23 Febrary 1865: “There is one thing sertain this war cannot last many months longer”

Item Description: A letter from Theodore W. Skinner to his family regarding his thoughts on Wilmington, Jefferson Davis, the War, and the moral of his fellow soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Wilmington.

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Item Citation: Unit 45, in the Federal Soldiers’ Letters #3185, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Item Transcription:

Wilmington, NC

Feb 23/65

Dear folkes at home

Wilmington is ours. The enemy evacuated it night before last. We took possession of the place yesterday morning. The place is strongly fortified it does not seem as if they would go and leave such works it must be that rebellion is about placed. It must make old Jeff feel rather weak in the knees to have so many of the yanks to work in his rear. I should not be surprised if he was (?) Richmond before many days. When Shermans army and Yarry (?) form a junction and march on to Richmond he will rather have to vacuate the place and be captured and I do not think he would like the idea of being captured. There is one thing sertain this war cannot last many months longer. I think all of the soldiers that live to see an other [sic] winter can spend their time at home. The rebs did not make much of a stand we out flanked them every time we have had to do a great deal of marching but it has accomplished all that we desired. Wilmington is not so much of a place as I expected to find it. The buildings look old. There are a plenty of citizens in this town any quantity of women both white and black and quite a number of men. The boys’ll feel pretty well they had some hard marching but what they have accomplished is a good medicine for all complaints. I am well as usual. My feet were sure sore but a good nights rest has done a good deal towards curing them and are encamped about three quarters of a mile out of town. I do not think we shall remain here many days. Well I must close. Love to all. From your boy. Theodore W. Skinner


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22 February 1865: “I have seen the “Abomination of Desolation”. It is even worse than I thought. The place is literally in ruins.””

Item description: Entry, dated 22 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C.


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

Item transcription:

Wed. Feb. 22nd.
– I meant last night to write down some description of what I had seen, but was too wretchedly depressed and miserable to even think of it. This morning we have heard that he is safe and I can take up my journal again. Yesterday afternoon we walked all over the town in company with Miss Ellen LaBordo – Yes, I have seen it all – I have seen the “Abomination of Desolation”. It is even worse than I thought. The place is literally in ruins. The entire heart of the city is in ashes – only the outer edges remain. On the whole length of Sumter Street not one house beyond the first block after the Campus is standing, except the brick house of Mr. Mordecai. Standing in the centre of the town, as far as the eye can reach nothing is to be seen but heaps of rubbish, tall dreary chimneys and shattered brick walls, while “In the hollow windows, dreary horror’s sitting”. Poor old Columbia – where is all her beauty – so admired by strangers – so loved by her children! She can only excite the pity of the former and the tears of the latter. I hear several Yankee officers remarked to some citizens on the loveliness of their town as they first saw it by sunrise across the river.

Blanding Street, crossing Main and Sumter at right angles, the finest street in town, is also a sad picture. The Preston house with its whole square of beautiful gardens escaped. It was Gen. Logan’s headquarters. The Crawford house – the Bryce’s – the Howe’s and one or two others also escaped. All nearer Main Street were burned. The Clarkson house is a heap of brick with most of its tall columns standing, blackened by the smoke. Bedell’s lovely little house is in ruins while as if in mockery the shrubbery is not even scorched – But I cannot particularize – with very few exceptions all our friends are homeless. We enter Main Street – since the war in crowd and bustle it has rivalled a city thoroughfare – what desolation! Everything has vanished as by enchantment – stores, merchants, customers – all the eager faces gone – only three or four dismal looking people to be seen picking their way over heaps of rubbish, brick and timbers. The wind moans among the bleak chimneys and whistles through the gaping windows of some hotel or warehouse. The market a ruined shell supported by crumbling arches – its spire fallen in and with it the old town clock whose familiar stroke we miss so much. After trying to distinguish localities and hunting for familiar buildings we turned to Arsenal Hill. Here things looked more natural. The Arsenal was destroyed but comparatively few dwellings. Also the Park and its surroundings looked familiar. As we passed the old State house going back I paused to gaze on the ruins – only the foundations and chimneys – and to recall the brilliant scene enacted there one short month ago. And I compared that scene with its beauty, gayety and festivity – the halls so elaborately decorated – the surging throng – with this. I reached home sad at heart and full of all I had seen. Presently we heard a commotion in the yard. Running out on the back verandah we saw, standing in the middle of the yard, Sandy and the boys and the negroes who had remained grouped around them. As soon as they saw us Annie screamed! “The Yankees has caught ‘em. Mass Johnny’s come back and Master’s took prisoner.” Asking Sandy about father, he said that he and Capt. Green were in the woods when the party was captured – we could learn nothing succinct from him, and all tired as we were, rushed over to see Johnny. We found him in the kitchen with Cousin Lula and the two white servants – all the rest were out. Johnny gave us a description of their capture. The Yankees they fell in with treated them kindly and he thought Uncle John would soon be paroled. He thought father must have been captured, as the woods were alive with Yankees – he did not see how they could escape, and he feared he would fare worse for trying to escape. And even if he did escape the country had been so entirely swept that he could get nothing to eat. Father and Capt. Green were out scouting when the wagons were taken. As Johnny started home yesterday and had seen father last on Sunday morning, there seemed little grounds to hope that he had not been taken. Yet if I had been certain of his capture it would have been less dreadful than the thought of his hiding in the woods cold and hungry and the possibility of being shot. It was dreadful – everything was burst open – all our silver and valuables stolen – articles of clothing slashed up by bayonets and burned, with father’s valuable books carried off for safety, and all our table linen and bedding, blankets etc.. But we did not once think of these things in the great anxiety and distress about father. Then Aunt Josie and Aunt Jane, Mrs. Green and Cousin Ada came in. Cousin Lula went to break the news. Aunt Josie was quite overcome – she and mother wept together, Aunt Jane trying to comfort them. I drew back in the shadow of the staircase – it seemed as if my heart would break, and I cried by myself till Cousin Ada turning said “poor Emma” and put her arms around me. It was dark and we had to go home. I rushed upstairs to my room and threw myself down beside the bed – my heart was bursting – one horrible picture always before my eyes. This morning mother learned from Moultrie Gibbes that father is safe. He saw him at a house 18 miles from Columbia. It is impossible to tell of the relief after such suspense. I feel so thankful. We learned from Sandy that the negroes at the nitre plantation, who were along, have taken possession of and brought home some of our things. Mother and Aunt Josie went to Capt. Stanley of the provost guard and he has promised to institute a thorough search for them. But how could we guess that our house would not be treated like the rest. Luckily we did not send off our summer clothing. Sandy says they dived immediately into the box of wine and told him to tell his mistress they were much obliged, as they swallowed hock and champagne.

Henry says one mill has been spared and we can get corn ground. The negroes are flocking in from the devastated country to be fed. Mayor Goodwyn has ordered them to be sent back, as the town is threatened with starvation. Indeed I do not know what will become of us unless relief comes in, from Edgefield or Augusta. In every other direction we understand the country is a desert – Orangeburg, Winnsboro’, Chester, Camden – all in ashes. Incarnate fiends! And Sherman! – “O for a tongue to curse the slave.”

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21 February 1865: “There is not a house I believe in Columbia that has not been pillaged”

Item Description: Entry, dated 21 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. She writes with anger about the destruction that has taken place in Columbia.


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

Item Transcription:

Tuesday 21st.
– The night with its fear of stragglers is past and we may breathe more freely but not less sadly. The destruction and desolation around us which we could not feel while under such excitement and fear now exerts its full sway. Sad? – The very air is fraught with sadness and silence. The few noises that break the stillness seem melancholy and the sun does not seem to shine as brightly, seeming to be dimmed by the sight of so much misery. I was at Aunt Josie’s this morning and there learned for the first time the extent of suffering. O God! When we think of what we have escaped and how almost miraculously we have been saved we should never rise from our knees. There is not a house I believe in Columbia that has not been pillaged – those that the flames spared were entered by brutal soldiery and everything wantonly destroyed. The streets were filled with terrified women and children who were offered every insult and indignity short of personal outrage – they were allowed to save nothing but what clothes they wore, and there is now great suffering for food. It would be impossible to describe or even to conceive the pandemonium and horror. There is no shadow of doubt that the town was burned by Sherman’s order. All through Georgia, it is said, he promised his men full license in South Carolina. The signals both for firing and ceasing were given – the soldiers were provided with the materials for the work – and yet I hear that he already denies it and tries to put the responsibility on Gen. Hampton. At one time Friday night, when Aunt Josie’s house and other buildings were taking fire, the College buildings were given up and the poor wounded soldiers who could not be moved resigned themselves to death.

Dr. Carter says it was a touching sight to see the poor fellows trying manfully to nerve themselves to meet their fate. And there was the regiment ostensible sent to extinguish the fire, calmly looking on without raising a finger, and the patriots on the streets themselves applying the torch. The hospital was saved by one Yankee Captain and two men – yet it contained many of their own wounded soldiers. The unfinished granite State house was not blown up because they were short of powder and it is unroofed. All that could be destroyed was ruined by the burning of the work-sheds – fine carving, capitals, columns, ornamental work etc., I can hardly help feeling that our total exemption from insult and plunder was due in some way to the influence of the strange man who called himself Davis and promised us protection. Why in many houses the very guards stationed to protect helped the soldiers in smashing and destroying. It is sickening to listen to the tale of distress, much more to try to write of it. A heavy curse has fallen on this town – from a beautiful bustling city it is turned into a desert.

How desolate and dreary we feel – how completely cut off from the world. No longer the shrill whistle of engine – no daily mail – the morning brings no paper with news from outside – there are no lights – no going to and fro. It is as if a city in the midst of business and activity were suddenly smitten with some appalling curse. One feels awed if by chance the dreary stillness is broken by a laugh or too loud a voice. How unhappy poor father and Uncle John – Julian and Cousin Johnny will be when they hear of this. There has even been a report afloat that Aunt Josie’s house was burned and Cousin Lula perished in the flames – if they should hear that!

I wonder if the vengeance of heaven will not pursue such fiends! Before they came here I thought I hated them as much as was possible – now I know there are no limits to the feeling of hatred.

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20 February 1865: “the last of the army is leaving the city”

Item Description: Entry, dated 17 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. She continues to describe the aftermath of the burning of Columbia.


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

Item Transcription:

Monday Feb. 20th
– Quite early this morning a Yankee entered the yard looking for Henry, who forthwith locked himself in his room. Mother went out and asked the mean filthy devil if he wished to make Henry go against his will. He hesitated a little, and said “no”, but he wished to see him. The soldier – the dirtiest, meanest looking creature imaginable – told mother, when she threatened to send for the guard if he did not leave, that he was one of the guard himself. “Well” said mother “there are two officers at my sister’s house and I will send to them”. The Yankee turned and left the yard. Mrs. Bell tells us that Sherman turned loose upon us a brigade that he had never allowed to enter any other city on account of their desperate and villainous character. And yet they talk now of being ashamed of what followed, and try to lay it on the whiskey they found! Shortly after breakfast – O joyful sight – the two corps encamped behind the Campus back of us marched by with all their immense wagon trains on their way from Columbia. They tell us all will be gone by tomorrow evening. O that we were completely rid of them! and that father were with us.

I might then know what it is to feel happy one moment. Under other circumstances it would have been a wonderful sight to see this great army with its endless trains march by. With the memory of Friday night burned in it was hard to look at them.

A great drove of lean ill-looking cattle was driven into the Campus today – our two cows have not been taken from us. Neither the Roman Catholic, Trinity (Episcopal) or Presbyterian Churches were burnt. It was a miracle the latter was saved – everything around it was destroyed. In Trinity churchyard soldiers were encamped. Of course there was no Service in any of the churches yesterday – no Church bells ringing – the Yankees riding up and down the streets – the provost guard putting up their camp – there was nothing to suggest Sunday. What balmy, delicious weather we have had for three days past – most fortunate it is or there would have been even more suffering. Henry has already cut down two trees in the yard to give us fuel. ***** Mother has just this moment returned from Aunt Josie’s bringing the news that the last of the army is leaving the city. The provost guard has broken up camp also. This leaves the terror of stragglers before us – we expected the guard would remain a day or two. There is no knowing what outrages may be committed. Mother is going to try to get Mr. Thomson to stay here at night. She wants to send me to Aunt Josie’s but I will not leave her alone. We must trust to Henry’s protection.

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19 February 1865: ” if only the whole army could have been roasted alive!”

Item Description: Entry, dated 17 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C.

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

Item Transcription:

Sunday, Feb. 19th.
– The day has passed quietly as regards the Yankees. About eleven o’clock last night as everything seemed quiet and Henry intended to sit up, I thought I would follow mother’s example and get some rest. So without taking off my clothes – only loosening them – I lay down and slept soundly all night. I woke at seven much refreshed. Sallie in a few moments opened her eyes and said, “O mother, is it already day? I am so glad – I thought the light in the window was the reflection from a fire”. I rose, took off my clothes for the first time in three days, and after bathing and putting on clean clothes felt like another being. This morning fresh trouble awaited us. We thought the negroes were going to leave us. While we were on the back piazza Mary Ann came to us weeping and saying she feared the Yankees were going to force Henry to go off with them, and of course she would have to go with her husband. He did not want to go and would not unless forced. She seemed greatly distressed at the thought of leaving the master and mistress who had supplied the place of father and mother to her, an orphan. The others, Maria and her children, want to go I think. They have been dressed in their Sundays best all day. Mary Ann when she came to get dinner said she could cook two more meals for us anyway. Mother went over to Aunt Josie’s to consult her . She advised that, if they left, mother should get Dr. Thomson to put some sick men in our house to protect it, and we must all move over there as she has two white servants. On her return however she talked to Henry, who vows he will never leave us unless dragged away, and he thinks he can avoid them. They are free however at present and we ask as little as possible of them – such as cooking our little food and bringing water from the well. The water-works being destroyed we have to get water from the Campus well. If Jane offers to clean up our room, all very well – if not, we do it ourselves. This afternoon I washed the dinner things and put the room to rights. The house is untouched except this one room we live in which I manage to keep neat and clean. This is my first experience in work of this kind and I find it is better than doing nothing. The negroes, when we ask, however seem quite willing and have given us not the slightest impertinence. While mother was at Aunt Josie’s I took Carrie up in the drawing room to amuse her. While we stood by the front window the house was shaken by a terrible explosion. As the gas works were burning at the time, I concluded it was the gasometer, but remembering we had had no gas for two or three days that seemed impossible. Henry has just explained it. Our men had buried a number of shells near the river – an attempt was made to excavate them and one going off accidentally exploded the rest, killing wounding a great many Yankees. How I rejoice to think of any of them being killed. Dr. Bell says about 200 were burnt up Friday night – drunk perhaps – if only the whole army could have been roasted alive!

The provost guard is encamped opposite the Campus. It consists of one battalion and is to remain until the last straggler leaves town. Two of the officers went to Aunt Josie’s and saying they wished quarters opposite their camp – she was obliged to accommodate them and give up her library for their use. Their horrid old gridiron of a flag is flaunting its bars in our faces all day. Ever since dark thick clouds of smoke have been rolling up from the arsenal and I fear the flames will spread over the hill. Mary Ann came to see us in great distress this afternoon to tell us that a Yankee had sworn to her that these buildings should be burned tonight. Enquiring of an officer, mother was assured there was no danger – I suppose it was only a drunken threat. Mother looked over the town this morning from Aunt Josie’s attic window. She described a scene of fearful desolation. Here all is hidden from us. When they are gone I will walk out of the Campus and see it all – yet how I dread it! Poor Columbia! Sometimes I try to picture it to myself as it now is, but I cannot. I always see the leafy streets and lovely gardens – the familiar houses. I cannot imagine the ruins and ashes to save my life. How I hate the people who have done this! A few moments ago there was a violent ring the the bell. I was the only person awake, and I roused Jane up and sent her upstairs. It was some Yankee officers who wished to know where Mayor Goodwyn lived. Sherman it seems wished to appoint a meeting with him in order to leave arms for the citizens to protect them from stragglers.

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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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17 February 1865: ” the U.S. flag run up over the State house. O what a horrid sight! what a degradation!”

Item Description: Entry, dated 17 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. She writes about the capture of the city of Columbia.


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

Item Transcription:

Friday, 17th Feb.
How long is this distress of mind to continue! It is now about eleven o’clock, and the longest morning I ever lived through. I threw myself on the bed late last night, or rather early this morning, without undressing, feeling if I did not take some rest I would be sick. I lay awake a long time in spite of heavy eyelids, listening to the occasional cannon reports, wondering if the shelling would be renewed and thinking of the tumult there was reigning uptown. At last I fell into a heavy sleep. At about six o’clock while it was still quite dark and all in the room were buried in profound slumber, we were suddenly awakened by a terrific explosion. The house shook – broken window-panes clattered down, and we all sat up in bed, for a few seconds mute with terror. My first impression on waking was that a shell had struck the house, but as soon as I could collect my senses I know that no shell could make such a noise. We lit the candle, and mother sent Jane to inquire of Henry the cause. Of course he did not know. I went out of doors. The day was beginning to break murkily and the air was still heavy with smoke. All continuing quiet we concluded that the authorities had blown up some stores before evacuating. Whatever the cause, the effect was to scare us very effectively and to drive away all thought of sleep. We got up an hour later, almost fainting for we had eaten almost nothing the preceeding day. I forced myself to eat a little and to drink a half cup of coffee. After breakfast the cannon opened again and so near that every report shook the house. I think it must have been a cannonade to cover our retreat. It did not continue very long. The negroes all went uptown to see what they could get in the general pillage, for all the shops had been opened and provisions were scattered in all directions. Henry says that in some parts of Main Street corn and flour and sugar cover the ground. An hour or two ago they came running back declaring the Yankees were in town and that our troops were fighting them in the streets. This was not true, for at that time every soldier nearly had left town, but we did not know it then. I had been feeling wretchedly faint and nauseated with every mouthful of food I swallowed, and now I trembled all over and thought I should faint. I knew this would not do, so I lay down awhile and by dint of a little determination got quiet again. Mother is downright sick. She had been quite collected and calm until this news, but now she suddenly lost all self-control and exhibited the most lively terror – indeed I thought she would grow hysterical. As for Sallie her fright may be more easily imagined than described. This condition of affairs only lasted about half-an-hour, but it was dreadful while it did last. As soon as I could I put on my pocket and nerved myself to meet them, but by-and-by the firing ceased and all was quiet again. It was denied that the Yankees had yet crossed the river or even completed their pontoon bridge, and most of the servants returned uptown. They have brought back a considerable quantity of provisions – the negroes are very kind and faithful – they have supplied us with meat and Jane brought mother some rice and crushed sugar for Carrie, knowing that she had none. How times change! Those whom we have so long fed and cared for now help us – *** We are intensely eager for every item of news, but of course can only hear through the negroes. A gentleman told us just now that the mayor had gone forward to surrender the town.

One o’clock p.m. – Well, they are here. I was sitting in the back parlor when I heard the shouting of the troops. I was at the front door in a moment. Jane came running and crying – “O Miss Emma, they’ve come at last!” She said they were then marching down Main Street, before them flying a panic-stricken crowd of women and children who seemed crazy. As she came along by Aunt Josie’s Miss Mary was at the gate about to run out – “For God’s sake Miss Mary” she cried “stay where you are”. I suppose she (Miss M.) thought of running to the Convent. I ran upstairs to my bedroom windows just in time to see the U.S. flag run up over the State house. O what a horrid sight! what a degradation! After four long bitter years of bloodshed and hatred, now to float there at last! That hateful symbol of despotism! I do not think I could possibly describe my feelings. I know I could not look at it. I left the window and went back downstairs to mother. In a little while a guard arrived to protect the hospital. They have already fixed a shelter of boards near against the wall near the gate – sentinels are stationed and they are cooking their dinner. The wind is very high today and blows their hats around. This is the first sight we have had of these fiends except as prisoners. The sight does not stir up very pleasant feelings in our hearts. We cannot look at them with anything but horror and hatred – loathing and disgust. The troops now in town is a brigade commanded by Col. Stone. Everything is quiet and orderly. Guards have been placed to protect houses, and Sherman has promised not to disturb private property. How relieved and thankful we feel after all our anxiety and distress! -

Later – Gen. Sherman has assured the Mayor, “that he and all the citizens may sleep securely and quietly tonight as if under Confederate rule. Private property shall be carefully respected. Some public buildings have to be destroyed, but he will wait until tomorrow when the wind shall have entirely subsided”. It is said that one or two stragglers from Wheeler’s command fired on the flag as it was borne down Main Street on the carriage containing the Mayor, Col. Stone and officers.

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16 February 1865: “He calls himself a Confederate spy or scout and is an oddity”

Item Description: Entry, dated 16 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. Emma provides a detailed account of shelling beginning in Columbia.


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

Item Transcription:

Thursday 16th. Feb.
How can the terror and excitement of today be described! I feel a little quieter now and seize the opportunity to write a few lines. Last night, or rather early this morning, father left. After the last lines in my entry last evening, I went downstairs and found in the back parlor with father a man calling himself Davis. I had heard father speak of him before. He met him in Georgia while making his way back home with Sallie, and he was very kind to them during that difficult journey. He calls himself a Confederate spy or scout and is an oddity. I only half trust him – he evidently is not what he pretends to be. He says he is a Kentuckian and is both coarse and uneducated, but wonderfully keen and penetrating. He talked a great deal and entertained us by reading our different characters for us. He has taken an unaccountable fancy to our father – as shown by his hunting him up – and he assures him again and again that he will have us protected during the presence of the Yankees here. He claims great influence with the Yankee officers and entire knowledge of the enemy’s movements. All the evening he seemed exceedingly uneasy that father should so long have deferred his departure and very impatient to get him off. He offered to lend him a horse if that would facilitate his leaving. Father is not uneasy, for our authorities assure him that all is right, but I do not like this man’s evident anxiety. Can he know more than the Generals? About half-past twelve father took leave of us. Thus to part! Father starting on an uncertain journey – not knowing whether he may not be captured in his flight, and leaving us to the mercy of the inhuman beastly Yankees – I think it was the saddest moment of my life. Of course father feels very anxious about us, and the last words the man Davis said to him were to assure him that he might feel easy about us. I wonder if there is any confidence to be put in what he says! Hardly, I suppose. We said goodbye with heavy hearts and with many presentiments of evil. After father was gone I sat up still, talking with Davis. I could not sleep, and besides I wanted to hear that father was safely off. We asked our guest how he thought Columbia would be treated – he said he would not tell us – it would alarm us too much. Does he really know all he pretends, or is he only guessing? It was three o’clock before I lay down and fell into a disturbed doze which lasted till seven. Davis stayed and slept on the ground floor, but was gone before we awoke. The breakfast hour passed in comparative calm. About nine o’clock we were sitting in the dining room, having just returned from the piazza where we had been watching a brigade of cavalry passing to the front. “Wouldn’t it be dreadful if they should shell the city?” someone said – “They would not do that”, replied mother, “for they have not demanded its surrender”. Scarcely had the words passed her lips when Jane, the nurse, rushed in crying out that they were shelling. We ran to the front door just in time to hear a shell go whirring past. It fell and exploded not far off. This was so unexpected. I do not know why, but in all my list of anticipated horrors I somehow had not thought of a bombardment. If I had only looked for it I wouldn’t have been so frightened. As it was for a few minutes I leaned against the door fairly shivering, partly with cold but chiefly from nervous excitement. After listening to them awhile this wore off and I became accustomed to the shells. Indeed we were in no immediate danger, for the shells were thrown principally higher up. They were shelling the town from the Lexington heights just over the river, and from the campus gate their troops could be seen drawn up on the hill-tops. Up the street this morning the Government stores were thrown open to the people and there was a general scramble. Our negroes were up there until frightened home by the shells. The shelling was discontinued for an hour or two and then renewed with so much fury that we unanimously resolved to adjourn to the basement and abandon the upper rooms. Sallie and I went up to our rooms to bring down our things. I was standing at my bureau with my arms full when I heard a loud report.

The shell whistled right over my head and exploded. I stood breathless, really expecting to see it fall in the room. When it had passed I went into the hall and met Sallie, coming from her room, pale and trembling . “O Emma” she said, “this is dreadful!”

We went downstairs – mother stood in the hall looking very much frightened – “Did you hear -” “Yes indeed” – and at that instant another whistled close overhead. This was growing rather unpleasant and we retreated to the basement without farther delay, where we sat listening as they fell now nearer, and now farther off. Sallie suffered most – she would not be left alone, and would not allow me to go to the outer door to look about, but would call me back in terror. The firing ceased about dinner time, but as may be imagined, none of us could eat. During the afternoon a rapid cannonade was kept up and I do not think the forces could have been more than half a mile from here. Dr. Thomson says they are only skirmishing. Davis says we have received re-inforcements, but he thinks we cannot hold the town as we have given up the strongest position. He was here this morning during the shelling and stood talking to me in the dining room for some time, giving me a picture of the confusion up town. Our soldiers had opened and plundered some of the stores. He brought me a present of a box of fancy feathers and one or two other little things he had picked up. He says the bridge will be burned and the town evacuated tonight.

10 o’clock p.m. – They are in bed sleeping, or trying to sleep. I don’t think I shall attempt it. Davis was here just now to tell us the news – it is kind of him to come so often to keep us posted. I went up to see him – made Henry light the gas and sat talking to him in the hall, while through the open door came the shouts of the soldiery drawn up along the streets ready to march out. Perhaps the Yankees may be in tonight – yet I do not feel as frightened as I thought I would. Dr. Thomson re-assures us. He does not think we shall suffer half as much as we imagine. Maggie is not coming. We three will have to tough it out alone. We have moved into the back basement room. I opened the door which gives from our present sleeping room on the back yard just now, and the atmosphere was stifling with gun-powder smoke. After I left Davis and came downstairs awhile ago the gas went out, so I am writing now by the firelight. I suppose it will be several days before we see gas again. Fortunately mother has a few candles. Henry had to cut down a tree on the yard today for fuel. But I must put by my pencil for tonight. I wonder what another day’s entry will be!


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15 February 1865: “The alarm bell is ringing. […] ‘It is the Yankees.'”

Item Description: Entry, dated 15 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. Emma writes about the impending destruction of Columbia.


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

Item Transcription:

Wednesday Feb. 15th.
Oh, how is it possible to write amid this excitement and confusion! We are too far off to hear and see much down here in the Campus, but they tell me the streets in town are lined with panic-stricken crowds, trying to escape. All is confusion and turmoil. The Government is rapidly moving off stores – all day the trains have been running, whistles blowing and wagons rattling through the streets. All day we have been listening to the booming of cannon – receiving conflicting rumors of the fighting. All day wagons and ambulances have been bringing in the wounded over the muddy streets and through the drizzling rain, with the dark gloomy clouds overhead. All day in our own household has confusion reigned too. The back parlor strewed with clothing etc., open trunks standing about, while a general feeling of misery and tension pervaded the atmosphere. Everything is to go that can be sent – houselinen, blankets, clothing, silver, jewelry – even the wine – everything movable of any value. Hospital flags have been erected at the different gates of the Campus – we hope the fact of our living within the walls may be some protection to us, but I fear not. I feel sure these buildings will be destroyed. I wish mother could have sent some furniture to different friends in town, but it is too late now. Aunt Josie has sent her pictures, Uncle John’s manuscripts and some clothing to the Roman Catholic priest’s house on Main St. Aunt Jane was here a few moments ago and advised mother as to what things she had better send off. She says Aunt Josie is in a dreadful state of excitement. Neither mother nor I are much alarmed, though poor Sallie is very much frightened and has been crying hysterically all the morning. I have destroyed most of my papers, but have a lot of letters still that I do not wish to burn, and yet I do not care to have them share the fate of Aunt Jane’s and Cousin Ada’s in Liberty Co., which were read and scattered along the roads. I will try to hide them. One of my bags is filled. The other I will pack tonight. Henry will stay with us, and vows he will stand by us through thick and thin – I believe he means it, but do not know how he will hold on. It is so cold and we have no wood. The country people will not venture in town lest their horses should be impressed. So we sit shivering and trying to coax a handful of wet pine to burn. *** Yonder come more wounded – poor fellows – indeed I can write no more. Night Nearer and nearer, clearer and more distinctly sound the cannon – Oh, it is heart-sickening to listen to it! For two or three hours after dinner the cannonade ceased, but for a half an hour past the same sounds, with the roar of musketry, break upon us – frightfully near and sounding above the din of a tumultuous town and above the rattling carts. Just now as I stood on the piazza listening, the reports sounded so frightfully loud and near that I could not help shuddering at each one. And yet there is something exciting – sublime – in a cannonade. But the horrible uncertainty of what is before us! My great fear now is for father – Oh, if he were only gone – were only safe!

The alarm bell is ringing. Just now when I first heard it clang out my heart gave a leap, and I thought at once – “It is the Yankees”. So nervous have I grown that the slightest unusual sound startles me. Of course I knew it was a fire, yet it was with a beating heart I threw open the window to see the western horizon lit up with the glow of flames. Although we are composed our souls are sick with anxiety. ***** Oh, if father were only safely off! I try to be hopeful, but if it is true, as it is said, that this is one of Sherman’s army corps, what resistance can our handful of troops make? Oh, if Cheatham’s corps would only come! Beauregard said he was expecting it in 13 hours, and that was about 2 p.m. They should therefore be here early tomorrow morning – will they come? Oh, if Columbia could only be saved! They surely ought not to give it up without a struggle.

Later – They have passed our first line of breastworks. No firing tonight. Father and Uncle John leave tonight or tomorrow morning. – **

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14 February 1865: “It is true some think Sherman will burn the town, but we can hardly believe that.”

Item Description: Entry, dated 14 February 1865, from the diary of Emma Florence LeConte, the daughter of scientist Joseph LeConte of Columbia, S.C. For the next week, we will be sharing entries from Emma LeConte’s diary that she kept during the burning of Columbia. She details Sherman’s entry into town, the burning, and its aftermath in vivid detail.


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

Item Transcription:

Feb. 14th, Tuesday.

What a panic the whole town is in! I have not been out of the house myself, but father says the intensest excitement prevails on the streets. The Yankees are reported a few miles off on the other side of the river. How strong no one seems to know. It is decided if this be true that we will remain quietly here, father alone leaving. It is thought Columbia can hardly be taken by a raid as we have the whole of Butler’s cavalry here – and if they do we have to take the consequences. It is true some think Sherman will burn the town, but we can hardly believe that. Besides these buildings, though they are State property, yet the fact that they are used as a hospital will it is thought protect them. I have been hastily making large pockets to wear under my hoopskirt – for they will hardly search our persons. Still everything of any value is to be packed up to go with father. I do not feel half so frightened as I thought I would. Perhaps because I cannot realize they are coming. I hope still this is a false report. Maggie Adams and her husband have promised to stay here during father’s absence. She is a Yankee and may be some protection and help. Our sufferings will probably be of short duration, as they will hardly send more than a raid. They would not have time to occupy the town. But I cannot believe they are coming! ********* Aunt Josie and all will remain I suppose. Indeed they would not have time now to put into execution their projected flight. Alas, what may we not have gone through with by the end of this week! Ah me, I look forward with terror, and yet with a kind of callousness to their approach.

night – Father says the above is a false alarm. It was only a raid of 300 men which was repulsed by our forces. The evil day is at least postponed.

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