Thursday, November 12, 2015

The World On Fire: Ocean of Fire:The Burning of Columbia, 1865 by T. Neill Anderson

Joseph LeConte didn't know what to make of Davis. His assistance on the trip to Columbus was admirable, but Joseph wasn't completely sure if he could trust him.

Joseph LeConte had traveled through the enemy lines to Augusta, Georgia, to bring his widowed sister Jane and her children to stay with them in Columbia, South Carolina, and when they arrived at the station as the train to Columbia was beginning to pull away, a Confederate officer named Charles Davis had stopped the train and helped them board. But now, weeks later, here was Davis approaching the LeConte house.

As he greeted him and invited him inside, Joseph wondered how Davis had found his house

"Oh, Dr. LeConte, you know I have my ways of finding things out," he said with a wink. "it is terribly important that you and your family leave Columbia at once," Davis said in a low voice. "The Yankees will likely arrive in the city tomorrow."

Nearby, Mary Ann, one of family's 
domestic slaves, crouched on the other side of the kitchen door, her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide.

"I've been in the Yankee camp all day," Davis continued, "and I know their plans." Davis was silent for a few moments. "I fear to tell you what scenes will be enacted in Columbia, Dr. LeConte. "Staying here can only bring sorrow."

Also listening to this conversation was seventeen-year-old Emma LeConte, hidden at the top of the stairs. She and her father were both wary of trusting Davis, who seemed to know the plans of both the Confederate and Yankee generals. But he had promised to assure the safety of their house and LeConte's brother's house, and prepared for the worst, the women moved into the basement, and hoped for the best, while Joseph LeConte set out for the Confederate lines with a wagonload of chemicals and medicines from the hospital, leaving only their servant Henry as the only man at the house.

"Henry," Mary Ann whispered to him, "What you think we gonna have to do when they come? I mean..., we gonna leave?"

"Ain't convinced we should," Henry said. "Them Yankees may be fightin' for us, but they ain't our friends."

The loyalties of the enigmatic, probable double agent spy Charles Davis were unknown, but his warnings were real. Columbia was the proverbial tinderbox--the state capital of South Carolina, the prime mover of the rebellion, and its business district was awash with harvested cotton bales, which the Confederates planned to burn to keep them from profiting their enemies. But Sherman's army swept in across the Congaree River and took the town before the Southern militia could burn all the bales. Buried near the river were huge quantities of armaments, and as the out-of-control and soon drunken Yankees began to loot the city, they ripped the bales open, letting the autumn winds scatter the cotton until the city looked like it had been hit by a snowstorm. Inevitably, fires began, especially as the looters spilled out barrels of alcohol into the streets from the stores and taverns. Soon most of the central city was ablaze.

In T. Neill Anderson's Horrors of History: Ocean of Fire: The Burning of Columbia, 1865 (Charlesbridge, 2014) the city is on fire, hospital and churches, the capital building itself, and the remaining residents see their houses first ransacked for food and valuables and then lost to the fire that lit the night sky with walls of flames. Based on first-person recollections, the accounts of both Joseph and Emma LeConte, as well as Reverend Anthony Porter, this novel shows both acts of malice and mercy from both sides. The LeConte and Porter houses survived the blaze, thanks to the protection of  the mysterious Davis and Union officer, Lieutenant McQueen, but were looted, as was even the modest cabin of Mary Ann and Henry, in a day of destruction that reduced the graceful city to ruins. There were heroes and villains on both sides, with the war-weary Union soldiers, under the relentless General Sherman, willing to do whatever they had to do to end the war, and the citizens of Columbia desperate to defend their homes and families. Some slaves left, eager to join the Union Army, and some were taken from their families against their will to serve the Yankees. Columbia's burning was only one chapter in the horrors of this particular bit of history.

Despite its impeccable eyewitness sources, Anderson's writing in this first book in the Horrors of History series lacks the pulse-quickening immediacy of his narrative in later titles in the series such as Horrors of History: People of the Plague: Philadelphia Flu Epidemic 1918 and Horrors of History: City of the Dead: Galveston Hurricane, 1900, burdened and bolstered as it is with many characters and shifting points of view from many voices.  Still, as a supplemental reading for American history students, it offers authentic primary sources and has a lot to say about the destructiveness of war. An appended epilogue recounts the later lives of the main characters and the eventual reconstruction of the city of Columbia.

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