Mrs. O’Leary’s cow took an unfair rap for the Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871.
But there’s plenty of blame to go around for what happened to Columbia on Feb. 17, 1865.
Still, today’s 150th anniversary of the latter conflagration sparks renewed resentment — by some — of Union Gen. William T. Sherman, who put our state’s capital city on the path of his marauding legions’ wrath.
From USC Professor Walter Edgar’s authoritative “South Carolina: A History”:
“Before he evacuated the city, (Confederate Gen. Wade) Hampton had countermanded (Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant) Beauregard’s order about burning the cotton, but some had been set afire anyway. Broken cotton bales, wooden roofs, drunken soldiers, and gusting winds were a recipe for disaster. ... It was a night of terror, likened to Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ Something akin to a firestorm devoured over thirty-six square blocks, about one-third of the city.”
Or as Sherman stressed — and repeatedly confirmed:
“War is hell.”
Defending Ben Tillman’s name on a building at Clemson is also, er, heck — and likely a losing fight.
The school’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution last week calling for that name’s removal. The Board of Trustees rejected that recommendation. For now.
Tillman was a driving force behind the creation of my alma mater. Yet he also was, as the resolution pointed out, an “avowed racist,” which it fairly asserted is “at odds with the university’s mission and values, and reflects poorly upon it.”
And Tillman, S.C. governor from 1890-94 and a U.S. senator from 1895-1918, wasn’t just an avowed racist. He was a particularly virulent racist, even by the ugly, bigoted standards of his place and time.
Francis Butler Simkins, in his fascinating “Pitchfork Ben Tillman: South Carolinian” biography, first published in 1944, offers this perspective:
During Tillman’s successful 1894 Senate campaign, he and incumbent Matthew Butler engaged in revealing debate about their roles in the 1876 Hamburg Massacre, where “Red Shirts” (post-Civil War paramilitary white supremacists) killed two black militia members in an ambush, then murdered four more after taking them prisoner.
Simkins writes that it “became the duty of the seeker of popular favor to emphasize his part in the riot at the expense of the part of the opponent.”
By accusing each other of “not killing” black militia members as “each boasted of a hand in that activity.”
And for years on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Tillman unleashed bitterly racist rhetoric that won’t be repeated here.
So don’t count on Tillman Hall staying Tillman Hall much longer.
Meanwhile, what about that Tillman statue on Statehouse grounds?
What about Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute, named for an alumnus who ran for president on a third-party segregation platform in 1948?
What about other namesakes who said and did stuff rightly regarded as abhorrent today?
John C. Calhoun, whose statue looms above the Charleston street that bears his name and whose Fort Hill house is on the Clemson campus (Thomas Clemson married Calhoun’s daughter), told fellow U.S. senators in 1837:
“I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.”
Not good: Obsessing and arguing over which names must be stricken from the rolls of tribute. If we don’t cut Thurmond, Calhoun and others some slack, these will be relentless, divisive disputes.
Instead, let’s accentuate the positive of how much fairer our state and nation are today than they were not just 150 years ago, but 50 years ago.
Of course, what’s acceptable to say is in constant flux.
For instance, Winston Churchill is now routinely condemned for some of his “racist” observations, which can be quite startling (check them out on the web.)
Then again, Churchill was a crucial player in defeating Adolf Hitler’s blatantly racist Nazi regime.
Back to Sherman: No fan of abolition at that tense point, he wrote in a letter home from Alexandria, La., in 1860:
“The Indians give a fair illustration of the fate of Negroes if they are released from the control of whites.”
Sherman also developed a bad attitude about some white folks around here during his early 1840s duty as a young officer at Fort Moultrie.
From University of Georgia Professor Lee Kennett’s “Sherman: A Soldier’s Life”:
“From the first Sherman seems to have been repelled by the snobbery, pretension, and ancestor worship he encountered in Charleston society.”
OK, so maybe some things haven’t changed much.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.