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By Josef Koelbl III
Letter from Brigadier General Wm. Tecumseh Sherman to
his wife Eleanor “Ellen” Boyle Ewing Sherman
late February 1865.
My Darling Ellen,
I hope this missive finds you and the children well, in good spirits and regard. I can see you all in my imagination, sitting with the afternoon sun on our veranda before the chill of evening spreads over our beautiful home, the trees that line the way now bare of leaf and the fine green grass now a sad carpet of brownish hue. I can almost smell the new baked pies you love so dear and taste the fresh air of homespun winter.
I confess no military secret in my location as I am sure you have already read we are in South Carolina, the rebel city of Columbia. The troops and I are in no danger. The traitorous citizenry have been cowed, first by our presence and second, by the events of the seventeenth. I know you are by now aware of the burning of this old city but it was not perpetrated by our brave Union soldiers as those slack jawed spy’s of the press have reported.
I relate to you now the events of that night. I still scarcely believe them myself.
I had taken residence in a room over the city’s post and letter office. It was a warm wood room with perhaps the first soft mattress I have slept in for these past many weeks. Near midnight, I was awakened by a bright orange yellow light streaming in through the window next to my bed. Cries and screams from women and men alike filled the chamber and I am not a feared to say I bolted from under my blankets, sweating coldly, sure the armies of the devil were marching upon us. I rushed to the window and saw now that Columbia was in flames. Grasping my trousers, I pulled them on as I bounded loudly down the stairs and outside into hell itself.
I rushed to a group of my boys and, although I know you have no use for this language, cursed at them to move for water and buckets to douse the raging conflagration. They made no move to obey, in fact I think they heard me not at all. Their eyes were riveted to the sky above and as my own eyes followed, my blood ran cold e’en in the blistering heat at a sight I cannot begin to understand.
There, in the fire lit night, hovered a man, red of skin, his hair the color of the sun and combed up and spiked appearing as tongues of flame. From his eyes fire flowed changing in hue from red to yellow to white and all colors in between and imagined. He raged over the city hurling balls of fire into its heart. Bolts blasted from his hands and eyes and he left not one bit of this old city unscorched. We watched, all of us dumbfounded, and, as he satisfied himself the city was burning out of control, he looked down at us, no expression upon him, and burst into flame, flying fast into the sky until he became another star in the ebony draped folds of night.
The rest of the night we fought against the blaze and near morning all that remained were glowing embers and the blackened husks of a once living city. Soon after, I began to hear the rumors of my boys starting the inferno and met with General Grant where I reported to him what I have written above. Grant told me, “Cump,” says he, “they already believe you crazy, my friend. No need to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
So I have held my tongue, confiding only in the men who have seen the same as I, and now you, my love, for I would have you know the truth of that night and be confident in the fact that I and my boys had no hand in the death of Columbia.
We are on the move again in the morning and I think that this horrible thing be almost done. The rebels can last only a few more weeks and all of us can look forward to home and hearth once more. If there still be luck in this world, I may be home by the fall and perhaps peace will out for the rest of our lives.
I find I miss and love you more than ever.
I remain as always your loving husband,