Repaying an Old Debt

November 18, 2001

REPAYING AN OLD DEBT By Ray Pritchard February, 1865. The Union army, led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, stands poised at the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina. For months the army has burned its way across Georgia, cutting a wide destructive swath through the heart of the Confederacy. Now at last they have come to the place where it all began, to the capital city of South Carolina, the first state to secede, the true birthplace of the Civil War. To Sherman’s men their job was easy and obvious. Burn the town down and send a brutal message to the South that the war would soon be over and Judgment Day had finally come. These tough soldiers were good at things like foraging, pillaging, and burning a city to the ground. Evidence suggests that the soldiers started at least 20 separate fires that eventually destroyed hundreds of buildings, including churches, schools, and even a Catholic convent. Surveying the scene the next day, Sherman wrote that the sun rose “bright and clear over a ruined city.” A Federal major wrote that it would be a century before the city would recover. Two months later the war would be over and the long process of rebuilding a fractured, wounded nation would begin. To say that there were ill feelings between the North and South after the war would be a vast understatement. But here and there little gestures were taken that would speed the healing process. In 1867 some New York City firemen (most of them former Union soldiers) heard that Columbia had no fire wagon and had to rely on bucket brigades. On their own, they raised money to purchase a fire wagon for the city their comrades had burned only two years earlier. The kind gesture deeply moved the people of South Carolina, including a former Confederate colonel who declared that Columbia would gladly repay the kindness should the great “Empire City” ever stand in need of help. September 11, 2001. Terrorists hijack two jetliners and fly them into the World Trade Center. The towers collapse, leaving over 4,000 people dead, including over 300 New York City fire fighters. As people around the country struggled to find ways to help, at the White Knoll Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina, an amazing idea was born. Why not raise money to buy a new fire truck to replace those destroyed in the terrorist attacks? The cost seemed astronomical: $354,000. But the children had a dream and the community rallied to the cause. Last Tuesday, principal Nancy Turner announced that over $447,000 had been raised. The new fire truck will be delivered to Fire House 101 in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. They were one of the first units on the scene on September 11. The seven men on their truck all died that day and the truck itself was destroyed. This the Golden Rule in action. After 134 years, the debt has been repaid.

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