The papers say that Charleston, S. C. has been in great part burned, it is supposed accidentally. The loss is estimated at 5,000,000 of dollars. A few weeks ago they discussed the question whether it were not better to burn their own city than to have it fall into the hands of government. God has not given them the choice. It looks like a special Providence and a severe rebuke.
The fire at Charleston began in a factory and some thought it an accident But because many Southerners feared a slave insurrection, it was easy for rumors to begin that Negroes had started the fires.
As Julia writes, there had also been talk that the residents would prefer to burn their city rather than have it taken over by the US Federal government.
From the NY Times, December 18, 1861:
The City Of Charleston, S. C.; Map Showing The District Ravaged By The Great Conflagration. The Charleston Conflagration Full Particulars From The Charleston Papers Of Saturday. The Loss Estimated At Seven Millions. About Six Hundred Buildings Destroyed On The First Day. The Origin And Progress Of The Fire. Our Dispatches From Fort Monroe. Notes On Diagram Of Charleston. The Charleston Conflagration.
FORTRESS MONROE, Monday, Dec. 16, VIA BALTIMORE, Tuesday, Dec. 17. I have received a copy of to-day's Norfolk Day Book, by a flag of truce. It contains the follow-important intelligence: THE GREAT CONFLAGRATION. CHARLESTON, Saturday, Dec. 14, 1861. The Charleston Courier gives a list of between two and three hundred sufferers by the recent fire, and says the loss is estimated at $7,000,000. Mr. RUSSELL, in whose sash and blind factory the fire originated, says the cause was the negligence and treachery of negroes. The Mercury of the 14th gives a list of five hundred and seventy-six buildings which were totally destroy-by fire on Wednesday alone. One negro woman was burned to death. The Mills House was several times on fire, and considerably damaged. AUGUSTA, Friday, Dec. 13. The Charleston Mercury of this A.M. says that the fire destroyed five churches. The Cathedral, St. Peter's, (Episcopal,) the Cumberland-street, (Methodist,) and the Circular Church, also the Institute Hall, St. Andrew's Hall, Apprentices' Library Hall, the Southern Express office, the Palmetto Savings Institution, the Art Association Hall, the Cotton Press and CAMERON & Co.'s foundery are destroyed. RICHMOND, Saturday, Dec. 14. The largest sum reported subscribed in the Day Book for the Charleston sufferers is one hundred dollars. The Richmond Dispatch of the 14th contains a message of JEFFERSON DAVIS on the Charleston conflagration. He expresses great distress of mind, considerable pity, and proposes to pay a part of what Congress owes South Carolina, as a means of aiding the sufferers, but has no funds to give away. A kindly disposed rebel soldier is reported to have said that the fire in Charleston is well known to have resulted from the negroes setting fire to various buildings at the same time. RICHMOND, Sunday, Dec. 15. The Legislature has adopted measures to aid the Charleston sufferers. DISPATCH TO THE ASSOCIATES PRESS. FORTRESS MONROE, Monday, Dec. 16, Via BALTIMORE, Tuesday, Dec. 17. Capt. MILLWARD went to Craney Island to-day with a flag of truce, and was met by Lieut. SMITH off the island. No passengers came down from Norfolk. The Norfolk and Richmond papers give full particulars of the extensive conflagration in Charleston, S.C. The fire broke out at about 9 o'clock in the evening of the 11th inst., in RUSSELL & OLDS' sash and blind factory, at the foot of Hazel-street, extending to the machine shop of CAMERON & Co. Before midnight the fire had assumed an appalling magnitude, and Meeting-street, from Market to Queen, was one mass of flame. As tenement after tenement was enveloped in flames, the panic became awful, and thousands of families evacuated their houses and filled the streets. The buildings in the lower part of the city, where the fire broke out, were principally of wood, and extremely inflammable, which accounts for the remarkably rapid progress of the fire. At midnight the Circular Church and Institute Hall were burning, and the proximity of the flames to the Charleston Hotel and the Mills House, caused them to be evacuated by their inmates. At 1 o'clock the fire tended more southward, toward the corner of Archdale and Queen streets, to the rear of the Charleston Hotel and to the end of Hayne-street; crossing Market-street, the fire spread down East Bay to Cumberland street, and across to the Mills House, including in its destruction the Circular Church, Institute Hall and the Charleston Hotel. All the buildings on King-street, from Clifford nearly to Broad, were destroyed before 3 o'clock. Gen. RIPLEY, who superintended the movements of the troops who arrived on the scene at about this time ordered several buildings on the route of the conflagration to be blown up. After some delay the order was executed, but not before the theatre, Floyd's coach factory, opposite the Express office, the old Executive building, and all the houses from this point to Queen-street had caught fire, and were destroyed. At about 4 o'clock the wind changed the direction of the flames towards Broad-street. Soon after St. Andrew's Hall took fire, and subsequently the cathedral, the spire of which fell shortly after 5 o'clock. The fire made a clear sweep through the city, making its track from East Bay to King-street. The Charleston Courier of the 13th inst. gives a list of between 200 and 300 sufferers, and says that the loss is estimated at from five to seven millions of dollars. A resolution was unanimously adopted by the Confederate Congress, appropriating two hundred and fifty thousand dollars as an advance on account of the claims of South Carolina upon the Confederate States. We give herewith a diagram of that part of Charleston which has been ravaged by the great fire. All of that section of the city colored black has not been destroyed; but the whole region from Hazel to Broad-street, and from East Bay to the Catholic Cathedral, near Friend-street, seems to have been assaulted with more or less fury by the devouring element. The papers of the city give a list of 576 buildings which were burnt on Wednesday alone, and estimate the value of the property destroyed as high as seven millions of dollars. This estimate of value is undoubtedly in the usual Carolina style of exaggeration; and the 576 buildings must include a large proportion of ricketty old shells and negro shanties. Still, it is as evident now as it was from the first accounts, that the business and trading parts of the town, and a great part of its public edifices and churches, are in ashes. The number of the latter now given as being destroyed exceeds the number mentioned in the first reports; but not half the public buildings in the burnt district are enumerated in the dispatch. The list of two or three hundred sufferers alluded to by the telegraph must refer to the property owners alone; for there was a resident population of from seven to ten thousand whites, blacks and mongrels comprised within the burnt district. (In another dispatch, indeed, it is mentioned that thousands of families had evacuated their houses and filled the streets.) The telegrams we had on Saturday said that the fire had crossed Broad-street, and was sweeping southward; but our dispatches to-day make no mention of any ravages south of that street; so that it is likely that it was confined within the limits indicated in our diagram. Charleston is built on a piece of land very much resembling that part of Manhattan Island on which this City is situated. There is a river on either side, as with us, and the land there as here begins with a narrow point looking out on the bay, and widening as you go up town. Immediately on the Battery there (as used to be the case here) are the residences of the opulent. From these to Broad-street are the houses of middle-class people, many of them wooden -- with the sinks of iniquity and various trading, liquor and junketing shops on the east side, as with us -- only here these are a little higher up. Broad-street, as its name implies, is a wide avenue, occupied in considerable part by the better class of stores, and by various banks, public buildings and residences. Then comes the wholesale and retail part proper of the city, with public edifices, churches and shanties interspersed, and beyond that is the outskirts -- somewhat resembling the suburbs of Williamsburg. On the bay east of the burnt district, are the wharves and the offices of the cotton and rice factors, which the fire did not reach. From this brief description the reader will see exactly the nature and relative importance of the burnt part of the town. And by the aid of the diagram and the telegraphic dispatches we publish this morning, he can form some faint idea of the destruction that has overtaken the wretched Dity of Charleston. The leaders of the rebellion were themselves going to fire the town on the approach of the National forces; so the present destruction only forestalls their action.