Burning Columbia

photoOn February 17, 1865, fires raged through the city of Columbia, South Carolina. The day before, the city had surrendered to General Sherman and his advancing army. His troops marched in, hungry for plunder and revenge on the capital of the first state to secede from the union. By the next morning a large portion of the city lay in ruins. There is still some debate over how much of the city was burned on Sherman’s orders. Nobody questions that lax discipline and whiskey were involved.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the burning, and various organizations in Columbia are holding a series of events to mark this defining point the history of the city. I went to one of these events at the South Carolina State Museum called Through the Fire. I thought I would share some of my thoughts about it.

Voices Through Time

One element of the evening was a dramatic reading of several eyewitness accounts of the fire. It contained perspectives from Sherman and some of his soldiers, southern politicians, two women who saw the fire, and two African-American accounts. Hearing the voices of people involved brought the burning from the pages of history. It made it a human story, full of emotion and suffering. The comments were often raw and unfiltered and they give us a window into the hearts of those who lived through it.

I think the museum did a good job providing different perspectives on the fire. I would have liked to hear more African-American voices, but overall I thought it was handled well and it gave us a chance to hear what people of the past had to say.

There were even T-shirts for sale

There were even T-shirts for sale

Time Brings Perspective

One nice thing about the event was that it attempted to simply explain what happened and what it was like to live through this time. Perhaps other events give more time to assigning blame and right and wrong. Here, there were no wistful mentions of a lost cause or arguments about issues.  This event concentrated on bringing us closer to the experience as it happened. I think time now allows us to look back on this event, warts and all, and try to learn from it.

When we seek to understand the past we often try to put everything in simple cartoonish categories. Listening to the voices of the past helps us see that they were people and people are complicated. Perhaps the curator of the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and War Museum put it best when he said that it is only due to amazing efforts from both sides that 150 years later we can talk and argue about the war without re-fighting it.

It’s all about the cornbread.

The museum had the event catered with food and drink similar to what people ate 150 years ago. I had purloo, which is somewhat like jambalaya and quite tasty. There were biscuits and incredibly salty ham, which is probably as close as I want to get to hardtack and salt pork. There were multiple varieties of cornbread. Apparently our ancestors were all about cornbread. I suppose when you are marching several miles a day or burning a city you just don’t worry about carbs. Cornbread is awesome, though, so I wasn’t complaining.

photoAs I stood there munching on cornbread and listening to the bluegrass band play “Lorena,” I thought about all the people who lived through the darkest years in the history of our country. It’s hard now to imagine a time when we fought one another so viciously. Let’s hope it will always be hard to imagine.

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