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  • Louis Venters

The Burning of Columbia and the Persistence of Confederate Mythology

By the time my grandmother—in most other respects a thoughtful, reasonable, and flexible human being—was born in 1916, the orthodoxy among white southerners was simply unquestioned: in the waning days of the Civil War, bloodthirsty, vengeful Gen. William T. Sherman and his hordes of undisciplined, rapacious Union soldiers purposely laid waste to Georgia and the Carolinas. For my grandmother and other South Carolinians in particular, the signal event in this chain of horrors was the burning of the capital city of Columbia—on Gen. Sherman’s orders.

Of course, my grandmother wasn’t there when the fires broke out on the night of February 17-18, 1865. But she may as well have seen Sherman with her own eyes for the confidence with which she recounted the events. As a graduate student I tried to change her mind, but I knew better. It was much as Ben Robertson described his own grandmother in Red Hills and Cotton, his vivid memoir of growing up in a Piedmont county adjacent to my grandmother’s: “She was reconstructed, but she was reconstructed in her own way, so whenever she got to talking about us and the grace of God, we said ‘Yes, ma’am’ to our grandmother.” (Just read “Sherman and the burning of Columbia” in place of “us and the grace of God.”)

As this piece from the New York Times’ excellent series on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War succinctly summarizes, today there is little scholarly dispute that Sherman and his commanding officers tried conscientiously to follow the rules of war as they took control of the capital of belligerent South Carolina, even if they lost control of some of their troops, and that Confederate officers—among them future coup leader and governor Wade Hampton—were at least as much to blame. It was the city’s supposed defenders who initially ordered thousands of bales of stored cotton brought into the streets and torched so they wouldn’t fall into Union hands, who failed to secure the vast supplies of alcohol in the city and generally orchestrated a chaotic retreat that left Columbia and its citizens vulnerable. And the nearly gale-force winds that blew the night Union forces moved into town surely made a dangerous situation worse.

(I'm happy to point out that the piece cites my friend and colleague at Francis Marion Univerisy, Jacqueline Glass Campbell, whose 2005 monograph, When Sherman Marched North from the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Homefront, was a major contribution to the literature on this subject.)

Traditional neo-confederate views of the Old South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction have proven to be quite durable—even in the face of generations of legitimate scholarship beginning in the 1950s. This should come as no surprise, since the southern orthodoxy was widely propagated across the country through textbooks and the mass media until late in the twentieth century. As a whole host of recent headlines remind us—from the controversy over President Obama’s remarks last month about the historic link between Christianity and Jim Crow to the circulation this week of a crudely racist video made by a college fraternity in Oklahoma—old habits die hard.

But more and more students of all ages are growing up with a more accurate view that places the conflict over slavery and its aftermath at the center of American history, with full recourse to the range of primary sources that bear this out. (In my course on South Carolina history, for example, we read a letter dated March 2, 1865 from the mayor of Columbia that indicates African Americans in the city and surrounding countryside were taking advantage of the breakdown of order to press their own claims for freedom and citizenship. This is a part of the story my grandmother never told—and never knew.)

During the last four years, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has been a valuable opportunity to engage willing members of the public in thoughtful discourse about the defining war in our nation’s history. (An impressive coalition of institutions in Columbia, for example, have organized an impressive lineup of programs surrounding the events of February-March 1865; around the country the number and variety of sesquicentennial commemorations has been astonishing.) And there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the country’s long-term future of racial justice, none the least of which is the coming demographic shift to a majority non-white population. But it may take a few generations of education—certainly through formal means, but perhaps also in the larger sense, through the effects of events outside of anyone’s ability to control or predict—before we can pronounce neo-confederate history completely dead.

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