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South Carolina Honors 134-Year-Old Promise

Philanthropy: Students raise funds to fulfill pledge by sending a firetruck to New York.


COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two years after the Civil War, with much of this city still in ruins, some of the bitterness over the conflict was put aside by a single gesture: New York firefighters collected pennies to buy Columbia a firetruck.

So overwhelmed was former Confederate Col. Samuel W. Melton that he made a promise on behalf of South Carolina's capital city to return the kindness "should misfortune ever befall the Empire City."

After 134 years, that day has finally come, and the children of Columbia are honoring that pledge.

They're collecting pennies at football games, holding bake sales and selling T-shirts in a drive that's closing in on the $350,000 needed to replace one of the dozens of New York City firetrucks destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's kinda neat," said Amanda Collins, a seventh-grader at White Knoll Middle School. "They gave us a firetruck and now we're giving them one."

But the idea started from a lesson in giving, not history.

White Knoll Principal Nancy Turner and teachers were trying to find a tangible way that their students could help after the attacks. The children were too young for a blood drive, and no one really liked the idea of sending money to a large national fund.

Once they decided to buy New York a firetruck, hundreds of students immediately began collecting money toward what seemed a noble, if impossible, goal.

That was until Turner stumbled across records of New York's long-ago gift while doing research about the cost and what type of truck to buy.

With that historical twist, it was easy to get city leaders and South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges on board. Columbia Fire Chief John Jansen, a New York City native, also enlisted his firefighters in the effort, renamed "South Carolina Remembers."

The donations have poured in, ranging from a $1 bill in a plain white envelope from California to a pledge of $100,000 from a New York philanthropist with South Carolina ties.

"When I was growing up in Columbia, Mama always said you need to return a kindness," one donor wrote. "I know she'd be as glad as I am to be part of this wonderful thank you gesture."

In 1867, Columbia was a beaten, poverty-stricken city, still recovering from a devastating fire two years earlier in the closing months of the Civil War.

Historians aren't sure exactly what caused the Feb. 17, 1865, blaze, which broke out during the occupation of Union Gen. William T. Sherman, but the destruction was clear.

"Something akin to a firestorm devoured over 36 blocks, about one-third of the city," historian Walter Edgar wrote in his book "South Carolina: A History." "When dawn broke, Columbia could see nothing but a forest of broken chimneys and piles of rubble."

The New York Firemen's Assn. would later learn that South Carolina's capital had lost most of its firefighting equipment in the war and was using bucket brigades to douse flames.

The New York firemen, many of them former Union soldiers, raised $5,000--mostly in pennies--and put a hose reel wagon on a steamship in March 1867. That ship sank off North Carolina's Outer Banks, so the firefighters took up yet another collection and sent a second hose reel wagon on its way in June.

On June 28, 1867, New York Firemen's Assn. President Henry Wilson formally presented the gift at Columbia's Sydney Park, in the shadow of Arsenal Hill, where Confederate ammunition had been made.

"We call upon our fellow citizens of the two great sections to emulate our example, and thus hasten a restoration . . . of our once-beautiful and still united national fabric," Wilson said in his speech.

"These noble efforts of yours," Columbia fire Capt. J. J. Mackey responded, "must remain forever green in our memory."

Added Melton: "The bravest can soonest forget and forgive, and none but the brave can so quickly transform the rage of the conflict into the beautiful sentiment of brotherly kindness and peace."

White Knoll's Turner, who plans to announce that the $350,000 goal has been reached later this month, hopes that the drive casts a positive light on Columbia after the drawn-out fight over the removal of the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse and its reputation for anti-Northern sentiment. Six bronze stars on the Capitol still mark the scars left by Sherman's mortar shells.

In notes to the students, donors told personal stories connecting them to loved ones lost in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, to family members who were firefighters and, in one case, to Confederate soldiers.

They sent $20 found on the street or money they won in competition at the South Carolina State Fair. One donor sent money that "was a payback for something that happened several years ago. Since I do not fully believe I am owed it, I wish to put it to good use."

The largest single donation is coming from New York attorney and philanthropist William Murray. The University of South Carolina graduate has pledged to kick in $100,000 after the students raise the first $254,000. An anonymous donor gave $50,000.

One of the most unforgettable donations, however, came with a letter from Russell Siller of Rockville Centre, N.Y. Siller's brother, Stephen, was part of the elite firefighter force Squad 1 and died Sept. 11.

"At a time like this, when the whole nation is still mourning its loss, what a powerful and poetic message your efforts send to all of us," Siller wrote. "I am proud that New York's bravest sent you a firetruck in your city's time of need. . . . To think that you would honor a pledge made so many years ago! . . . .

"The new firetruck will become a symbol for your love for your country and for New York's bravest."

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