Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S. C.

Journalism | Power Press of Daily Phœnix | 1865

           One of the more important, though most-lightly studied, of Simms’s works is Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, SC, a narrative recounting of William Tecumseh Sherman’s entry into and occupation of South Carolina’s capital city, and its subsequent destruction in the waning days of the Civil War.  Simms originally published Sack and Destruction serially in The Columbia Phoenix, “a small newspaper edited by Simms that commenced publication in the waning weeks of the Confederacy” from the newspaper’s first edition until 10 April 1865; after the close of the War, Simms edited and revised these serialized pieces into pamphlet form, publishing it in October of that year.[1]  Sack and Destruction sees an integration of Simms’s abilities as a writer of narrative prose, as an interpreter of history, as well as his journalistic talents.  Thus, in many ways, this pamphlet, published five years before Simms’s death, is a fitting culmination of the author’s long career.

           Despite its quality and how indicative it is of the various aspects of Simms’s corpus, Sack and Destruction has remained an obscure text. In the introduction to the typescript of The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C.:  A Collection of Documents, Nicholas G. Meriwether suggests that republications of the work after Simms’s death helped to exacerbate its obscurity.  The first republication seems to have been fairly innocuous, as Julian Selby, the publisher of The Columbia Phoenix, included Sack and Destruction as a part of his personal memoirs.  More problematic was the work of early Simms scholar Alexander Salley, whose 1937 edited edition of the text included an introduction and annotations, the “polemical tone” of which “cast Simms’s account in the worst possible light, and doubtless contributed to the book’s further obscurity.”[2]  As the original pamphlet was limited to around 100 copies, Salley’s version, published by Oglethorpe University Press, endured as the standard edition of the text throughout the twentieth century.

           While Salley’s problematic annotations and introduction may have kept Simms’s pamphlet obscure, the work itself nevertheless did influence several significant scholars and historians who wrote about the waning days of the Civil War in the Carolinas.  Meriwether lists Charles Royster’s The Destructive War, John G. Barrett’s Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, and Marion Lucas’s Sherman and the Burning of Columbia as texts by well-renowned twentieth-century historians who used Simms’s account as a primary source.  One of the key features of Sack and Destruction is the extensive, street-by-street list of property destroyed during Sherman’s occupation of Columbia; the aforementioned historians draw on this list, with their other research largely corroborating the validity and accuracy of it.[3]  Thus, despite its obscurity, Simms’s account of Sherman’s occupation and the subsequent burning of Columbia serves as an important historical document, narrating one of the signal moments of the final days of the Civil War.

           The accuracy of Simms’s work reflects his longstanding commitment to the importance of historical narrative, and how this aids individuals in understanding their place in morally and politically complex environments.  While Simms’s work in this vein is most readily seen in his fictional Revolutionary War romances, Simms does similar work here through striving for accuracy, something he accomplishes by utilizing his journalistic acumen.  This is readily illustrated in the edits Simms makes in the serialized pieces in order to produce the pamphlet version of Sack and Destruction.  Meriwether contends that three draft manuscripts of Sack and Destruction illustrate this dedication on the part of Simms, showing the author’s desire to investigate the facts presented to him by the citizens of Columbia. Most importantly, his toning down and excising of the more inflammatory parts of the Daily Phoenix edition of the account allowed him to present a more accurate, nuanced, and informative version of the events.  Meriwether notes that the edits between the serialized and pamphlet version may be grouped into three broad categories: factual and stylistic edits, both of which were relatively minor, and significant tonal changes.  He contends that the pamphlet’s less-acerbic tone was not an attempt by Simms to hide the facts of the events or to cover up the real pain felt by the citizens of Columbia, nor merely to clean up the prose.  Rather, Meriwether suggest that Simms’s edits “fit with his sense of responsibility as the leading writer of the South, which was now faced with the task of reintegrating itself with the Union it had so bitterly opposed.”[4]  Simms had always seen himself as the South’s leading public intellectual; to do the work of such an individual in this new, post-Appomattox environment, he must present history not only factually, but in a manner that allows space for reconciliation.

           The South Caroliniana Library copy of the Sack and Destruction is one of the original 1865 pamphlets, surrounded by a modern binding.  The modern binding around the original edition features plain black boards.  A black spine with gilt stamp reads horizontally: [rule] | SACK AND DESTRUCTION OF THE CITY OF COLUMBIA, S.C. | [rule]  The pamphlet itself features the following cover: [frame surrounding all] SACK AND DESTRUCTION | OF THE | CITY OF COLUMBIA, S.C. | TO WHICH IS ADDED | A LIST OF THE PROPERTY DESTROYED. | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE | COLUMBIA DAILY PHŒNIX. | [rule] | COLUMBIA, S.C.: | POWER PRESS OF DAILY PHŒNIX. | [rule] | 1865. [close frame surrounding all].

W. Matthew J. Simmons 

[1]Nicholas G. Meriwether, introduction to Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C.:  A Collection of Documents, ts., by William Gilmore Simms (Columbia:  South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, 2003), 6, 10-11.

[2] Ibid., 6.  Meriwether notes that Salley’s version was reprinted at least three times, both with and without the controversial introduction.

[3] Ibid., 7-8.  Meriwether notes that “Lucas does not accept Simms’s list without reservation, [yet out of] the 486 entries on Simms’s list, Lucas disputes only twelve, less than three percent.”

[4] Ibid., 12.