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Columbia marks 150 years of being ‘famously hot’

Will Columbia be hot Feb. 17?

It has been and, as a historical occasion, just might be this year.

It's the commemoration of the conflagration that destroyed a part of the capital of South Carolina as it was being abandoned by Confederates and occupied by federal forces toward the end of the Civil War.

Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of what came to be known as the “Burning of Columbia,” and events are scheduled throughout the day.

▪ At 9 a.m. is a historical reappraisal of what happened there in February 1865. The 90-minute panel discussion by scholars will be held at the Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St. The session is free, but registration is required.

After a $30 noon luncheon, there's a second free panel discussion from 2 to 4 p.m.

▪ At 4 p.m., a historical marker about the 1865 fire will be unveiled at the 1200 block of Main Street. The ceremony is free and open to the public.

▪ At 5 p.m. at Boyd Plaza, 1515 Main St., there's a public commemoration that includes comments by politicians and historians, performances by the Benedict College Concert Choir and the Sandlapper Singers, performance art and other music in addition to exhibits and readings.

▪ At Tapp's Art Center, 1644 Main St., there are 7 p.m. readings by poets and writers, followed at 8 p.m. with a live performance by the jazz-funk band The Dubber.

What does it all add up to? An easy afternoon in an attractive downtown. And a gathering of question marks about who caused the figure, and what the blaze signified in both the short and long run.

Experts are divided over whether the fire was the work of:

1. retreating Confederates, under the command of Gen. Wade Hampton

2. local looters.

3. enraged federal troops, under the command of Gen. William Sherman; they had just liberated a Confederate POW camp in West Columbia.

After a century and a half, it’s all academic. And more than a tad ironic.

Since World War II, Columbia has gladly welcomed thousands upon thousands of federal troops: Camp Jackson, on Columbia’s outskirts, is the Army's training facility, a 52,000 acre compound that, according to wikipedia, employs “almost 4,400 civilians and provides services for more than 115,000 retirees and their family members.”

It goes on to say that the installation pumps more than $716.9 million into the area economy.

“Famously Hot,” is nowadays the slogan used by the Columbia Convention &Visitors Bureau, notably for the “Famously Hot New Year's Eve” bash on Main Street.

About the engraving at the top of this post: The POW camp in West Columbia was called Camp Sorghum. Two months before it was liberated, 500 captured Union officers were moved there from a smaller compound, in downtown Columbia, on the grounds of the old State Lunatic Asylum.