Thom Bassett, in his article from today's New York Times, argues, "While the Northern generals deserve some blame, the burning of the South Carolina capital was in reality a result of confusion, misjudgment and simple bad luck. It was, in sum, an accident of war."
He describes a scene in which hoarded cotton was first piled in the streets by the Confederates and then was blown around until it draped over everything like a strange sort of snowfall. To that picture, he adds enormous quantities of whiskey and medicinal alcohol, which was not only flammable in itself but also inflamed the Northern soldiers who entered the city. Interestingly the comments elicited by this article could have been written in 1865, with Northern and Southern sympathizers lining up to take potshots and hurl firebrands at one another.
Is the topic fuel and fodder (pun intended!) for my upcoming Yankee Reconstructed? I'm not sure how I can work the information into my own story, which occurs three years later, but obviously, sentiments about the fire would still have been running deep. And part of the story does take place in the burned out shell of the city of Columbia. But what I found most interesting was the number of characters from my books who played a part in this event.
Sherman's march through South Carolina, of course, marks a major turning point in Damned Yankee. The Union army was in Aiken just a couple of days before this fire, and Jonathan Grenville took that opportunity to stand against their threats. He almost literally sends them off to do their damage in Aiken and then in Columbia.
One of today's commenters points out that "Anthony Toomer Porter, an Episcopal priest and Confederate Army Chaplain, was present while Columbia burned and wrote about it in his autobiography, Led On Step By Step, first published in 1898. He confronted Sherman about the lack of control of his troops on a Columbia Street during the fire." Readers of this blog will recognize A. T. Porter, as the same Dr. Porter who founded a school for Confederate war orphans in Charleston and hired Jonathan to teach for him.
And the Confederate general who failed to keep his soldiers from setting fire to the cotton bales to keep them out of Northern hands was General Wade Hampton -- he of the massive statue on Meeting Street in Charleston. He was commander of Hampton's Legion, in which Charlotte Grenville's first husband was blown to smithereens and in which Johnny Grenville lost a leg at Chickamauga. Wade Hampton also plays a major role in Yankee Reconstructed, as he creates a band of Red Shirts (much like the KKK), and later gets himself elected Governor of South Carolina by suppressing black votes.
This is why writing historical fiction is so much fun. Some of the wild stories behind the dry events of history books are so far-fetched that readers will assume that the author is making them up. Not so, dear readers!