Burning Columbia

About the author: Elizabeth Otis Marshall Dannelly (1838-1896), a native of Madison, Georgia, was a published poet significant enough to be included in the book Living Writers of the South (1869). During the War Between the States, she lived in Columbia, South Carolina, where her husband Dr. Francis Olin Dannelly (1823-1880) was on duty as Chief Surgeon. Mrs. Dannelly was present in Columbia in February 1865 when the city was sacked and burned by the forces under the command of General William T. Sherman, and her poem about the terrible event was published as a pamphlet in 1866. In it she noted: “We are indebted for the facts herein contained to WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, L. L. D., having merely versified some of the incidents which he so graphically portrayed in prose.”


METHINKS there’ll be emblazoned on the dismal walls of Hell,
A record base, whose fiery words of fiendish deeds will tell,
Through ages of eternal woe, to demons black with crime,
How once on earth degraded men o’erleaped the bounds of time,
And though they dwelt in human flesh, incarnate devils turned,
When maddened by infernal hate, they plundered, killed and burned,
Methinks the “Prince of Darkness” with a wild sardonic grin,
Will point exultant to a crime that won the prize from sin,
And glory in a monument that tells his direful sway,
O’er Northmen, who with burning torch swept happy homes away.
They came a motley multitude, a God forsaken band,
With vengeance rankling in each heart, and blood upon each hand,
And as they stood with glittering steel on Carolina’s banks,
Vae victis!” was the fiendish shout that sounded through their ranks.
They looked across Savannah’s stream with fury glaring eyes,
And trembled in their eagerness to pounce upon their prize.
In muttered curses mingled with “the howlings of delight,
They longed to strike with bloody hand the stunning blow of might,
And as they neared with dashing speed Columbia so fair,
The heavy tramp, and cannon’s roar that thundered on the air,
Gave warning to her people that a conflict had begun,
Whose deadly stroke would do its work before another sun.
A carriage then was seen to leave which bore a flag of white,
And men, within whose bosoms burned the consciousness of right;
The Army reached, in proper form, a noble hearted Mayor
Surrendered all, and begged the foe their lovely city spare.
The sacred promise sought was given, but soon a shout arose,
Which told, alas! of pledges broke, and treachery of foes.
Behind them desolation told the fury of their wrath;
The light of burning homesteads threw a glimmer o’er their path;
The smiling fields all trampled lay beneath the horseman’s tread;
And cattle o’er a thousand hills lay mangled, bleeding, dead.
Half naked people cowered under bushes from the blast,
And shivered as the midnight wind with icy breathings past;
Fair maidens whose luxurious lives had known before no blight,
With faces pale as marble stood, beneath the pall of night;
While “crimson horrors” lighted up the wintry midnight sky,
As on ebon wings of smoke their burning homesteads fly;
Till village after village, by ascending flames were traced,
And rising on the mourning clouds, with fiery arms embraced.
The treasured stores of art, and taste, defiled and ruined lay,
Rare paintings which had long withstood the touch of Time’s decay,
Rich tapestry of velvet soft, besmeared with ink and oil,
Where dainty feet once lightly tread, is now among the spoil;
Rare furniture, superbly carved, pianos grand in tone,
Beneath the ruffian’s crushing stroke, sent up an echoing moan;
The gardens, types of Paradise, in tropic verdure dressed,
And trampled by the vandal’s steed, lay ruined with the rest;
The cries of starving children rose upon the smoky air,
And wild ascended piteous screams of women in despair;
As far as human eye could reach a blackened desert lay,
And o’er a stricken people hung the shadows of dismay.
On, on, they dashed, with mad’ning speed, “woe to the conquered” cried,
“We’ll crush rebellion’s spirit now and Carolina’s pride;
We’ll burn her cherished capital; we’ll rob her of her gain,
And woman’s prayers, or piteous cries shall reach our ears in vain.””
No summons for surrender came, but thick and rapid fell,
Into Columbia’s very heart the treacherous bursting shell;
The flying fragments bearing death to innocence and mirth;
To children sporting, free from care, around the social hearth;
To helpless women, feeble age, and victims of disease,
Who fell with terror, stricken down upon their bended knees.
An aged sire, with wrinkled brow, and silken locks of white,
Was wounded by a missile sent which took away his sight.

The wild excitement on the street, the universal haste,
The people flying to and fro, the rush, the wreck, the waste,
The “wilderness of baggage” sent on wagons to the train;
The hundreds striving to get off, but striving all in vain;
The children, and the helpless babes, of every age and size,
Who added terror to the scene with sharp and fearful cries;
The women trembling pale with fright, who knew, alas! too well,
The weaker sex no mercy claimed from men in league with hell,
Will be a sight remembered long, and long on history’s page,
The record will be handed down to tell of Yankee rage.

A loud explosion ushered in that long remembered day,
The Depot at the dawn of light in smouldering ruins lay,
A prelude to the tragic act, the dark infernal plot,
Which left upon the Northern name a black, eternal blot.
The clock upon the Market-hall had struck the hour of ten
On Friday, that eventful morn, when entered Sherman’s men.
High o’er a captured city now, the “stars and stripes” they place,
To witness scenes of violence, of burning, and disgrace;
A banner that once proudly waved, the standard of the free,
Now floats above the tyrant’s ranks, they type of infamy,
To take upon its sullied folds a deeper, darker, stain,
Than blood of brothers in the cause of holy freedom slain;
To wave above infernal scenes, fit prototypes of Hell,
And with its colors dyed in crime, a mute approval tell;
A flag that once o’er Washington a hallowed shadow threw,
When in the cause of liberty his gleaming sword he drew;
A flag upon whose azure blue the brightest stars that gleamed,
Arose from where the Southern blood in crimson rivers streamed;
Whose glory fled, when ‘neath its fold no longer could we stand;
When first it ceased to wave above a free, and happy land.

The thieving wretches, one and all, their pillage now began,
Assisted by the officers exalted in command.
Woe to the honest passer-by, who carried watch and chain,
His arguments of prior right were uttered all in vain,
For Yankees ignore all but gold, and no compunctions feel,
‘Tis but the “nature of the beast” to swindle, lie, and steal.
New boots, and shoes, or coats and hats, the same abstraction shared,
And all alike, the white and black, with gross injustice fared.
The jeweled hands of maidens fair were sought a brilliant prize,
And sparkling gems were taken off in spite of tearful eyes;
Engagement rings of massive gold, their diamonds, and their pearls,
Now glitter on the brawny hands of saucy Yankee girls,
And Yankee boards are shining now arrayed in silver plate,
Engraven with the honored names of South Carolina’s great;
The relics of ancestral pride, by noble sires left,
Are lost, polluted, sacrificed, to groveling Yankee theft,
And Yankee cooks, and chambermaids, now since the hellish raid,
Flaunt out in Southern women’s lace, and elegant brocade;
Disgracing lovely womanhood, ignoring moral law,
They wear without a blush of shame, their “trophies of the war.”
But ‘twere a task impossible to write the endless list,
The articles of precious goods that Southerners have missed.
We “fell among” inhuman “thieves,” suffice it then to say,
That scarce a vestige of our wealth remains with us to-day.

Not e’en the house of God was spared; the sacramental cup
Was filled with liquor’s burning draught for cursed lips to sup.
The sacred vessels of the Church were wrested from his hand,
As homeward-bound his steps were turned, the venerable SHAND.
They plundered on, insatiate fiends, till near the setting sun,
While Sherman looked serenely on, and whispered “boys well done.”
With vengeance written on his brow, and falsehood on his breast,
He bade our noble, trusting Mayor, retire to his rest,
Assured him that a “finger’s breadth” his men should never harm,
And told him how unwise his fears, how needless his alarm.
As well might one, with childish faith, believe the “Prince of lies,”
For scarce upon the tainted air his vile assertion dies,
When, lo! the rockets darting high illume the brow of night,
The signal bids the restless foe his blazing torches light;
The barbarous sign at length is given, and bursting to the skies,
The crimson flames of burning homes, in rolling volumes rise.
The doom, the awful, awful, doom, we heard the soldiers tell,
With savage chuckle through their ranks, “to-night we’ll give you Hell.”
With soaking balls of turpentine, and brands of flick’ring light,
They ushered in, with eager hand, the horrors of that night.
A range of burning mountains “raised their flame-capped heads on high,”
And spouts of melted lava sent their torrents to the sky;
The crumbling walls upon the air with thundering crashes broke,
As o’er them rose successive clouds of black terrific smoke;
The embers floated on the breeze like stars of glowing light,
And glittered high above the flames upon the vault of night;
The elements of Nature seemed at war with air and sky,
And in convulsive fury swept like avalanches by.
The grandeur of that awful scene no painter can portray,
But graven on the frenzied mind, forever will it stay.

Now rocking with a death-like shock, the ancient State House falls,
And buries deep the lore of time beneath her crumbling walls.
How many reminiscences of other days arise:
Here once assembled beauty, wealth, the honored, and the wise;
‘Twas here the voice of Preston rang with eloquent appeals,
And battled for that principle, that never, never, yields;
The mighty Hayne here noble pled in freedom’s holy cause,
And labored for his country’s fame, its happiness and laws;
McDuffie stirred the people with his blistering words of fire,
They quailed beneath his strong appeals, the maiden and the sire;
And her spoke Carolina’s son, her noblest, proudest boon,
Who rocked the Western hemisphere, the eloquent Calhoun.
Long is the bright, untarnished list of Carolina’s great,
But ruined lies her Capitol, the glory of the State.

In deep despair the women rush with madness to and fro,
Receiving naught but taunting words, and insult from the foe;
They strive to rescue from the flames a relic, but in vain,
A demon grasps the captured prize and hurls it back again.

Within a silent chamber now, where burns the lamplight pale,
And prayers from anxious watchers rise upon the midnight gale,
There rests a downy couch, a fragile form, so white,
And lying closely by her side, just opening to the light,
Peeps out a tender bud, a tiny infant face,
And love, in silence, reigns supreme within that hallowed place.
The demons rush with curses wild into the darkened room,
And carry to the being there a sad and fearful doom.
They grasp her thin and trembling hand to seize the shining rings,
And terror o’er her livid face its ghastly pallor flings;
They seize the watch beneath her head; they steal her fleeting breath,
For lo! her eyelids gently close; she sleeps the sleep of death.
Another suf’frer pale, and wan, is writhing in her pain,
She crave the mercy of the fiends, but pleads, alas! in vain,
With cries of murder on their lips, and glaring torch they came,
And wrapt the drapery of her room in sheets of crimson flame.
Upon a mattress, rudely borne into the chilling air,
While icy winds are sweeping by, she meekly suffers there,
And bears in patient agony, while cursing lips condemn,
What woman by the stern decree had suffered once for them.

A widow with her “litte all,” a bag of meal and flour,
Had sadly watched her earthly store through many a weary hour,
When with a brow unknown to shame, a rascal bore away
The earnings scant and pitiful, of many a toilsome day.
He brandished in her mournful face a shining Bowie knife,
And threatened, as she pled and prayed, to take away her life.

Nor did the hardened wretches spare the children in their play,
When closed the nigh, and dawned in gloom, another mournful day,
A group of merry little ones caressed a sprightly pet,
A greyhound with its glossy hair, and sparking eyes of jet,
When passing by, a bandit threw a missile at its head,
And howling, bleeding, at their feet the little dog fell dead.

A slow procession on that night with deadly faces pale,
Around whose fragile figures hung the long, black, sweeping veil,
The nuns in silent sorrow left the holy shrine of prayer,
While o’er their faces pale as death was spread a lurid glare;
With trembling steps they sadly sought the “city of the dead,”
As from the hot and crumbling walls they terror-stricken fled,
And there mid hallowed, sacred, dust, mid tombstones cold and white,
They passed, in bitterness of heart, that long remembered night.

In Sidney Park, where once the gay and happy city thronged,
There huddled in promiscuous crowds, the old, the young, the wronged;
The sick lay fainting on the ground, and to the mothers clang,
In almost idiotic fright, their babes and helpless young.
They fancied here a safe retreat from crumbling walls to find,
But, lo! redoubled horrors break upon the frenzied mind,
When hot, into their ghastly midst, with darting speed there falls,
Hurled wildly from the heights around the flashing fiery balls.

But there were crimes far blacker still, too base, alas! to tell,
Too vile to e’en escape the lips, too near allied to Hell.
To contemplate would cause a blush on woman’s cheek to burn,
The thoughts of such infernal deeds her purity would spurn.

But night removed her somber veil, and morning came at last,
Like maniacs the people stood and thought upon the past;
It seemed a wild excited dream, a vapor of the brain,
Too awful for reality, too fraught with mad’ning pain.
But weary limbs and aching feet, as shelterless they roam,
Remind the wanderers, pale and faint, they have, alas! no home.
Ah! who can paint the shocking scene, the desolation wild,
The black despair that reigned supreme where happiness once smiled.
The sun revealed a languid ray of sympathetic light,
As though his soul had sickened o’er the horrors of the night;
He would not cast a radiant smile into the face of gloom,
Or mock the dismal soul that mourned it sudden awful doom.
His brightest smiles were far too bright in silvery light to fall,
Upon the frowning ruins there, the black and tottering wall.

But o’er such scenes of blood and wreck my weary Muse grows faint,
No longer would she human crimes and human sorrows paint,
Nor would she peer beyond the stage o’er which the curtain falls,
The act behind congeals the blood, the tragedy appalls.
A glance upon the outer screen is all she dare bestow,
Where only types of monstrous crimes in fainter outlines glow.
So sad and awful are the scenes, whose traces cannot die
The ruling spirit of the wreck would fain his work deny.
When devils that possessed his soul upon that awful night,
By softer feelings of the heart are put again to flight,
With human eye he views the deed, in terror stands aghast,
And on the name of HAMPTON the brave the fearful blame would cast.
Thorns fester in the Southern heart, and do you ask me why?
“Time cannot teach forgetfulness,” the past can never die.

Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes, an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, is the author of nine non-fiction books including South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, The Immortal 600, A Confederate Englishman, Confederate South Carolina, Days of Destruction, and A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina. Her works of historical fiction include Honor in the Dust and The Immortals. Her latest non-fiction book, An Everlasting Circle: Letters of the Haskell Family of Abbeville, South Carolina, 1861-1865, includes the correspondence of seven brothers who served in the Confederate Army with great distinction.

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