No one really knows when the last Confederate soldier came home to South Carolina. No one knows by what means he traveled. He may have staggered in afoot, or on a skeletal horse or mule. He may have ridden in a creaking cart on wobbly wheels — a relic, perhaps, of the Confederate baggage train.

No one knows. But if his home before the war was Charleston, we know what he found when his painful journey ended. He found a world turned upside down. He found a city and a people trod under like none other in American history.

The War Between the States took the lives of some 600,000 American men and boys, Union and Confederate. The material damage it wrought, particularly in the South where the worst of the fighting took place, was nearly indescribable. The moral and spiritual damage was even worse. Atlanta had been burned to the ground by Sherman’s army. “War is cruelty,” Gen. Sherman said, spurning an elderly mayor’s plea on behalf of Atlanta’s women and children with nowhere else to go.

“Should you capture Charleston,” Union Army Gen. Halleck wired from Washington, “I hope by some accident the place may be destroyed, and if a little salt should be sown upon its site it might prevent the growth of future crops of nullification and secession.”

Sherman replied: “I will bear in mind your hint as to Charleston and don’t think salt will be necessary. ... The truth is the whole army is burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate.”

The difficulty of moving heavily laden wagons and caissons through the marshy country between Savannah and Charleston, and his haste to get in for the kill of Lee’s army in Virginia, persuaded Sherman to take an inland route north, and Charleston, what was left of it, was not put to the torch. Instead, Columbia was.

Truth to tell, there was not much left to loot and burn in Charleston when the war ended. A large swath of the peninsula, running river to river, had been engulfed by the Great Fire of Dec. 11, 1861. The “burnt district” would not be rebuilt for many years. There was no money for that. There was barely enough for the city’s diminished population to survive.

Charleston diarist Emma Holmes, on her birthday in January 1862, described what some of the burnt district looked like when the ashes had cooled.

“How desolate seemed the few solitary houses still standing. ... Nothing but ruins on every side; it is more dreary than living by a cemetery. We walked where once our beloved home had stood and, as we listened to the passing sound of the oarsmen & their songs & the chimes of old St. Michael’s bells, they seemed to ring clearer through the silence which reigned above. The moonlight was brilliant ...”

The Great Siege of Charleston began on the night of Aug. 21, 1863 when a Federal battery opened fire on the city from Morris Island. The siege continued until the city was evacuated in the closing months of the war. St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s steeples were favorite aiming points and both churches were hit. Much of the city south of Calhoun Street was rendered uninhabitable.

A visitor to Charleston immediately after the war described it as “a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotten wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness.”

“No imagination can conceive of the utter wrecks, the universal ruin, the stupendous desolation,” wrote another. “Ruin — ruin — ruin above and below ... staring at us from every paneless window, looking out at us from every shell-torn wall, glaring at us from every battered door and pillar and veranda, crunching beneath our feet on every sidewalk.”

This is what greeted the last Confederate soldier returning home to Charleston when the war was over.

Controversy concerning the causes of the War Between the States continues to this very day. The South’s “peculiar institution,” slavery, was certainly a factor, though a very small fraction of those who fought on the side of the Confederacy ever owned a slave.

More likely than not, slavery would have ended in the United States in but a relatively few years without the war. Simple economics dictated it. It would no longer have been profitable. And well before Confederate guns first fired on Fort Sumter, there was growing conviction, both in the North and South, that enslaving one race to serve another was morally abhorrent and unworthy of a great nation.

Preserving the Union was another, and, if you take Lincoln at his word, it was the paramount, almost the only, cause.

War is and always has been a bloody butchery, whether fought by tooth and claw, spear and sword, by the dropping of bombs, or the launching of missiles. There is nothing romantic about it, except in the imagination of those who have never experienced it firsthand.

The Confederate soldier served honorably under the flag he followed into battle, in a fratricidal war that, if left to him, he might never have played a part.

It is proper and historically accurate that the flag that flies above monuments raised in his honor, including the one erected on Statehouse grounds in Columbia, be that flag.

It is petty and not helpful to the cause of improving race relations in our country to make an issue of this.

Once upon a time in the South, no one would have wanted to or dared.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.