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Fear, Fire, & Fear Fire and Fortitude: Soldiers and Civilians in Columbia, South Carolina January-February 1865

A Scholarly Monograph by Jacqueline G. Campbell

— Out of Print —

1 August 1999

The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 9


A Bizarre Bazaar

The “dark leaden clouds” and the cold damp air reflected the melancholy mood of the citizens in Columbia, South Carolina, as 1864 drew to a close. As the bleak eve of the new year advanced, diarist Grace Brown Elmore wrote in her journal:

. . . the last of ’64, a gloomy, dark day, the end of a gloomy year. . . Our present situation is darkly, terribly strange, and yet we must not will not, give up hope. Four years ago if we had been compelled to fly from home we could not have been so downcast, for then we expected to give up home and everything and there were other parts of the Confederacy safe and ready to take us in. But now where shall we find, safety, where can we lay our weary heads and rest our sickened heart? There is not a spot to which we can flee with an assurance of safety.

Elmore’s depressing assessment reflected the reality that had permeated the diminishing home front of the shrinking Confederacy. However, in Columbia, South Carolina — the very heart of the rebellion — the New Year opened to the full gamut of emotions ranging from optimism to despair.

Columbia was now the epicenter of Southern society. A flood of refugees from Georgia, Tennessee, and other parts of South Carolina brought their habits and concerns to South Carolina’s capital city. By 1865 Columbia’s pre-war population of 8,000 had tripled. Residents assumed, with good cause, that the capital city with its strategic railroad connections, munitions factories, and chemical laboratory for the Niter and Mining Bureau, would be defended against the invaders.

Columbia was typical of the demographics of the few remaining Southern cities in that a large percentage of the population was female. In April 1864 the Treasury Bureau moved from Richmond to Columbia, bringing with it approximately 100 female workers. The Saluda Cotton factory employed large numbers of women producing cotton for the Confederacy. Various branches of the Confederate government maintained offices in Columbia. They depended on women to perform a large part of the work of the agencies. Because of its position as a major railroad depot, some 1200 federal prisoners were housed in the city’s insane asylum. Regularly scheduled trains provided important links with the coast and with Charlotte, North Carolina, providing essential subsistence to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Encased deep within the old Confederacy, Columbia was perceived to be a place of security. Parents sent their young girls to boarding schools that were still operating. Wealthy families from Charleston and the Carolina Low Country brought with them their physical and human property. Seventeen financial institutions, compared with three before the war, were now in operation. Their vaults were filled to overflow with the valuables of wealthy South Carolina planters and merchants from Charleston. “[H]ere was to be found an accumulation of wealth, in plate, jewels, pictures, books, manufactures of art and virtue, not to be estimated — not, perhaps to be paralleled in any other town of the Confederacy.”2 Sallie Heyward described Columbia as a city “teeming with an overflowing population.” Besides the many who had sought refuge there, others had transferred “their household goods, silver, jewels, and other valuable things to a place which was deemed perfectly safe. Thus it came to pass that our city was really a grand art gallery, as well as a treasure house for the persecuted children of our state.”

Yet the new year brought increasing anxiety to South Carolina as Sherman and his formidable army cast their shadow over the state. A 17-year-old resident, Emma LeConte heard dreadful accounts of “outrages and horrors” from her Grandmother in Milledgeville, Georgia, and could not help but worry about the fate of Columbia. On January 9th Mayor Goodwyn set up committees in Columbia to recruit labor and solicit aid in fortifying the city. The reaction of the people was far from encouraging. Despite the fact that personal correspondence reflected a feeling of apprehension, the people of Columbia failed to rally to Mayor Goodwyn’s request. It seemed to the young Emma that Columbians had “reached that lethargic state in which men prefer to suffer anything rather than act.”

This monograph is out-of-print, but the entire text can be downloaded and printed at no charge as a pdf: Fear, Fire, & Fortitude: Soldiers and Civilians in Columbia, South Carolina January-February 1865.