Saturday, February 15, 2014

Finding Sherman Amid The Lions And Tigers And Bears

This life-size rendition of Gen.
William T. Sherman and a Union
soldier stands along the south side
of the Congaree River in Columbia.
Sherman peers at the new S.C. capitol,
under construction in February 1865.
 Photo Barry Ahrendt.
We find traces of the American Civil War in strange places, so it should come as no surprise that a tantalizing reminder of Sherman's raid on Columbia in February 1865 lies hidden amid the lions and tigers and bears at a zoo just west of the South Carolina capital.

Walk along the Woodlands Path through tall hardwoods and thick underbrush in a corner of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden's 170 acres, and you'll find what locals call "Sherman's Rock."  The ledge of granite on a bluff overlooking the Saluda River marks the spot where Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and some of his 65,000 men encamped after marching farther into the Carolinas. Legend has it that the famous general spent the night under the shelter of this granite slab.

Legend has it that General Sherman
slept under this granite ledge, known
as "Sherman's Rock" before his troops
invaded Columbia, S.C.,  in 1865.
Now we know that Civil War generals generally didn't sleep under rocks.  They took up quarters in  houses, as Sherman had done many times on his March To The Sea. That winter night outside Columbia 150 years ago, he probably slept in a nearby dwelling that Union troops later burned down. Still, "Uncle Billy's" bigger-than-life reputation as a solder's soldier — just one of the guys —  keeps the legend of "Sherman's Rock" alive.

A while back, I took a bus tour of sites related to Sherman's march on Columbia, known around South Carolina as "The Darkest Days."  Our tour guide, Tom Elmore, a bearded man in a gray flannel shirt, told our group how "the most hated Yankee general" strategized on the bluff along the Saluda River before invading the nearly defenseless capital of the hated state that had started it all.

The highly lauded Riverbanks Zoo
near Columbia protects nearly 2,000
animals, many rare and endangered. It
also safeguards a few historic gems.
"Sherman had it in for Columbia," he told our enthusiastic group of history buffs, adding that "It really shocked the entire South to see Sherman outside Columbia."

Indeed, only a few months before, Sherman had mused, "The whole army is burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.  I almost tremble at her fate, but she deserves all that seems in store for her."

The bluff where Sherman's men encamped rose near a former prisoner-of-war camp, "Camp Sorghum." (The bus tour also stopped at the POW site at an intersection near downtown Columbia .) The starving Union officers imprisoned in the camp dubbed it Camp Sorghum after the type of molassas Confederates served them.

Union General Sherman
Wrote Sherman in his memoir: "On the night of the 16th I camped near an old prison bivouac opposite Columbia, known to our prisoners of war as 'Camp Sorghum,' where remained the mud-hovels and holes in the ground which our prisoners had made to shelter themselves from the winter's cold and the summer's heat."

 "They were very, very ticked off by what they saw," Elmore told our Civil War tourists. Elmore said that Camp Sorghum still held about 200 prisoners when Sherman came to town, although up to 1,400 Federal officers had once been imprisoned in the open field.

In 1865, the Camp Sorghum site had no trees, in sharp contrast to the area today. The trees had been harvested for use. Likewise the bluff now inside the Riverbanks Zoo complex where Sherman's men encamped. Another contrast: When Sherman allegedly slept under his eponymous rock, one of the worlds largest textile mills, the Saluda Manufacturing Co., chartered in 1834, stood nearby on the bluff. (See photo below.) Today, all that remains of the mill are sections of its granite foundation, camouflaged by weeds, grasses and vines.
A portion of the 1834 Saluda
mill ruins at Riverbanks Zoo.
In 1855, a new owner renamed
the four-story factory The
Columbia Cotton Mill.

This sign tells visitors to the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden about
the cotton mill that operated along the Saluda River when Sherman
readied to raid Columbia, S.C. in 1865.  Eighty looms and a thousand
women manufactured goods for the Confederate effort
 during the American Civil War.
Zoo visitors can observe this ruin
of the destroyed Saluda River bridge
from the current pedestrian bridge.
To access the mill ruins and Sherman's Rock, our tour group (and myself on a later visit), crossed a narrow, pedestrian/tram bridge over the Saluda.  The modern bridge stands where a covered bridge  traversed the frolicking river waters during most of the Civil War years. Confederates burned down that bridge to impede the Union troops' advance to Columbia.  But the Federals laid a pontoon bridge at the site, and by mid-afternoon on Feb. 16, 1865, the soldiers crossed the river under the protection of Union sharp-shooters on the top floor of the Columbia Cotton Mill.

Today, you can see four granite abutments of the old Saluda bridge that Confederates burned in an effort to halt Sherman's army.

Columbia after Sherman's descent on the South Carolina
capital in February 1865.  This photo facing Main Street
 was taken from the site where the nearly destroyed state
 capitol stood. (See previous blogs for more about this.)
Photo, Library of Congress.
On the morning of February 17, 1865, Sherman observed that his troops had reached the Broad River, where they had also built another pontoon bridge and were preparing to advance into the heart of Columbia. (For clarification, three rivers converge in Columbia: the Broad, the Saluda and the Congaree. Confederates burned the bridges across those rivers, trying to stop Sherman's advance.)

During The Darkest Days of Sherman's campaign against South Carolina, Columbia's 20,000 residents suffered. Homes, businesses and buildings were plundered. In the end, two-thirds of the city's 124 blocks and nearly 500 buildings were destroyed, mostly by fire. Who started the fires and whether they were deliberate or accidental remains one of history's hot controversies.

Whether or not Sherman actually snoozed under a rock at the Riverbanks Zoo also sparks debate.   As for me, Sherman's Rock makes a good story and a great destination for a hike through the woods at one of America's most interesting zoos.

SOURCES: Sherman, William T.,  Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (1865). Da Capo Paperback, 1984. New York; Battle For Columbia, Lexington (SC) County Chronicle, 2008; All photos, unless noted, were taken by B.J. Welborn. For more photos, go to PHOTOS page.