18 February 1865: “Strange as it may seem we were actually idiotic enough to believe Sherman would keep his word! – A Yankee – and Sherman!”

Item Description: Entry, dated 18 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. She writes in great detail about the destruction of Columbia after Sherman’s Army has overtaken the city.


Item citation: From the Emma LeConte Diary, #420-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Item transcription:

Saturday afternoon, Feb. 18th.
– What a night of horror, misery and agony! It is useless to try to put on paper any idea of it. The recollection is so fearful, yet any attempt to describe it seems so useless. It even makes one sick to think of writing down such scenes – and yet as I have written thus far I ought, while it is still fresh, try even imperfectly to give some account of last night. Every incident is now so vividly before me and yet it does not seem real – rather like a fearful dream, or nightmare that still oppresses.

Until dinner-time we saw little of the Yankees, except the guard about the Campus, and the officers and men galloping up and down the street. It is true, as I have since learned that as soon as the bulk of the army entered the work of pillage began. But we are so far off and so secluded from the rest of town that we were happily ignorant of it all. I do not know exactly when Sherman, but I should judge about two or between one and two p.m. We could hear their shouts as they surged down Main Street and through the State house, but were too far off to see much of the tumult, nor did we dream what a scene of pillage and terror was being enacted. I hear they found a picture of President Davis in the Capitol which was set up as a target and shot at amid the jeers of the soldiery. From three o’clock till seven their army was passing down the street by the Campus, to encamp back of us in the woods. Two Corps entered town – Howard’s and Logan’s – one, the diabolical 15th which Sherman has hitherto never permitted to enter a city on account of their vile and desperate character. Slocum’s Corps remained over the river, and I suppose Davis’ also. The devils as they marched past looked strong and well clad in dark, dirty-looking blue. The wagon trains were immense. Night drew on. Of course we did not expect to sleep, but we looked forward to a tolerably tranquil night. Strange as it may seem we were actually idiotic enough to believe Sherman would keep his word! – A Yankee – and Sherman! It does seem incredible, such credulity, but I suppose we were so anxious to believe him – the lying fiend! I hope retributive justice will find him out one day. At about seven o’clock I was standing on the back piazza in the third story. Before me the whole southern horizon was lit up by camp-fires which dotted the woods. On one side the sky was illuminated by the burning of Gen. Hampton’s residence a few miles off in the country, on the other side by some blazing buildings near the river. I had scarecely gone down stairs again when Henry told me there was a fire on Main Street. Sumter Street was brightly lighted by a burning house so near our piazza that we could feel the heat. By the red glare we could watch the wretches walking – generally staggering – back and forth from the camp to the town – shouting – hurrahing – cursing South Carolina – swearing – blashpheming – singing ribald songs and using obscene language that we were forced to go indoors. The fire on Main Street was now raging, and we anxiously watched its progress from the upper front windows. In a little while however the flames broke forth in every direction. The drunken devils roamed about setting fire to every house the flames seemed likely to spare. They were fully equipped for the noble work they had in hand. Each soldier was furnished with combustibles compactly put up. They would enter houses and in the presence of helpless women and children, pour turpentine on the beds and set them on fire. Guards were rarely of any assistance – most generally they assisted in the pillaging and firing. The wretched people rushing from their burning homes were not allowed to keep even the few necessaries they gathered up in their flight – even blankets and food were taken from them and destroyed. The Firemen attempted to use their engines, but the hose was cut to pieces and their lives threatened. The wind blew a fearful gale, wafting the flames from house to house with frightful rapidity. By midnight the whole town (except the outskirts) was wrapped in one huge blaze. Still the flames had not approached sufficiently near us to threaten our immediate safety, and for some reason not a single Yankee soldier had entered our house. And now the fire instead of approaching us seemed to recede – Henry said the danger was over and, sick of the dreadful scene, worn out with fatigue and excitement, we went downstairs to our room and tried to rest. I fell into a heavy kind of stupor from which I was presently roused by the bustle about me. Our neighbor Mrs. Caldwell and her two sisters stood before the fire wrapped in blankets and weeping. Their home was on fire, and the great sea of flame had again swept down our way to the very Campus walls. I felt a kind of sickening despair and did not even stir to go and look out. After awhile Jane came in to say that Aunt Josie’s house was in flames – then we all went to the front door – My God! – what a scene! It was about four o’clock and the State house was one grand conflagration. Imagine night turned into noonday, only with a blazing, scorching glare that was horrible – a copper colored sky across which swept columns of black rolling smoke glittering with sparks and flying embers, while all around us were falling thickly showers of burning flakes. Everywhere the palpitating blaze walling the streets with solid masses of flames as far as the eye could reach – filling the air with its horrible roar. On every side the crackling and devouring fire, while every instant came the crashing of timbers and the thunder of falling buildings. A quivering molten ocean seemed to fill the air and sky. The Library building opposite us seemed framed by the gushing flames and smoke, while through the windows gleamed the liquid fire. This we thought must be Aunt Josie’s house. It was the next one, for although hers caught frequently, it was saved. The College buildings caught all along that dise, and had the incendiary work continued one half hour longer than it did they must have gone. All the physicians and nurses were on the roof trying to save the buildings, and the poor wounded inmates left to themselves, such as could crawled out while those who could not move waited to be burned to death. The Common opposite the gate was crowded with homeless women and children, a few wrapped in blankets and many shivering in the night air. Such a scene as this with the drunken fiendish soldiery in their dark uniforms, infuriated cursing, screaming, exulting in their work, came nearer realizing the material ideal of hell than anything I ever expect to see again. They call themselves “Sherman’s Hellhounds”. Mother collected together some bedding, clothing and food which Henry carried to the back of the garden and covered them with a hastily ripped-up carpet to protect them from the sparks and flakes of fire. He wroked so hard, so faithfully, and tried to comfort mother as best he could while she was sobbing and crying at the thought of being left shelterless with a delicate baby. While this was going on I stood with Mary Ann at the kitchen door. She tried to speak hopefully – I could not cry – it was too horrible. Yet I felt the house must burn. By what miracle it was saved I cannot think. No effort could be made – no one was on the roof which was old and dry, and all the while the sparks and burning timbers were flying over it like rain. When the few things she tried to save were moved, mother took up little Carrie who was sleeping unconsciously, and wrapping ourselves in shawls and blankets, we went to the front door and waited for the house to catch. There we stood watching and listening to the roaring and crashing. It seemed inevitable – they said they would not leave a house, and what would become of us! I suppose we owe our final escape to the presence of the Yankee wounded in the hospital. When all seemed in vain, Dr. Thomson went to an officer and asked if he would see his own soldiers burnt alive. He said he would save the hospital, and he and his men came to Dr. T’s assistance. Then too about this time even the Yankees seemed to have grown weary of their horrible work – the signal for the cessation of the fire – a blast on the bugle – was given, and in fifteen minutes the flames ceased to spread. By seven o’clock the last flame had expired. About six o’clock a crowd of drunken soldiers assaulted the Campus gate and threatened to overpower the guard, swearing the buildings should not be spared. By great exertions Dr. Thomson found Sherman, and secured a strong guard in time to rescue the hospital. Mrs. C. who had been to see after her house now returned, and sitting down sobbed convulsively as she told us of the insults she had received from the soldiery engaged in pillaging her home. An officer riding by ordered the men to stop. So broken down and humbled by the terrible experience of the night was she that she cried – out – “O, sir, please make them stop!” You don’t know what I suffered this night.” – “I don’t give a damn for your suffering” he replied, “but my men have no right to pillage against orders.”

Fortunately – oh, so fortunately for us, the hospital is so strictly guarded that we are unmolested within the walls.

O, that long twelve hours! Never surely again will I live through such a night of horrors. The memory of it will haunt me as long as I shall live – it seemed as if the day would never come. The sun rose at last, dim and red through the thick murky atmosphere. It set last night on a beautiful town full of women and children – it shone dully down this morning on smoking ruins and abject misery.

I do not know how the others felt after the strain of the fearful excitement , but I seemed to sink into a dull apathy. We none seemed to have the energy to talk. After awhile breakfast came – a sort of mockery, for no one could eat. After taking a cup of coffee and bathing my face, begrimed with smoke, I felt better and the memory of the night seemed like a frightful dream. I have scarcely slept for three nights, yet my eyes are not heavy.

During the forenoon Aunt Josie and Aunt Jane came over to see how we had fared. We met as after a long seperation, and for some seconds no one could speak. Then we exchanged experiences. They were nearer the flames than we, but they had Dr. Carter with them – someone to look to and to help them. Aunt Josie says the northern side of their house became so heated that no one could remain on that side of the house, and it caught fire three times. Being outside the hospital buildings they were more exposed than we. Once a number of Yankees rushed in saying the roof was on fire. Andrew, the negro boy followed them up, saw them tear up the tin roofing and place lighted combustibles, and after they went down he succeeded in extinguishing the flames. A tolerably faithful guard was some protection to them. The view from their attic windows commands the whole town, and Aunt Josie said it was like one surging ocean of flame. She thought with us that it was more like the mediaeval pictures of hell than anything she had ever imagined. We do not know the extent of the destruction, but we are told that the greater portion of the town is in ashes. – Perhaps the loveliest town in all our Southern country. This is civilized warfare! This is the way in which the “cultured” Yankee nation wars upon women and children! Failing with our men in the field, this is the way they must conquer! I suppose there was scarcely an able-bodied man, except the hospital physicians, – in the whole twenty thousand people.

It is so easy to burn the homes over the heads of the helpless women and children, and turn them with insults and sneers into the streets. One expects these people to lie and steal, but it does seem such an outrage even upon degraded humanity that those who practise such wanton and useless cruelty should call themselves men. It seems to us even a contamination to look at these devils. Think of the degradation of being conquered and ruled by such a people! It seems to me now as if we would choose extermination. I have only had to speak once to one of the blue-coated fiends. I went to the front door to bid Francena and Nellie C. goodbye early this morning, when a soldier came up the steps and asked me who was the Mayor. “Dr. Goodwyn”, I answered shortly and turned away. “Do you know his initials?” – “No”, and I shut the door quickly behind me.

The State house of course is burned, and they talk of blowing up the new uncompleted granite one, but I do not know if it can be done in its unfinished unroofed condition. We dread tonight. Mother asked Dr. Thomson (who has been very kind about coming in and in keeping us posted) for a guard, but he says it is unnecessary as double guards will be placed throughout the city. Dr. T. says some of the officers feel very much ashamed of last night’s work. Their compunctions must have visited them since daylight. The men openly acknowledged that they received orders to burn and plunder before they crossed the river. The drunken scoundrels who tried to force their way into the Campus this morning have been under guard at the gate – several hundred of them – fighting and quarrelling among themselves, for sever hours. Poor father! What will be his state of mind when he hears of all this. The first reports that reach him will be even exaggerated. It is some comfort to us in our uncertainty and anxiety to hope that he may be safe. The explosion last night was accidental blowing up of the Charleston freight depot. There had been powder stored there and it was scattered thickly over the floor. The poor people and negroes went in with torches to search for provisions – When will these Yankees go that we may breathe freely again! The past three days are more like three weeks. And yet when they are gone we may be worse off with the whole country laid waste and the railroads out in every direction. Starvation seems to stare us in the face. Our two families have between them a few bushels of corn and a little musty flour. We have no meat, but the negroes give us a little bacon every day.

8 p.m. – There has been no firing as yet. All is comparatively quiet. These buildings are surrounded by a heavy guard, and we are told they are distributed throughout the city. All day the devils have been completing their work of plunder, but in the hospital here we have been exempt from this. When I remember how blest we have been I cannot be too thankful. We have the promise of a quiet night but I dare not trust our hopes – there is no telling what diabolical intentions they may have. O if they were only gone! – even to the last straggler! What a load would be lifted from our hearts. We are anxious to learn the fate of our friends, but the little we can gather (except from Aunt Josie and Mrs. Green) is through the negroes, and ours scarcely dare venture uptown. The Yankees plunder the negroes as well as the whites, and I think they are becoming somewhat disgusted with their friends. Although the servants seem quite willing, it is difficult to get any work out of them on account of the wild excitement. Ah, the dreadful excitement – I seem to stand it very well, but it seems to me we must all be ill when it is over. Anxiety, distress, want of rest and food must tell upon us. Mrs. Wilson (Mr. Shand’s daughter) with a babe one week old was moved last night from her father’s burning house. The Burroughs escaped with only the clothing they wore. Many, many fared similarly. Some tried to save a little food – even this was torn from their hands. I have heard a number of distressing incidents but have not time to write them down. O, the sorrow and misery of this unhappy town! From what I can hear their chief aim, while taunting helpless women, has been to “humble their pride” – “Southern pride”. “Where now”, they would say “is all your pride – see what we have brought you to” – “This is what you get for setting yourselves up as better than other folks”. The women acted with quiet dignity and refused to lower themselves by any retort. Someone told me the following. Some soldiers were pillaging the house of a lady. One asked her if they had not humbled her pride now – “No indeed” she said, “Nor can you ever”. “You fear us anyway” – “No” she said. “By G-, but you shall fear me”, and he cocked his pistol and put it to her head – “Are you afraid now?” She folded her arms and looking him steadily in the eye said contemptuously, “no”. He dropped his pistol, and with an exclamation of admiration, left her.

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