Columbia Still Burning

Transcribed by Larry Stevens

Editor National Tribune: When I read in the National Tribune the question, "Who did start the fire?" (at Columbia S.C.), I feel it is my turn to write. I have Comrade Byers's (5th Iowa) "Diary of a Soldier Under Grant and Sherman," published by The National Tribune some time ago, before me. At this day many events that have escaped our memory tends to revive that spirit of patriotism that entered into our lives when we were called to defend our country's unity, and the feeling is as strong now in our later years as it was then. How much good the incidents written by our comrades at this late day do our old souls cannot be told. They revive us to a younger life, and make us better G.A.R. comrades and better citizens. We love to read the columns of the soldier's friend, The National Tribune. Its weekly coming is as precious as our pensions, and it gives food for the brain as our pension gives food for the body.
Comrade Byers says that Gen. Sherman left with his army the day after the fire. That is not altogether correct. I know that our company (I, 76th Ohio) did not leave for several days. I speak for only my company. I do not know at this day how many others remained in the city. We of the First Brigade, First Division, Fifteenth Corps, entered the city early in the afternoon. I do not claim we were the first; we got there, all the same, and helped to put out the fire. I remember waiting upon the other side of the river while our batteries were shelling the city, and could see the State House plainly before we crossed. We entered the city before night. We had the honor of being placed at different buildings, doing guard duty, as so many of our soldiers were going into the stores before the fire reached them, taking whatever they wanted, as the citizens seemed to have deserted everything. I was guard at a bank, and during the night was right in the midst of the fire. We succeeded in getting an old hand engine on a street, but were unable to use the hose and we abandoned it. I still have a scar on my hand from a cut by glass in a door, which fell out when I closed it. After the building had burned we hunted among the ruins in the cellar for what we could find. I got several chunks of melted silverware as large as two fists. I carried it for some time, but it became heavy, and I threw it away to make more room for hardtack. I got some other pieces of silverware that did not melt. I know of a certain regimental officer who carried in the headquarters wagon silver plate that was gotten from the same building, and was sent to his home. I got an opera glass. One of my company officers offered me $50 for it. I carried it as far as Louisville, Ky., when it was stolen from me by a member of our company and pawned.
We were camped in the yard at a private house. There were no men about, only two women, and they were very thankful for the protection we gave, as so many soldiers became drunk and disorderly. I well remember the night of the burning. Towards morning a most weird and solemn sight presented itself - the Catholic sisters tramping alone in charge of many orphans driven from their home by the fire. After the fire we moved to another part of the city, and again camped in the yard of a private house. We got feather beds out of the houses and used them. We also took a piano into the yard and played upon it for a while, then broke it up to burn for cooking. Most of those houses were deserted by their owners, and of course, what was there belonged to us. It will never be known how many of our soldiers were burned with the buildings during the fire. I saw one body, all burned to cinders. I knew it was a soldier, for beside the trunk was the barrel of his gun. Where the fire started, or when, or by whom, is a question that no one can answer correctly. We all have our surmises. But I guess the city did not get any more than she was entitled to.

Wm. G. Baugh, Sr., Corporal, Co. I, 76th Ohio. Wilmington, Del.

From: The National Tribune - Washington D.C. - October 13, 1910.

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Last updated September 1 1995