The Southern United States city of Columbia, South Carolina was an important political and supply center for the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Much of the town was destroyed during occupation by Union forces under Major General William T. Sherman during the Carolinas Campaign in the last months of the war, although who caused the destructive fire is still subject to scrutiny.
On February 17, 1865, Columbia surrendered to Sherman, and Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry retreated from the city. Union forces were overwhelmed by waves of liberated Federal prisoners and emancipated African Americans. Many soldiers took advantage of ample supplies of alcohol in the city and began to drink. Fires began in the city, and high winds spread the flames across a wide area. Most of the central city was destroyed, and municipal fire companies found it difficult to operate in conjunction with the invading army, many of whom were also fighting the fire. The burning of Columbia has stirred controversy ever since, with some claiming the fires were accidental, a deliberate act of vengeance, or perhaps set by retreating Confederate soldiers who lit cotton bales while leaving town.
The city was the location of the South Carolina Secession Convention, which marked the departure of the first state from the Union in the events leading up to the Civil War.