Friday, February 17, 1865

Columbia, South Carolina

I rode to the head of General Howard’s column, and found that during the night he had ferried Stone’s brigade of Woods’s division of the Fifteenth Corps across by rafts made of the pontoons, and that brigade was then deployed on the opposite bank to cover the construction of a pontoon-bridge nearly finished.

I sat with General Howard on a log, watching the men lay this bridge; and about mid-morning a messenger came from Colonel Stone on the other aide, saying that the Mayor of Columbia had come out of the city to surrender the place, and asking for orders. I simply remarked to General Howard that he had his orders, to let Colonel Stone go on into the city, and that we would follow as soon as the bridge was ready. By this same messenger I received a note in pencil from the Lady Superioress of a convent or school in Columbia, in which she claimed to have been a teacher in a convent in Brown County, Ohio, at the time my daughter Minnie was a pupil there, and therefore asking special protection. I gave the note to my brother-in-law, Colonel Ewing, the inspector-general on my staff, with instructions to see this lady, and assure her that we contemplated no destruction of any private property in Columbia at all.

As soon as the bridge was done, I led my horse over it, followed by my whole staff. General Howard accompanied me with his, and General Logan was next in order, followed by General C. R. Woods, and the whole of the Fifteenth Corps. Ascending the hill, we soon emerged into a broad road leading into Columbia, between old fields of corn and cotton, and, entering the city, we found seemingly all its population, white and black, in the streets. A high and boisterous wind was prevailing from the north, and flakes of cotton were flying about in the air and lodging in the limbs of the trees, reminding us of a Northern snow-storm. Near the market-square we found Stone’s brigade halted, with arms stacked, and a large detail of his men, along with some citizens, engaged with an old fire-engine, trying to put out the fire in a long pile of burning cotton-bales, which I was told had been fired by the rebel cavalry on withdrawing from the city that morning. To avoid this row of burning cotton-bales, I had to ride my horse on the sidewalk. In the market-square have collected a large crowd of whites and blacks, among whom was the mayor of the city, Dr. Goodwin, quite a respectable old gentleman, who was extremely anxious to protect the interests of the citizens. He was on foot, and I on horseback. I told him then not to be uneasy, that we did not intend to stay long, and had no purpose to injure the private citizens or private property.

About this time I noticed several men trying to get through the crowd to speak with me, and called to some black people to make room for them; when they reached me, they explained that they were officers of our army, who had been prisoners, had escaped from the rebel prison and guard, and were of course overjoyed to find themselves safe with us. I told them that, as soon as things settled down, they should report to General Howard, who would provide for their safety, and enable them to travel with us. One of them handed me a paper, asking me to read it at my leisure; I put it in my breast-pocket and rode on. General Howard was still with me, and, riding down the street which led by the right to the Charleston depot, we found it and a large storehouse burned to the ground, but there were, on the platform and ground nearby, piles of cotton bags filled with corn and corn-meal, partially burned.

A detachment of Stone’s brigade was guarding this, and separating the good from the bad. We rode along the railroad-track, some three or four hundred yards, to a large foundery, when some man rode up and said the rebel cavalry were close by, and he warned us that we might get shot. We accordingly turned back to the market-square, and en route noticed that, several of the men were evidently in liquor, when I called General Howard’s attention to it. He left me and rode toward General Woods’s head of column, which was defiling through the town. On reaching the market-square, I again met Dr. Goodwin, and inquired where he proposed to quarter me, and he said that he had selected the house of Blanton Duncan, Esq., a citizen of Louisville, Kentucky, then a resident there, who had the contract for manufacturing the Confederate money, and had fled with Hampton’s cavalry. We all rode some six or eight squares back from the new State-House, and found a very good modern house, completely furnished, with stabling and a large yard, took it as our headquarters, and occupied it during our stay. I considered General Howard as in command of the place, and referred the many applicants for guards and protection to him. Before our headquarters-wagons had got up, I strolled through the streets of Columbia, found sentinels posted at the principal intersections, and generally good order prevailing, but did not again return to the main street, because it was filled with a crowd of citizens watching the soldiers marching by.

During the afternoon the whole of the Fifteenth Corps passed through the town and out on the Camden and Winnsboro’ roads. The Seventeenth Corps did not enter the city at all, but crossed directly over to the Winnsboro’ road from the pontoon bridge at Broad River, which was about four miles above the city.

After we had got, as it were, settled in Blanton Duncan’s house, about 2 p.m., I overhauled my pocket according to custom, to read more carefully the various notes and
memoranda received during the day, and found the paper which had been given me, as described, by one of our escaped prisoners. It proved to be the song of “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” which had been composed by Adjutant S. H. M. Byers, of the Fifth Iowa Infantry, when a prisoner in the asylum at Columbia, which had been beautifully written off by a fellow-prisoner, and handed to me in person. This appeared to me so good that I at once sent for Byers, attached him to my staff, provided him with horse and equipment. Byers said that there was an excellent glee-club among the prisoners in Columbia, who used to sing it well, with an audience often of rebel ladies.

Toward evening the mayor, Dr. Goodwin, came to my quarters at Duncan’s house, and remarked that there was a lady in Columbia who professed to be a special friend of mine. On his giving her name, I could not recall it, but inquired as to her maiden or family name. He answered Poyas. It so happened that, when I was a lieutenant at Fort Moultrie, in 1842-’46, I used very often to visit a family of that name on the east branch of Cooper River, about forty miles from Fort Moultrie, and to hunt with the son, Mr. James Poyas, an elegant young fellow and a fine sportsman. His father, mother, and several sisters, composed the family, and were extremely hospitable. One of the ladies was very fond of painting in water-colors, which was one of my weaknesses, and on one occasion I had presented her with a volume treating of water- colors. Of course, I was glad to renew the acquaintance, and proposed to Dr. Goodwin that we should walk to her house and visit this lady, which we did.

The house stood beyond the Charlotte depot, in a large lot, was of frame, with a high porch, which was reached by a set of steps outside. Entering this yard, I noticed ducks and chickens, and a general air of peace and comfort that was really pleasant to behold at that time of universal desolation; the lady in question met us at the head of the steps and invited us into a parlor which was perfectly neat and well furnished. After inquiring about her father, mother, sisters, and especially her brother James, my special friend, I could not help saying that I was pleased to notice that our men had not handled her house and premises as roughly as was their wont. “I owe it to you, general,” she answered. “Not at all. I did not know you were here till a few minutes ago.” She reiterated that she was indebted to me for the perfect safety of her house and property, and added, “You remember, when you were at our house on Cooper River in 1845, you gave me a book;” and she handed me the book in question, on the fly leaf of which was written: “To Miss Poyas, with the compliments of W. T. Sherman, First-lieutenant Third Artillery.” She then explained that, as our army approached Columbia, there was a doubt in her mind whether the terrible Sherman who was devastating the land were W. T. Sherman or T. W. Sherman, both known to be generals in the Northern army; but, on the supposition that he was her old acquaintance, when Wade Hampton’s cavalry drew out of the city, calling out that the Yankees were coming, she armed herself with this book, and awaited the crisis. Soon the shouts about the markethouse announced that the Yankees had come; very soon men were seen running up and down the streets; a parcel of them poured over the fence, began to chase the chickens and ducks, and to enter her house. She observed one large man, with full beard, who exercised some authority, and to him she appealed in the name of “his general.” “What do you know of Uncle Billy?” “Why,” she said, “when he was a young man he used to be our friend in Charleston, and here is a book he gave me.” The officer or soldier took the book, looked at the inscription, and, turning to his fellows, said: “Boys, that’s so; that’s Uncle Billy’s writing, for I have seen it often before.” He at once commanded the party to stop pillaging, and left a man in charge of the house, to protect her until the regular provost-guard should be established. I then asked her if the regular guard or sentinel had been as good to her. She assured me that he was a very nice young man; that he had been telling her all about his family in Iowa; and that at that very instant of time he was in another room minding her baby. Now, this lady had good sense and tact, and had thus turned aside a party who, in five minutes more, would have rifled her premises of all that was good to eat or wear. I made her a long social visit, and, before leaving Columbia, gave her a half-tierce of rice and about one hundred pounds of ham from our own mess-stores.

In like manner, that same evening I found in Mrs. Simons another acquaintance–the wife of the brother of Hon. James Simons, of Charleston, who had been Miss Wragg. Having walked over much of the suburbs of Columbia in the afternoon, and being tired, I lay down on a bed in Blanton Duncan’s house to rest. Soon after dark I became conscious that a bright light was shining on the walls; and, calling some one of my staff to inquire the cause, he said there seemed to be a house on fire down about the market-house. The same high wind still prevailed, and, fearing the consequences, I bade him go in person to see if the provost-guard were doing its duty. He soon returned, and reported that the block of buildings directly opposite the burning cotton of that morning was on fire, and that it was spreading; but he had found General Woods on the ground, with plenty of men trying to put the fire out, or, at least, to prevent its extension. The fire continued to increase, and the whole heavens became lurid. I dispatched messenger after messenger to Generals Howard, Logan, and Woods, and received from them repeated assurances that all was being done that could be done, but that the high wind was spreading the flames beyond all control. These general officers were on the ground all night, and Hazen’s division was brought into the city to assist Woods’s division, already there. About eleven o’clock at night I went downtown myself, Colonel Dayton with me; we walked to Mr. Simons’s house, from which I could see the flames rising high in the air, and could hear the roaring of the fire. I advised the ladies to move to my headquarters, had our own headquarter-wagons hitched up, and their effects carried there, as a place of greater safety. The whole air was full of sparks and of flying masses of cotton, shingles, etc., some of which were carried four or five blocks, and started new fires. The men seemed generally under good control, and certainly labored hard to girdle the fire, to prevent its spreading; but, so long as the high wind prevailed, it was simply beyond human possibility.

Major General Woods Reports:

At 3 o’clock this morning I began crossing the Third Brigade of my division over the Broad River, using three pontoon boats for the purpose. The process was so difficult that it was 7 o’clock before the brigade reached the opposite shore. Passing through the swamps, with skirmishers well thrown forward, the brigade soon reached the high land, and at once took position on a range of hills looking toward the city. The opposition was but slight. The city soon surrendering, Colonel Stone moved forward and occupied the place, the remainder of my division following as soon as the pontoon bridge was laid. I moved beyond the city, encamping on the east side of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad, facing eastward.

The troops first entering Columbia were met on the roadside by citizens of every grade, who most unwisely furnished them with great quantities of intoxicating liqoors, bringing it out in buckets, cups, and vessels of all description. As a result the confusion prevailing throughout the town was increased tenfold, and in obedience to the direction of the corps commander, the brigade on duty as guards in the town was relieved by the First Brigade and every practicable measure was promptly adopted to prevent the spreading of the conflagration that was rapidly extending over the entire town and to arrest the countless villains of every command that were roamaing over the streets. As strong patrols as could be furnished by the brigade were distributed throughout the town. My headquarters are at the house of Mr. Stark, at the east end of Senate street.

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