|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.
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.
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.
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|
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.
|Zoo visitors can observe this ruin|
of the destroyed Saluda River bridge
from the current pedestrian bridge.
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.