The citizens of Charleston would not learn about the surrender and burning of the capital until later, but on the night of February 15, the first of Sherman’s Union soldiers reached the Congaree River across from Columbia.
The next day they aimed their artillery on the State House across the river and began shelling the city. On the morning of Friday, February 17, the mayor of Columbia surrendered the city to Sherman as Beauregard withdrew his defending troops north. There was no expected defense, so Sherman promised he would not order the city destroyed.
That day and night much of Columbia’s downtown burned, but the fires were started by the retreating rebel army, and whipped by the winds that day. In the evening, angry Union soldiers added to the problem. Sherman claimed to have never ordered any action, and that rebel fires were uncontrollable.
The retreating Confederates started fires around the city, destroying supplies and burning stored cotton bales in the streets to keep the Union army from following. Some civilians reported that Union soldiers helped extinguish those earlier fires even though high winds continued throughout the day.
That night, some Union soldiers left camp and came into town to drink and pillage. According to reports by residents, many soldiers stayed to protect the civilians from the unmanaged rage. Sherman claimed the winds spread rebel fires and burned the city, but he was accused of not confining his men to camp.
The burning of Columbia became a major Sherman horror story retold be Southerners to this day, second only to the Battle of Atlanta. But Beauregard had no problem ordering the streets set on fire, and he was never accused of the city’s destruction.