Which brings me to an event that took place in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, February 18 – just over a week ago – exactly 141 years to the day after Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman bombarded, crossed into, and ultimately burned Columbia (the capital city and my hometown): The general and his commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln, were hanged in effigy on the steps of the S.C. State House.The hangings were a peculiar feature of a weekend-long series of informative, fun, family events commemorating Sherman’s invasion of South Carolina, specifically his capture and fiery ransacking of the capital city on February 18, 1865.
Now, I am not suggesting that what happened back in February of 1865 was family fun. Fact is, it was horrible; not unlike that which acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow describes in his latest work, The March: “…Columbia was an inferno, whole streets aflame, home after home collapsing thunderously into itself, its wood sap hissing and cracking like rifle fire. The sky, too, seemed to have caught fire.”
But that was then. This is now. And what’s the point, generations later, of hanging an effigial representation of Sherman on the grounds of the State House when he was simply doing his duty as a soldier, or Lincoln who was trying to preserve the Union we all today embrace?
Moreover, it is debatable as to whether or not Sherman was actually responsible for burning the entire city, though most of Columbia was indeed reduced to ashes. His artillerists certainly fired on the capital from gun-batteries positioned beyond the west bank of the Congaree River. And once entering the city, his infantry and some of his cavalry certainly enjoyed a long revelous night of drinking, terrorizing the locals, raiding homes and businesses, and, yes, setting some fires or standing and watching those that were set.
War is “all hell,” Sherman would later proclaim, and Columbia was one of the primary strategic targets in his campaign (following his infamous march from Atlanta to the sea) to “make the Carolinas howl.” Columbia was after all the city where the Confederacy’s first secession convention was held (in the Sherman-spared church in which I would ultimately be both baptized and married).