Although often overshadowed in the popular imagination by the burning of Atlanta, Georgia, the burning of Columbia, South Carolina was a major event in American history and a defining moment in the history of the state and city. By February 1865, the tide of war had turned against the Confederacy, and no significant Confederate forces remained to seriously challenge General Sherman’s policy of “home front” destruction, meant to terrify and demoralize the Confederate civilian population and encourage the surrender of the remaining Confederate forces. Columbia, the site of the original Secession Convention and capital of the first seceding state, was seen by the Union army as a special political target for reprisal.
Columbia surrendered to the Union Army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman on February 17, 1865, and while the soldiers’ arrival signaled the imminent emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the city, fear and hardship accompanied it for both black and white Columbians. During the evening of February 17th and the morning of the 18th, the city suffered widespread destruction while under occupation. Contemporary accounts suggested that as much as two-thirds of Columbia was destroyed, though later studies arrived at a lower figure. While the exact extent of the damage may never be known, without question the fires razed political, military and transportation targets while indiscriminately destroying commercial, educational, religious and private properties in the process. The legacy of this physical loss became a pillar of the city’s common folklore and memories of the war, and it remains hotly-debated today.