Have We Learned Anything from the Sesquicentennial?: the Case of Sherman’s March into Columbia, SC



“RAISING THE STARS AND STRIPES OVER THE CAPITOL AT COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA. – [SKETCHED BY DAVIS]”
Image Source: Civil War Harper’s Weekly, April 8, 1865; from here.

We are now in the closing days of the 150th (Sesquicentennial) Anniversary of the American Civil War. By the end of August 1865, the shooting war between the Union and the Confederacy was just about over, and the Reconstruction Period was proceeding in earnest.

I wonder: what have we Americans learned during this four year (the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865) anniversary period? There have been numerous events during the Sesquicentennial, and I attended a number of them; I learned a lot. But then, I’m something of a Civil War nerd. I wonder how much the public at large got out of it.

On the Internet, I had an exchange recently with someone concerning the reaction of residents in Columbia, South Carolina, to the arrival of Union forces led by General William T. Sherman in February 1865. The person remarked that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army.”

Some background: General Sherman is, in the minds of many (mostly white southern) people, infamous for his “March to the Sea,” in which his army barreled its way through Georgia, then South Carolina, and eventually North Carolina. Along the way, according to many people, he inflicted a hard-handed brand of war against the Confederacy, including Confederate civilians. Cities such as Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, were given the burnt-earth treatment by Sherman and his men… or at least, that’s what many people believe. Given this “memory” of the war, which was very popular prior to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, it must certainly be true that nobody in Columbia was happy to see Sherman and his Union army marching through their town.

The thing is, it is NOT true. There were Columbians who were happy to see Sherman. In his 1991 book The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, which won the Bancroft Prize, historian Charles Royster writes

War had changed Columbia. The city had never been large, numbering about 8,000 people in peacetime; but the war had more than tripled its population. Some people were forced into Columbia: slaveholders moved their human property. The number of black people in Columbia, usually about one third of the population, swelled with the influx of slaves. Some blacks had escaped during the relocation, had hidden in swamps, and where greeting the approaching Federal soldiers with the descriptions of the roads ahead. Blacks in the city felt sure of Sherman’s destination sooner than his own men did. On January 29, a white man who heard them noted: “The niggers sing hallelujah’s for him every day.”

Some of the slaves concentrated in Columbia grew restive, and white people reacted harshly. They set up a whipping post near the market in the Assembly Street. A black man caught smuggling News to Federal prisoners in the city received 100 lashes and a promise that if he repeated the offense, he would be killed. Afterward, he told the prisoners, “Dey may kill dis nigger, but they cain’t make him hate de Yankees.” The daily whippings aroused bitter resentment among young Black men. Some of them called the Market post “Hell” and agreed among themselves to make a hell of the city once the Yankees came.

Royster goes on to note that the slaves had communicated with and helped Federal prisoners held in Columbia before Sherman’s arrival, and gave aid and assistance to the Union soldiers who arrived in the city and the surrounding area. It also appears that some African Americans took advantage of the Union occupation to enact acts of revenge against whites whom they believed had mistreated them.

Also from Royster’s Book:

(sometime after Union soldiers had entered the city, and there had been fires and some looting) …on Main Street, crowded with hurrying people and lit by burning stores, a lieutenant asked an old black man: “What do you think of the night, sir?” The man replied; ‘Wall I’ll tell you what I dinks I dinks de day of Jubilee for me hab come.”​

Many of the African American residents of Columbia were quite happy not just to see Sherman, but also to give him and his men military intelligence and other support.

So, here is what I hoped the Sesquicentennial commemorations might accomplish: the replacement of older and previously “popular” notions about the war with up-to-date and correct understandings. Such as the understanding that African Americans were not merely bystanders during the war, but had their own role to play, and exercised their own agency and independent action during the war.

But, here was someone stating with some conviction that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army” (emphasis added). For this person, the idea that there might have been black people in Columbia (note that over 55% of South Carolina’s population was of African descent when the war began) who supported the Union (which, after all, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation) never entered his mind.

And that is a concern. It seems that many people still lack an informed, comprehensive view of the Civil War despite a four-year period of attention and events, many of which did focus on the role of African Americans. It’s something we’ll have to continue to work on, until we get it right. And we will.

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One thought on “Have We Learned Anything from the Sesquicentennial?: the Case of Sherman’s March into Columbia, SC

  1. People are very well informed compared to 40 years ago. Americans now, more than ever, are recognizing our history, albeit one person at a time. And for the first time, we realize that it is not pretty. The person who told you that no people in Columbia welcomed Shermans army is correct in his mind. He doesn’t view 19th century African American’s as people – they were slaves – property. They were not people who wanted families, they were not allowed to create families, and if they did, they could be ripped apart. They were expendable, they weren’t people who loved, hated, cried and laughed. There is no discussion with a person like that.

    But what has changed is the invention of the transistor and the digital information age. It has given us historical documents, newspapers, opinions, pictures, etc at a moments notice. No more Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen at your door – just look it up on the internet. No more going to the library.

    Let’s hope over the next 50 years, we will have greater appreciation for the gradual emancipation efforts starting in the 18th century, the 10’s of thousands runaway slaves which created so much friction between American states that a fugitive slave law was required, the 10’s of thousand of African Americans that fought for the Union and freedom (we always seem to forgot that), and let’s hope we toss into the ash-heap of history southern antebellum culture and their leaders like Robert Lee, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis.

    Winston Churchill said about democracy: “democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried”. The southern states of America never had democracy until it was forced upon them. And the original Constitution never guaranteed democracy for all people unless you had fair skin. We are learning more of this history and reconciling it. It will take generations to straighten it out.

    PS – nice picture of South Carolina State House from 1865 – fits into current events.

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