- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

Columbia, S.C., was the birthplace of secession. On Dec. 17, 1860, a little more than a month after Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, delegates elected by the voters of the Palmetto State met at the First Baptist Church on Plain Street (now Hampton Street) to attend a convention to decide whether South Carolina would remain in the Union.

This gathering of leading citizens of South Carolina quickly drafted a resolution of secession after D.F. Jamison, the convention’s president, expressed the unanimous sentiment of those present that “there is no common bond of sympathy or interest between the North and the South, [and] all efforts to preserve this Union will be not only fruitless but fatal to the less numerous section.”

Three days later, having moved to Charleston because of an outbreak of smallpox in Columbia, the convention voted 169-0 to secede from the Union.

That fateful meeting at Columbia’s First Baptist Church was the first in a series of events that led inexorably to disunion and our nation’s bloodiest conflict.

During January and early February of 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas followed South Carolina out of the Union. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina voted for secession in April and May of 1861. By that time, the Confederate States of America had been formed, Fort Sumter had been fired upon by Confederate forces and surrendered by the Union, and great armies were being raised and trained to fight what almost everyone believed would be a short war.

Four years later, after the devastation of huge swaths of Southern territory, including the destruction of much of Columbia, and the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans, including President Lincoln, the Civil War ended.


South Carolina had long been the incubator of secessionist sentiment. Many of the most prominent secessionist “fire-eaters,” including Robert Barnwell Rhett, whom historian James L. Abrahamson calls the “Father of Secession,” were residents of the Palmetto State.

Rhett and others had been advocating secession for many years before Lincoln’s election. As Mr. Abrahamson explains in his interesting and important study “Men of Secession and Civil War 1859-1861,” “Rhett wanted South Carolinians — and, indeed, all Southerners — to unite across party lines and unyieldingly defend slavery and Southern interests as he defined them.”

For Rhett and his followers, “a Confederacy of Southern States” was the surest means to complete “our long struggle for our rights against [Northern] oppression.”

Rhett was present with Jamison and five former governors of South Carolina in the Baptist church on that fateful day in December 1860 when the South started its journey toward the abyss.

A stately structure

The church building where the convention met, which still stands, was completed in 1859 with money raised and contributed by Dr. James P. Boyce, its pastor in the early 1850s. It is a stately red brick structure with four large brick columns in the front. Its architect, George Edward Walker, also designed the governor’s mansion.

At the time, the church had a seating capacity of 900 to 1,000, making it a suitable alternative to the Statehouse, which was unavailable that December day.

The church sanctuary has two sections of wooden pews on either side of a long middle aisle leading to a beautiful raised altar. Above each section of pews is a narrow balcony exceeding the length of the pew sections and stopping at the altar. In the hallway of the church is the table used by the delegates to draft the resolution of secession.

Today, this building is called the Boyce Chapel and is part of a much larger structure that is the current First Baptist Church of Columbia. Its historic importance is noted by a plaque on the front of the building and a street sign nearby.

The celebration

The day after the convention adopted the secession resolution drafted in the Baptist church, the City Council of Columbia passed the following resolution:

“Whereas, The State of South Carolina has resumed her position as an independent sovereignty, and in view of this great event it is proper that this community should make demonstrations of unqualified joy on this great occasion; therefore be it

“1. Resolved, That the City Council request the citizens of Columbia to close their places of business at 2 o’clock, P.M. THIS DAY, and that the balance of the day be observed as a time of General rejoicing.

“2. That the bells of the city and of the various churches be rung at 2 o’clock, P.M., for one hour.

“3. That the citizens be requested to illuminate their dwellings and places of business at 7 o’clock, P.M.

“4. That the Columbia Artillery and the Commandant of the Arsenal be requested to fire a salute at 2 o’clock, P.M. ”

In Columbia, Charleston and elsewhere in South Carolina, local people celebrated secession with parades, cannon firings, bonfires and bell ringing.

Two documents

The convention delegates in Charleston also produced two important documents: the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina From the Federal Union, which, like the Declaration of Independence, explained the reasons for secession, and an Address to the People of the Slave-holding States of the United States, which urged all the slave states to separate from the Union.

These documents were used by secessionists in other Southern states to urge their residents to follow South Carolina out of the Union.

One of the few prominent voices in South Carolina that lamented what had just been accomplished belonged to Louis Petigru, a respected lawyer in Charleston who presciently warned his fellow South Carolinians that they had “set a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and please God, we shall have no more peace forever.”

As the momentum in favor of secession grew, however, its Southern opponents in South Carolina and elsewhere gradually gave up the lost cause of Unionism.

Strategic center

Columbia’s contribution to the Confederate war effort (in addition to sending its sons to fight) included the State Arsenal, located at the site of the present governor’s mansion; the Arsenal Academy, which was a military prep school; a war mobilization camp; several facilities for treating and caring for wounded Confederate soldiers; a gunpowder mill; a rifle factory; the Palmetto Iron Works, which manufactured bullets and cannon; clothing factories that supplied uniforms and shoes for Confederate soldiers; and the Confederate printing presses that produced paper currency for the government.

Columbia also was an important railroad center for the Confederacy. Columbia, therefore, was of great strategic value to the Confederacy and was a legitimate military target for Union forces.

Flames and destruction

Until early 1865, Columbia was behind the front lines of the war. That changed after Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s famous, successful and brutal “march to the sea.”

When Union troops occupied Savannah, Ga., Sherman brilliantly concealed his next target, feigning toward Charleston and Augusta but aiming at Columbia. By Feb. 16, 1865, Sherman’s forces were at the outskirts of Columbia, and they entered the state capital virtually unopposed the next day. What happened next is still the subject of much historical controversy.

Sometime on Feb. 17, fires began to burn in the heart of the city. Soon, a strong, swirling wind spread the fires. Between 8 p.m. and 3 the next morning, about one-third of Columbia — 458 buildings — was destroyed by the conflagration.

Who was to blame?

Confederate political and military leaders and many residents of Columbia immediately pointed accusing fingers at Sherman and his troops. The burning of Columbia, they claimed, was just another example of Sherman’s “scorched earth” warfare and the wreaking of vengeance by Union troops on the birthplace of secession.

Sherman and other Unionists blamed retreating Confederate soldiers and their commanders in Columbia. The truth, as carefully examined in Marion B. Lucas’ excellent book “Sherman and the Burning of Columbia” (University of South Carolina Press, 2000), is that there was plenty of blame to go around.

First, Confederate leaders had issued standing orders for retreating soldiers to burn supplies of cotton in order to prevent their falling into Union hands. That order, which officials in Columbia attempted to rescind at the last minute as Sherman’s troops approached, resulted in the starting of a series of separate fires by Confederate soldiers and citizens.

Second, additional destruction was caused by Union shelling as Sherman’s forces approached Columbia.

Third, Sherman did order the burning and destruction of military-related buildings in the city.

Fourth, some Union troops got drunk and engaged in individual acts of vandalism and destruction.

Fifth, there were riots in the streets that produced random acts of violence and pillage.

Sixth, and perhaps most important, a strong and persistent wind spread the fires and hampered the efforts of Columbia’s citizens and Union soldiers to control and extinguish the flames.

As Mr. Lucas explains, “once the fire began, it was impossible to control until the wind abated. … [T]he wind carried burning shingles, boards, and sparks in all directions and was responsible for spreading the flames.”

The burning of much of Columbia, Mr. Lucas concludes, was an “accident of war.” It was “the culmination of … riots, robbery, pillage, confusion, and fires, all of which were the by-products of war.”

As Sherman once explained, “War is cruelty; you cannot refine it.” In the final analysis, the city of Columbia was the victim of the cruelty of war — a war, ironically, that began as a result of that Dec. 17, 1860, meeting in the city’s First Baptist Church.

Francis P. Sempa is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century.”

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