed by the great fire. Also, the buildings belonging to the railroad station-two large freight sheds, including 60 sets of six-mule-team harnesses, 1,000 pounds of trace chains, quantities of nails and spikes; about five tons of railroad machinery, with a large amount of articles of a military character; 650 car wheels; two buildings filled with Confederate stationery; 25 powder mills, the mills being destroyed by being blown up; an armory near the Congaree River, comprising warehouse, machine shops, foundries, and offices; besides the foregoing, an immense amount of ordnance of every description. The smokestacks of six factories were ruined; a shed near the Common, containing ten tons of machinery belonging to the Confederate army, all packed in boxes, was consumed and the machinery broken up.

In addition to the above our Ordnance Department used all small arms and ammunition practicable, but destroyed the remainder-perhaps 10,000 small arms and 43 cannon. Of the 10,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 500,000 rounds for small arms, part was taken and part destroyed; also rendered useless infantry and cavalry equipments beyond estimate. Here at Columbia the magazines were ample and well filled. We undertook to get rid of the ammunition, loaded shells and such like, by throwing the same into the river. During this operation a fearful accident occurred, in which we lost in killed and severely wounded not less than 20 men. The magazines themselves, after being depleted sufficiently for safety, were blown to pieces by igniting the powder that remained. A witness, then in Columbia, says: “The explosions of the magazines this evening caused the [127] ground to tremble.” This trembling was felt in a circuit of several miles.

The very statement of the destruction of property indicates the terrible wastes of war. Both armies were burning the cotton. The Confederates seemed to think that we, being Yankees, wanted it for gain, and we believed that the Confederate government depended upon this staple as the foundation of their revenue, so we burned it. One or the other of the parties was evidently making a mistake.

My last glimpse of Columbia after I had done what I could for the immediate necessities of the destitute inhabitants, and had parted with the mayor of the city, was a sad retrospect to me, for I had never expected to leave such a wild desert as the regions burned over, covered with blackened debris, smoldering embers, and numerous lone chimneys, presented.

My rear guard for February 20, 1865, the day of departure, consisted of two brigades, one from each corps. They were the two that were then guarding the town. Just in advance of these, who had brought out all the stragglers, was a new and remarkable accession to my columns, called a “refugee train.” It consisted of thousands of people who wished to leave Columbia, mostly negroes besides at least 800 whites. The refugees carried their luggage on pack horses, on their backs, or in vehicles of every conceivable description. A variety of reasons caused this extraordinary exodus; for example, escaping prisoners feared reincarceration; those who had betrayed their loyalty to the old flag, hitherto concealed, feared revenges; those who had been especially kind to the Yankees had signs of coming retribution, and many who had lost everything by the fire desired to escape extreme want; [128] besides these, a number of traders, bent upon moneymaking, joined the procession with wagon loads of trunks and boxes. I may say that I was obliged to deal severely with the latter class, at least with the freightage, in order to reduce my refugee train within such limits that it could be protected and brought along without detriment or hindrance to the fighting force of the army.

In a letter written a little later, which I sent down the Cape Fear River for home consumption, I remarked that we brought from Columbia quite a number of men, women, and children who had trudged along in wagons, ambulances, on horses, or on foot. We had two families at our headquarters who had completely mastered all the discomforts of military life and enjoyed the novelty.

A gentleman artist, by the name of Halpin, with his wife and daughter, and a Mr. Soule, a telegraph operator, with his bride, were our guests.

About the time of leaving Columbia many robberies were committed; watches, jewelry, and sometimes sums of money were taken by violence from the inhabitants, after the highwayman's style.

So many instances came to my knowledge that my indignation against the perpetrators became excessive, and my compassion for the sufferers strong. From Rice Creek Springs, February 20th, I wrote a letter to Logan, describing this apparently growing evil:

I am inclined to think that there is a regularly organized banditti, who commit these outrages and share the spoils. I call upon you and all the officers and soldiers under you, who have one spark of honor or respect for the profession which they follow, to [129] help me put down these nefarious proceedings, and to arrest perpetrators.

Please furnish to every inspector, provost marshal, and officer in charge of a foraging party, a copy of this letter, and enjoin them to be on the watch to stop these infamous transactions, and to bring to justice the individuals who commit them.

A physician, Dr. Greene, came to me and said: “General, would you allow your men to take a man's watch?” “No,” I answered, “you know that I would not.” “But,” he replied, “a man took mine.” “Please describe him, doctor,” I said. “Oh, I can't do that, they're all alike,” was the reply. The doctor's daughter, however (a girl of twelve or thirteen), said, “I can, father.” She then described the man and I called my provost marshal, who soon found the thief and brought him to me. The watch was given back to the owner and I ordered the man drummed out of the army.

A little later at Cheraw, I had three or four others of these unscrupulous villains apprehended, and publicly and summarily punished One had taken a costly ring from a lady's finger by force; and the others had been caught, in flagrante delicto, pilfering from women's bureaus and closets. Soldiers in general were obliged to forage on the country but they did not enjoy the reputation or wish for the company of thieves and robbers.

The first day we had a comparatively short march along the railroad running northward. Sherman's camp was at Winsboro at the end of the second day, while mine was at Harrison's Crossroads. From that point I turned to the right to cross the upper waters of the Catawba. Sherman wrote from Winsboro: [130]

After crossing, Slocum and the cavalry will have the road from Lancaster to Chesterfield, and you (Howard) from your ferry go straight for Cheraw, dipping a little south to get on the Camden road. I will keep with the Twentieth Corps.

From this it will be seen what a wide swath we were making, and the general direction taken by the whole command. At Perry's Ferry, across the Wateree River, I spent the night of February 22d. The country had begun to be fertile and rolling, with better farms than those near Columbia. There was some show of hostile cavalry in our front, which we pushed back as we marched. The Wateree was between 300 and 400 feet wide, and had quite a strong flow. Sherman's retaliatory work has often been mentioned. I think it began from an occurrence of this day. Two of our men were found not only slain, but with their brains beaten out. We judged that they had been captured first and then murdered.

Several men in another column were killed in the same way and labels pinned upon them. On the labels were these words: “Death to all foragers.” These are Sherman's words to me, which he wrote after finding repeated acts like the above:

I have ordered Kilpatrick to select of his prisoners, man for man, shoot them, and leave them by the roadside labeled, so that our enemy will see for every man he executes he takes the life of one of his own.

After defining proper and improper foraging, Sherman continues: “I lay down these rules, and wish you to be governed by them. If any of your foragers are murdered, take life for life, leaving a record of each case.”

It is quite surprising how quickly the Confederates, [131] in the army and outside of it, found out this terrible rule of our leader. I do not remember an instance after that in my command of brutal slaying.

This same day, February 22d, Washington's birthday, brought us the first intimation that the Confederates had evacuated Charleston. Gillmore's troops had entered the city, and captured a large amount of artillery and other stores. This was good news, brought by the negroes, who always enjoyed telling us such things, but it indicated to me an increased opposition to our advance; for already we were hearing not only of Hardee drawing in his various garrisons, but of Bragg, Cheatham, and Stephen D. Lee. We then knew that the remnants which Thomas and Schofield had not destroyed of Hood's army at Nashville, Tenn., as well as the troops from Augusta, Ga., were hastening to strengthen Hardee's resistance to our advance.

We had about the same experience day after day with ever increasing obstacles, till we came near what is called Lynch's Creek, in ordinary times a stream not to exceed 200 feet; but when we approached, owing to the recent freshet, the creek overflowed its banks, and so, though not deep, it spread over a wide stretch of country, covering in extent at least a mile.

The Fifteenth Corps here had a hard time. After the Seventeenth Corps had passed with considerable difficulty, the corduroy, which had been laid under the water and pinned down, became loose, and naturally rose to the surface and became separated. Quicksands were discovered in many places where our engineers and pioneers sought to put in trestlework, so that there was much delay, much impatience, and some quarreling. Here a slight contretemps occurred between Logan and myself. [132]

He, as corps commander, had direct charge of the pioneers, and I, as army commander, of the engineers. The engineers and pioneers were not able to mend the ways, owing to the high water, or finish the bridges to their satisfaction. At last they, in their impatience, had hard words between them. Logan naturally sided with the pioneers, and so wrote me a note that he would make no further effort to cross that ugly stream unless I withdrew the engineers who were constantly making trouble. I received the letter at the hands of a messenger, read it carefully, slowly folded it, as we were taught to do with official communications, and then wrote on the outside a pleasant message in indirect fashion: “The commanding officer of the Fifteenth Corps will obey every lawful order.” I signed this indorsement and sent it back to Logan. We met about twenty minutes after this exchange of compliment and neither of us said aught more concerning the matter; luckily we succeeded at last in crossing the troublesome barrier.

As we went on to Cheraw it was necessary to guard well our right flank. Having very little cavalry, I sent southward and eastward Captain Wm. Duncan with all his horsemen, about two troops of cavalry, first toward Camden. The evening of February 25th Duncan returned from the first expedition. He succeeded in burning an important bridge in Camden and in capturing, for the use of the army, considerable stock.

It was here that the famous white Arabian stallion was brought in, one that the people declared to be the property of the Confederate President. The horse, they said, had been, previous to our coming, sent into that part of Carolina for safe keeping. The second [133] expedition had a double purpose; first, to reconnoiter, and second, to serve as an escort to a delegation which I was sending through to Charleston. This time Duncan, in the night, ran into a Confederate brigade of cavalry, apparently commanded by Colonel Aiken. The darkness was so great that neither commander could tell the strength of his opponent.

Aiken gave the order to charge, but Duncan, who was ready, instantly ordered “Fire” In the melee that ensued Aiken with many others was killed. Losing their leader the Confederates fell back. It was here that Lieutenant McQueen was wounded. Duncan drew off his men with small loss.

The mixing up was so complete during the night fight that one of our men borrowed a screw-driver of a comrade to fix his carbine, and discovered that that comrade was a Confederate. The loss of McQueen, for he was supposed at that time to be mortally wounded, genial gentleman as he was, caused great sorrow at our headquarters.

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