Memories of War Times

Personal Reminiscences of Happenings That Took Place From 1861 to the Grand Review

by Reub Williams

The years grow old, ah! very old;
Their hoar locks quiver in the cold
Of long dead centuries; how slow
They step, how noiselessly they go,
Within the ages long enrolled.
The songs they sang sweet mem'ries hold
While o'er them creep the rust and mold,
And in the dead past lying low,
The years grow old.
They lie enwrapt in shrouded fold
While beneath on the sunset's gold;
And thus for them full well we know,
There comes no brighter afterglow;
Thus one by one in numbers told,
The years grow old

At or near midnight of the same day that the Federal troops entered the doomed town, finding that without water, and with many sections of the hose disabled by cutting them, all efforts to stem the fire was, of necessity, abandoned, and the handsome city of Columbia--what was left of it--given over to the fire-fiend, as further effort to save it was utterly useless. At about that time I received an orderly from division headquarters to place my regiment on provost duty, and arrest every Federal soldier found on the streets after 1 o'clock. The various corps of Sherman's army had gone into camp around the city in the afternoon, and when night came hundreds of the members of these various bodies discovering by the bright light which made everything as light as day for a long distance outside of the city, came into the town, of course without orders or permission, and it can readily be guessed that among such a body of men there would be a good many who could not resist the temptation to imbibe "fire water" to so great an extent that many of them could scarcely navigate the streets as the night of gloom, disaster and destruction progressed. The order I received at about that hour was a difficult and unpleasant one to perform. The members of my own regiment had labored so unceasingly, so earnestly and faithfully to stem the on-rushing tide of fire, that many of them were already exhausted when the unpleasant order was given, but every member of the Twelfth, well aware of the fact that he had been taught to obey orders, after some grumbling took up the new duty uncomplainingly finally, and squads were sent out to patrol the streets, and in obedience to the order that that more than an hour before had been read by some staff officer at the principal street corners, to the effect that every soldier in the city, except those on duty should go to his respective cam at once, and there remain. Precisely at the hour of 1 o'clock a number of companies started out on the duty that had been assigned to them to patrol the streets and arrest all who had come in the city without leave. During the early part of the dreadful night, I had rode past an enclosed piece of ground nearly a square in extent, and as it was surrounded by a high board fence, I determined to use as a guard house and took possession of it at once detailing a full company of the regiment to act as guards and to prevent egress for every man who was placed inside. I was well aware that there would be a good many men arrested under the order, and told the Captain and Lieutenant in command of the company assigned to guard duty to strictly obey the orders and when any one was placed within the enclosure to see to it that he did not escape.

Very soon afterwards the company in charge of the place selected for the purpose, became busy and from that time until day began to break there was a steady stream of arrests the most of them in various stages of intoxication from the man who had just begun to fee the exhilaration of the first two or three drinks and were disposed to make merry over everything said or heard, down to the one that was so far gone, that he neither knew nor cared what became of him, but held up by a guard on each side of him, he was staggeringly thrust into the "bull pen" as its inmates very soon began to designate the enclosed square. As the indications of daylight began to be seen in the east, the streets were entirely cleared of stragglers and idlers, but what to do with the over four hundred that had "been gathered in," I did not know. The majority of them had become sufficiently sober to feel the humiliation of arrest and when daylight had fully arrived begged me to turn them loose and let them get back to their respective commands. Of these nearly four hundred, there were men of almost every rank known to the army, from colonels down to corporals, and the private soldier, of course. I could easily perceive that no charges would be placed against any of them, and hence there would be no court martials. General Sherman and staff had taken possession of a large and handsome brick residence, about a half mile distant from the "bull pen," and as I had visited the place in the earlier part of the long dreary night, I had perceived that the front doors were reached by a fairly high flight of stone steps; so I concluded to march the men up to his headquarters for him to decide what should be done with them. A good many of the arrested men had already begun to clamor for something to eat --(was there ever a soldier in any position that he did not want something to eat?)-- and others for water. As I had no way to either feed or drink them, and yet was very anxious to get rid of them, the plan alluded to, suggested itself and so I marched "the four hundred" up to the front of the building referred to and officers kept them in line till I could interview the General. After I had informed him of the situation and the additional fact that the men were at that moment out in front, I noticed that he took a brief view of them through a window, the curtains of which he held back while doing so. I had already informed him that there were about four hundred of them and all anxious to return to their commands, the most of them ashamed of the plight they had found themselves in, and besides that there was no way to feed them only with their own regiments and that my own regiment had been on duty all the after part of the night after fighting the fire from about dark until after midnight, and were in much need of rest. The result was just as I had anticipated it would be. The General stepped out of the front door and from the height of the steps already mentioned he delivered a few scathing remarks over their unsoldierly conduct and after informing them that such a breach of discipline must never occur again, dismissed the whole party, and ordered them to go at once to their respective commands, whether they were cavalry, artillery or infantry, and never again commit such a breach of military duty. The crowd disbanded so quietly that I scarcely got an opportunity to speak to any of them, many of whom I knew. It was soon after I returned to my headquarters that I received the order placing me in command of the provost duty of the city, and of course detailing the Twelfth regiment for guard duty with instruction for myself to call on other regiments if more men than my own would be required, as was stated in my last reminiscence.

I had not expected that the duties of my detail would prove so onerous as was really the case. Of course, it would be my duty to preserve order within the city limits, but I did not at the time think the position partook somewhat of those of the mayor of a city or town, as I soon found to be the case--the very first day, indeed, if I remember correctly, after I had taken up an office in a very convenient building that had escaped the conflagration and strange to say was in the business part too, the most of which was totally destroyed the evening previous. I shall tell the story briefly, and before relating it, it is well enough for the reader to understand that Columbia was the place where all the Confederate money was printed as well as the cotton bonds that were so largely sold all over Europe, the bonds being backed up in some way by pledging the cotton crops of the South. Millions upon millions of dollars worth of Confederate money fell into the hands of the Federal army, and it was not at all strange to come across private soldiers with their pockets full of Confederate notes ranging all the way from five dollars up to hundred-dollar bills, and some of them had a half-million on their persons. many of these notes were just printed and still unsigned; but there were many thousands of dollars worth--on their face it might be borne in mind--that contained the official signature of the Secretary of the Treasury of "The Confederate States of America." When it is stated that I, too, was well supplied with Confederate money to almost any amount that may suggest itself to the reader, the incident may be considered as ready for relating. Nearly all of the forenoon my time was taken up in receiving citizens of the town, the most of them making complaints of various kinds, some of them--many of them, in fact--asking that their homes be furnished with a guard, and on all manner of other subjects. I treated all comers with politeness and kindness, though only in a few instances could I be of any special service in the face of a calamity of such huge dimensions that had fallen upon them. All at once and while my office was crowded with the visitors referred to --two women, one a negress and the other a rather handsome white woman, burst into the office each one trying to be the first one to speak and their torn clothes showing very plainly that they had been pulling one another's hair on the outside. I judged so for the reason that they had not been in my office for five minutes when an altercation sprung up between them and they flew at one another so viciously as cats in a feline scrimmage on the roof in a back yard and snarling at one another much the same. In fact a soldier on duty i the office was compelled to use force to separate the two termagants. Peace having been in a manner restored, though many of my visitors had taken occasion to disappear, I proceeded to ascertain what the difficulty was about, and why I had anything to do with such a scramble. The negress blurted out at the top of her voice that "the white-trash woman owed her two hundred and fifty dollars--in confederate money," she added as a wind up. The white woman declared the "she-nigger-scrub, has stolen her silk dress when she left her house just before you Yankees come, and she has it in her hands now. The negress called her a "liar" and another "set-to" would have occurred but for the soldier slipping between them. The negress insisted that she didn't steal "nothin nohow." The white-trash woman owed her that much money and she took the dress in part pay. "You did steal my dress and you know it! What is mo' I want it back, and right off too." "Well, you kaant hev it! I'se got it and I'se gwoin' to keep hit!" Then another skirmish threatened and was only prevented by the soldier on duty. Having ascertained what the difficulty was about and thinking of the liberal amount of confederate notes I had on my person, I asked the white woman what the dress was really worth. She replied by saying that it would easily bring $250 in Confederate money. Then I asked the negress if she would rather have $250 in Confederate money than the dress? No Suh, I wouldn't" she snapped out--I'se got de dress now, and she owed me dat much enyhow!" But said I, you are taking the dress without the owner's consent as I perceive. Now suppose you got $300 in money would you give the owner back a dress that is already hers? "Ob cose I would for $300." Well, said I, give me the dress, and she did so, and I counted her out three hundred dollars in the agreed upon money, and handed the white woman the dress, and a more grateful person I have seldom seen. As the negress was leaving the room I called her back, and laid an extra hundred dollars in her hand, and then turning to the white woman presented her with a five hundred dollar Confederate note, remarking to both of them as they were about to depart--"That's the way we Yankees deal justice, and prevent ill-feeling. "Ain't you glad that the war is about over?" Both declared they were, and the incident was closed, both sides as happy as birds! In the streets that evening the story was repeatedly told as to how the Yankees "dealt out justice!"

Following the devastating fire, the once beautiful city presented a most heart-rending appearance. The business portion of the town was literally wiped off the face of the earth and many private residences were also destroyed. But little of the contents of any of the business houses were saved and in many of the beautiful private residences costly furniture, pianos with stools, it was said made of solid silver, went up in the great conflagration, the silver stools melting down, and the silver seeking the lowest level of course was picked up in fragments and in nuggets, just as soon as the foundations of the houses were cool enough for the curious to enable them to pick out the melted remnants. In fact, Columbia was the place where the wealthy Charleston people had sent much of their wealthy, after the bombardment of the latter place began and there was much melted silver picked up in this way after the fire. To prove this it is only necessary for me to say that in evacuating the city, five or six days after the fire. To prove this is only necessary for me to say that in evacuating the city, five or six days after the fire, my regiment bringing up the rear, we caught up with a soldier carrying one of the very largest of tin buckets filled to brim with melted scraps of silver, trudging along in the rear of the column. His hope to save it was that he might induce some teamster to carry it in his wagon for a share of the contents. I learned afterwards that he had to give this up as some of my men found the bucket and its precious contents abandoned at the side of the road, it being too heavy to carry. I have in my possession a silver badge of the Fifteenth corps-- "The forty rounds in the cartridge box" --made from the melted metal that had been picked out of the crevices of the sidewalk and the basement of a building that had once been a jewelry store. It was made in Washington City just after the Grand Review and presented to me by the officers of my regiment who had procured the silver in the way spoken of from several of the soldiers, and who had carried it in their pockets and knapsacks. While on this subject I might add that from one of the Catholic churches a golden crucifix was taken that was said to weigh in the amount of $17,000 aside from the cost of making it. The theft was made known to Sherman, who, after the city was evacuated, halted the army and instituted a search--a rigid one, it was asserted, for no one knew the halt was coming and could by such knowledge hid the image; but the perpetrators of the sacrilegious theft were never discovered, if there was more than one concerned in it.

Just previous to the breaking out of the war South Carolina had been engaged in building a new costly and spacious state house. The principal architect, I think, was an Englishman, and he was making his home in Columbia to supervise the construction of the building. The "bump of destruction" is very largely developed in the heads of some men and the next day after the occupation of the city, I detected a soldier of this class engaged in knocking off the very beautiful carving of some of the capitals of the column still on the ground and of pure marble, as I think all the columns of the building were I severely reprimanded him for this wanton destruction and in order to prevent any further diabolism of the kind, I established a guard over the building during the remainder of our stay. This so pleased the architect of the building who all unknown to me, was standing by at the time, that he afterwards sought my acquaintance at the headquarters I had established "down town" and during the remainder of the time that Sherman occupied the city, he visited me very day and was profuse in this thanks for the course I had pursued in protecting property that in no way could enter into the issues of war as the destruction of the state house would neither help the one side or be of any benefit to the other. I found his to be a very pleasant gentleman and an agreeable companion--just a little proud of the fact that the war seemed to be ending in the way he had predicted it would before the first gun was fired on Fort Sumter--a prediction that he had tried to impress upon his Columbia friends before it began he said, and was only hooted at, when he foretold the final defeat of and overthrow of the Confederacy.

I met another prominent man while acting in the position assigned me in Columbia--a man who was well known in the North and his historical works widely read by the people of this section, William Gilmore Simms, who was making it his home at the time referred to, although I believe he was only there temporarily during the war, perhaps, for he owned a fine manor, I was informed, at some other point in the state. He was a fine looking old gentleman with white hair and was a novelist of the time of Cooper and founded his stories generally along the same linen as the Northern author; both of them contributing to Graham's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book, each of them prominent and widely read magazines in the later fifties and early sixties. Edgar A. Poe, the poet, also was contributing to these monthlies at the same time. On learning that I was a newspaper man at home, he, too, visited me very day during the brief occupancy of the South Carolina capital. To me he admitted that the war was nearing its end, he thought, although he was sure that General Lee, the real idol of the South would fight till the last man was used up, or at least until it would be impossible to feed his army. He predicted, however that eventually the country would break up into state sovereignties, and that following the the coming of the end, what was once the United States would become a conglomeration of independent states. Mr. Simm's predictions--well informed man as he was--have failed to materialize in the forty years that have elapsed since he made his prophecy, but his predictions were founded on the belief in states' rights over and above government in all things--a theory that had the Confederacy been successful would have applied to it and have been the means of its disintegration within a very short time. Georgia, in fact, under Governor Brown foreshadowed it when he demanded that all Georgians serving with Lee should be sent home at once to defend their own state from Sherman's army.

Northern Indianian April 14, 1904

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