William White
Unknown Company, 90th Illinois Volunteer Infantry
April 1865 Letter Home, page 2

Next day (16th) cleared up fine. The enemy had been driven across Congaree River and the train was ordered up and when we came to travel the road, we had reason to commiserate the 99th on their night march, as we found it difficult to get along in daylight. The enemy had a good position but dared not defend it obstinately for fear of being surrounded. Crossing the river to Columbia, they burned the bridge, and from that bank of the river had a section of artillery playing on our troops in bivouack during the night. The annoyance they caused was more than the damage, and in the morning a regiment was sent down to the river to examine the position of those guns. They stole down quietly in cover of the trees until they reached the bank, and there on the other side stood the two guns without works and the gunners loitering around. A volley was sent them which caused their sudden disappearance to the rear. The regiment remained to prevent their return but whether the guns were afterwards got off I did not learn. The "Congaree" is formed by the junction of the Saluda and Broad rivers near Columbia, and to get above the town and avoid crossing in the face of the enemy it was necessary to cross the other two. In this movement the 18th and 17th Corps joined and the trains of both were together. The whole was in full view of the city and some of the wagon passed within shelling distance, and the Rebels did not neglect the opportunity to give them a few. And it was amusing to see them hurry past. One teamster had a mule killed but he could not stop for such trifles while himself was in danger, but dragged the dead animal till he thought it safe to wait an unhitch him. In the evening we passed the camp where our prisoners had been confined, and a miserable abode it was on the edge of a swamp. When they moved the prisoners from there many of them escaped and made their way to our lines. The whole night was spent in crossing Saluda River. We were kept on our feet moving a few yards at a time until clear daylight. Always in crossing a river there is a jam and especially with so large a train, and it is a great deal more tiresome loitering along than to go ahead and be done with it. On the bank of this river was a cotton factory which employed some three hundred girls. Our advance burned it and while helping the girls save some of the goods, the whole party were fired on from across the river. But fortunately did not damage. This will do for a specimen of "southern chivalry." Across the river the ground was high and dry. We were again out of the mud. Trains were all corralled and we lay down to have a nap before breakfast. The advance was still skirmishing for a passage over Broad River. Degraf's Battery was in a position to send his compliments since the day before and was occasionally doing so. The day was pleasant and we lay around on the grass in supreme comfort waiting the fall of Columbia.

The boys had caught a fox and were having lots of sport chasing him, until about ten o'clock when the voice of the artillery was hushed, the river was passed, and finally the firing died away in the distance and Columbia was ours! It had been formally surrendered to a brigade commander of the 1st Division by the Mayor. This was on the 17th of February. At 3 p.m. we moved, joined the brigade, crossed Broad River on pontoon bridge. There was a splendid iron bridge across it which the enemy had destroyed. Thus with their own hands are they pulling down that which it will take years to build up. Towards town we passed any number of stragglers coming out with boxes of tobacco, sugar, whiskey, wine and all manner of plunder, and nearly all half-tight, some wholly so. I found the place much nicer than I expected. In fact considering locality and everything else I think it the most desirable city to live in I have seen south. As we entered, it had the appearance produced by a snow shower or cotton shower for such it was. Cotton was everywhere in the trees, streets, and all around for all the world as if it snowed there. In places there was bales of it and I noticed some of them were on fire. There was few citizens, a great many niggers, and soldiers everywhere, many half drunk, and even some of the guard stationed to keep order were far from being sober. Even some of the 90th were getting funny while yet marching along the streets.

There was quite a number of small union flags displayed and a lot of little boys hurrahed for the union. but the soldiers regardless of this went about taking whatever they fancied. Excitement was running high. I saw trouble ahead, and remarked it to Capt. Murphy near me, who is like myself a kind of sober-sides, who preserve our equilibrium under all circumstances. We marched through town and camped on the southeast side. Soon as the men tot their suppers, and some before it, they began to put for town and ere long the camp was almost deserted, even some out on picket left their posts and went. It may appear strange that such looseness was permitted, but the truth is the demoralization extended to officers as well as men. Capt. Murphy and I remained in camp and tried to sleep, and though we had been up all the night before we did not succeed. The hollowing, shooting, and all sorts of noise downtown was continually ringing in our ears. Fires broke out, the wind arose and the commotion became dreadful. The fire spread with resistless fury, and soon the body of the town was in flames. Men were returning to camp with jugs and buckets of whiskey, kicking us up to drink and telling wonderful tales of the doings downtown. Murphy and myself could stand it no longer but go up to go behold a scene, which we deemed would become historic. We did not however go far into the city, but stood for a while contemplating the scene in the distance which was indeed terribly grand. Citizens in groups were standing here and there as if consulting what was best to be done. Many who were not in the least danger, had left their houses and saved what they could. We endeavored to console them and offered advice, they there were suspicious of our council and showed a willingness to be left alone. They thought the city had been fired by order and that none would be spared. Others were more confident and would pray any soldier who seemed well disposed to remain with them as a sort of safe guard. A great many had displayed white flags, but their present enemy (fire) would accept no truce. The streets were full of drunken men, soldiers, citizens, niggers, and to their shame be it said even some women. I never before saw whiskey so profuse, nor so many under its influence.

Totally convinced of the depravity of human nature, I and my friend returned to camp.

From the time the fire broke out, the Generals had been making efforts to stay its progress but in vain. The fire department was brought into requisition and the engines worked by soldiers but some of them were poor things, and were consigned to the flames they could not subdue, for their worthlessness. There was also a heavy guard out arresting stragglers, but if some of them were proper men and fired on those who refused to submit, the most of them more needed to be arrested than arresting others. Consequently but little was accomplished.

About three o'clock in the morning our brigade was out with peremptory orders to clear the town of stragglers, and for this purpose my company was able to muster four men, and one of them was so drunk, he thought we wee going out to attack the enemy. Other companies were as bad, so you may judge how efficient for the work before it was our brigade.

We moved out, however, and a company or two to each street cleared everyone before them. Passing the state house Tim and myself had a very narrow escape. There was a pile of heavy ammunition in the yard and shells had been exploding from time to time all night. Everything around was burned so there was hundreds of them lying in a heap of live coals. An unfortunate soldier wandering among the rubbish struck one and sent him to eternity in an instant. So close was I when it exploded, the ashes was thrown over me and I held my breath in expectation of a piece to strike. But they did not and soon as I recovered from the shock I fervently thanked God for my escape. Further on the scene presented was indeed deplorable. It would be vain for me to attempt a description. The streets were filled with furniture, the finest and meanest, broken and burned scattered promiscuously. Families of wealth and refinement crouching beside a few tattered remains of their once splendid establishments, for to save anything it was not only necessary to get it out of the house, but out of the neighborhood. The Park was filled with such as lived near enough to avail themselves of its sheltering space. I went to the convent purposely to ascertain its fate, and was sorry to find only its blackened walls and burning casement. It was situated in the heart of the city. Gen. Sherman had sent it a special guard, but against fire they could not protect it. The Sisters and their charge took refuge in the church which fortunately escaped. I saw them all standing in the church yard, and had quite a talk with the priest. He was very unreasonable and blamed Sherman severely. I explained to him that this was the work of lawlessness and that no man would regret it more than Sherman. I was afterwards glad to hear that the General called on them next morning, and did what he could to alleviate their condition. They had purchased a place in the country, and he sent ambulances to take them out there, and sent them provision. About eleven o'clock order was so far restored that what stragglers we had collected were turned over at corps headquarters and the brigade returned to camp. The new state house remained intact, but the old one was destroyed. The new one when completed will be a splendid building. It is of solid granite and the walls are up to the cornice but there the work was stopped at the breaking out of the war. In the yard was erected a handsome palmetto tree of cast iron, in honor of the Palmetto Regiment which went from South Carolina to the Mexican War. It was painted green and some mistook it for a living tree. It remained uninjured.

There is no question but the burning of Columbia was a disgraceful affair, but who was to blame for it is naturally the next inquiry. The rebels say Gen. Sherman, but of course they could not think of blaming themselves. When it became known to Gen. Beauregard that Sherman intended going there, he advised the evacuation of the place by the military, and for a deputation to meet Sherman at Orangeburg and surrender the place, and this the Mayor and citizens were anxious to do. Had they done so there is no doubt they would have been treated as such conduct deserved. But their brave Governor would defend the place to the last man, and the chivalric Wade Hampton would fight us from house to house. Thus they were throwing dust in each other's eyes until Sherman was at the gate, and then our gallant Governor, as all their leaders will do some day, took to his heels leaving the Mayor to surrender the town when it was ours, in spite of him. And when the troops entered they commenced, by giving them whiskey, the work of their own destruction.

And if we review the history of this city, we shall find little in it to conciliate the favor of a Yankee army. Here it was the first ordinance of secession was adopted. Here was the germ of all the evils that for four years have beset the nation, and this the capital of the state, which by a bullying spirit and violent fanaticism frightened other states into following her example. Here it was they shaved men's heads, tarred and feathered them and rode them on a rail, for no other offence than loyalty to the old flag. One case I will mention, that of an Irish stone cutter who worked on the new state house. Powers by name, and those who knew him say as fine a young man as there was in the city, had been served in this manner by the vigilance committee, shipped to Charleston and warned, by the first steamer to quit the Confederacy. When I think of this, as I heard many of those deeply interested say, "if only the guilty suffered it would be well."

Afternoon we were ordered out to assist in tearing up railroad, and collecting all that were sober enough to go we marched out about seven miles and commenced work. Next day we returned and in doing so passed the extensive plantation of Wade Hampton, when on leaving he had destroyed two thousand bales of cotton and several cribs of corn. When we got back we found our stragglers all sober and ready for duty. The Columbia spree was over.

Details were at work breaking locomotives and other railroad property that would not burn, also carting heavy ammunition to the river. At this work a sad accident occurred which cost the lives of some and the limbs of others. Explosions were continually occurring. The amount of powder and other materials of war destroyed was immense.

On the morning of Feb 20th, we bade Columbia farewell, and no doubt those who remained saw us depart without regret, and who would blame them, for instead of a fair and lovely city we left them a forest of blackened chimneys and a heap of rubbish. Now for a scene on the road. Refugees, white and black and some between those colors filed in vehicles of every description from an army wagon to a one-horse cart thronged the way, all following the Moses of their day to the land of promise. We marched that day about sixteen miles and the next our Brigade was in advance, and about nine o'clock our regiment was sent a mile to the left to hold a bridge on Wateree Creek until relieved. There was some Johnnies out across, and foragers coming in from there reported they had captured and murdered two of our foragers. Those who brought this intelligence also brought in with them about twenty-five splendid mules which they found in a swamp. We remained there about four (hours?) and were then relieved by the 52nd Ill. of the 11th Div. We then rejoined the Brigade on the top of a hill across Wateree River. There was a one-legged Captain captured here who had just come there as he supposed to get out of our way. Next morning it was raining. We passed through the village of "Liberty Hill" which was a scene of a battle of the American Revolution. It was a neat little place. Do not know whether it was burned after we passed or not. It rained nearly all the afternoon and we camped early at a place called Flat Rock. Next morning found it still raining, and in the fore part of the day the roads were in an awful condition. Afternoon they were some better but the rain did not cease, and through it we made a march of twenty miles but did not get to camp until after ten o'clock. Our regimental wagon and many others was capsized back on the road. Everything all wet and mud, and to add to the rest it was my turn for picket, but fortunately we go in so close to another division that no picket was needed. Tis such nights as this makes a soldier think of home and sigh for its comforts.

To our right we had left Camden, another place of Revolutionary fame. The 7th Ill. had skirmished into town over the very ground on which the Baron De-Kalb was slain. A monument to his memory marks the spot.

Go to page 3

Many thanks to Marguerite Harris Main who submitted this information.

Return to Scrapbook page