Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Simms's Civil War: History, Healing, and the Sack and Destruction of Columbia, S.C

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Simms's Civil War: History, Healing, and the Sack and Destruction of Columbia, S.C

Article excerpt

At the end of the Civil War, the South's public intellectuals faced enormous challenges. Edmund Ruffin responded to the collapse of the Confederacy by putting a gun to his head after writing his final diary entry:

    I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule--to all
   political, social & business connection with the Yankees--&
to the
   Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their
   full force, on every living southerner, & bequeath them to every
   one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the
   outraged & down-trodden South, though in silence & stillness,
until
   the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for
   Yankee usurpation, oppression, & atrocious outrages--& for
   deliverance & vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and
enslaved
   Southern States! May the maledictions of every victim to their
   malignity, press with full weight on the perfidious Yankee people
&
   their perjured rulers--& especially on those of the invading
forces
   who encouraged, directed, or permitted, the unprecedented &
   generally extended outrages of robbery, rapine & destruction,
&
   house-burning, all committed contrary to the laws of war on
   non-combatant residents, & still worse on aged men & helpless
   women! (946) 

Ruffin's friend William Gilmore Simms, equally devoted to the Southern cause, chose a different path. He stayed in South Carolina and embraced the new order, spending his last years trying to rebuild his antebellum career as writer, editor, poet, and novelist. One of Simms's less known and largely misunderstood works, Sack and Destruction of Columbia, S. C., illuminates the difficult transition he navigated from wartime fervor to peacetime conciliation. (1) As Simms's only historical monograph dealing with the Civil War, it represents a distillation of much of his wartime writing and thought, still the most neglected and misunderstood period of his work (Rogers 15). Drawing on his more than forty years of writing on war that began in 1825 with his first publication, Monody, on the Death of Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the text is also a compelling expression of his artistic philosophy in the only example of a first-person historical account in his corpus. And it shows not only Simms's skill as a historian, working under extreme circumstances, but also the prescience of his account in the lingering controversy surrounding its subject.

Written shortly after the occupation of Columbia by federal troops and its subsequent destruction, the text first appeared as a serial account in the spring of 1865 in a newspaper Simms was editing in that city. A carefully revised version was published that fall as a paper-bound book in a small press run. Portions were republished over the next few years and it was reissued several times in the next century, but as the debate over the burning of Columbia continued, Sack and Destruction became relegated to the margins of Civil War historiography, occasionally mentioned but generally dismissed. (2) Over time, the text became reclassified as an early relic of the Lost Cause, a literary artifact whose misguided partisanry was a manifestation of the defects of the intellectual environment that produced its author. (3)

While that view of the South and of Simms has been steadily eroded by recent scholarship, Sack and Destruction's reputation has not experienced a similar renaissance. (4) With the exception of the recent republication of excerpts in John C. Guilds's The Simms Reader, the text's later publishers have ironically contributed to these skewed impressions, both of the account itself and of its author. (5) But Sack and Destruction has more to offer than just a deepening of our understanding of the politics of Simms's postwar reputation. Simms witnessed the bombardment of Fort Sumter, which commenced hostilities, and roamed the streets of Columbia as it burned, an event that Sherman would later say marked the end of the Confederacy (Royster 331). …

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