Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 12: No 1) >> 'A Scene Which Beggars Art to Portray': Simms and the Writing of The Sack and Destruction of Columbia, S.C. >> Page 34

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Secondary Scholarship | 2004
Transcription where he was, what he was doing, who he talked to, and so forth. But more
centrally, it will allow the book's literary and evidentiary merits to shine. The
more time one spends with The Sack and Destruction, the better a book it shows
itself to be, and it may well be one of the best examples of one of his greatest
skills as a writer and as a historian: his sense of balance. We see this in so man
ways in the book's structure; in Simms's choice of examples and anecdotes,
illustrating the honorable behavior of some Union troops as well as the atrocities
of others; in the way the narrative is couched in historical terms, from recent
events to references to the Revolution; even in the occasional flashes of humor, to
leaven the bleakness of the subject.
And for scholars who focus on Simms's non-fiction, The Sack and
Destruction adds interesting insights to his work as a historian: the way he
solicited, vetted, and used primary accounts, the way he built and refined his
argument through successive editions and changing circumstances. We should
remember how overwhelming that task was; and it is probable that of all the
historians we could have asked to be present in that doomed city, Simms is the
only one who could have assembled his "cloud of witnesses," pared the hundreds
of examples down to representative few, and harnessed his powers of elocution to
attempt to convey the magnitude and enormity of what he had experienced.
Simms was unconvinced that he could do that, writing despairingly that "No
language can describe nor can any catalogue furnish an adequate detail of the
wide-spread destruction ..."30 His "List of Property Destroyed" is the accepted,
authoritative catalogue, though and his language remains the most sustained,
eloquent account of the horrors and suffering Columbia endured during those
three terrible days in February, 1865.

30 Ibid., p.29