At the end of the second week of February 1865, some changes were made in the Union command structure. Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore assumed command of the Department of the South, replacing Maj. Gen. John Foster.
Maj. Gen. John Schofield, lately commanding an army under Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s command, assumed command of the Department of North Carolina. His Twenty-Third Army Corps arrived at Ft. Fisher, making plans to attack Wilmington, N.C. and then push inland to join Gen. Sherman’s army when it reached North Carolina.
President Jefferson Davis in Richmond wired Lt. Gen. William Hardee at Charleston, S.C., that if he concentrated his troops sufficiently, then the president was hopeful that Gen. Sherman’s troops could be engaged and defeated at Charleston. From his headquarters in Columbia, Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard wrote to Richmond, urging the evacuation of Charleston, stating to President Davis that the Confederacy could not afford to lose an army should Gen. Sherman be successful at Charleston. Unknown to any of the Confederates, Gen. Sherman’s actual plans were to bypass Charleston and cut it off from the Confederacy.
On Abraham Lincoln’s 56th birthday, Feb. 12, the electoral vote from the November 1864 election was finally counted, and Lincoln was elected president with 212 electoral votes over 21 for Gen. George McClellan.
In South Carolina, Gen. Sherman’s armies were moving north, and engaged Confederate opposition at the Orangeburg bridge over the North Edisto River. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan sent an expedition against Confederate raiders and guerrillas operating in and around Winchester, Edinburg and Fort Valley. In England, Lord Russell protested to Federal commissioners in London against the Confederate raiders who had, in October 1864, attacked St. Albans, Vermont, returned to their base of operations in Canada, and had been pursued over the border by Union troops. He also protested Federal military activities on the Great Lakes into Canadian territory.
In South Carolina on Feb. 15, Gen. Sherman’s Federal troops encountered strong Confederate opposition on the Congaree River near Columbia, as his armies turned towards the state capital “without wasting time or labor on Branchville or Charleston,” as Gen. Sherman reported. The Union advance had been slowed somewhat by harassing Confederate opposition, by difficult swamps, mud, rivers, burned bridges and blocked roads.
There was savage fighting at Congaree Creek, Red Bank Creek and Two League Crossroads near Lexington. The next day, Federal troops sighted the capital of South Carolina. Union artillery shells began raining into Columbia, allegedly at Confederate cavalry units and the railroad depot. In actuality, it was more likely a case of Federal vengeance against the South Carolinians. Gen. Beauregard left Columbia in late afternoon as Federal units surrounded the city. He wired Gen. Lee at Petersburg that he could not prevent its capture, and hurriedly moved out war materiel before the city was evacuated.
On Friday, Feb. 17, the Federals captured Columbia; Mayor Thomas Goodwyn and a delegation of officials rode out in carriages to meet the Federal invader and to surrender the city. His letter of surrender requested on behalf of the citizens “the treatment accorded by the useages of civilized warfare, along with a sufficient guard in advance of your Army to maintain order in the City, and to protect the persons and property of the Citizens.” As the Federals moved into Columbia, they were met by jubilant blacks and released Union prisoners. Liquor supplies were soon found, and that night, almost all of Columbia burned after fires were set at varying locations all over the city at about the same time, fanned by high winds that blew all day.
Gen. Sherman blamed evacuating Confederates for the destruction, but there were no Confederate soldiers there other than sick and wounded. Confederates charged that Gen. Sherman deliberately set fire to Columbia as part of his destructive policy or at least by uncontrolled Union soldiers and looters. The destruction thus far in South Carolina was so much worse than it had been in Georgia. A Southern minister wrote of the burning of Columbia, “Hell was emptied, and all its devils were unleashed in this devout city, learning new deviltry from Yankee teachers. A perfect reign of terror existed.”