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The History and Background of
The Battle of Aiken

The Battle of Aiken

By Wayne Jones

 

Events Leading Up To The Battle of Aiken

We will attempt to look at the events and military actions that led up to the Battle of Aiken. We must look at several different parts of the whole to see how they fit into the grand scheme of General Sherman’s plan to destroy South Carolina, especially Columbia.

 

  • The beginnings of Sherman’s march from Savannah to Columbia
  • The crossing of the Savannah at Sisters Ferry
  • The Burning of Barnwell
  • Moving from Williston to Aiken
  • Advancing of troops on Aiken

 

The Beginnings of Sherman’s march from Savannah to Columbia

General Sherman targeted South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, and for the effect it would have on Southern morale.  The biggest decision was how he planned to mask his movement to Columbia, South Carolina as he left Savannah, Georgia.  In our story, we attempt to cover only part of that movement, the part that led his troops to be in Aiken, South Carolina, on February 11, 1865.  For us to better understand that, we must look at some the facts and the players leading up to that fateful day.

 

While, resting his troops in Savannah, General William Tecumseh Sherman declared, “When I go through South Carolina, it will be one of the most horrible things in the history of the world. The devil himself couldn’t restrain my men in that state.”

 

General Sherman’s cavalry commander, Union Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick reportedly spent $5,000 in Savannah for matches for his troopers.


General Kilpatrick's nickname was “Kill Cavalry”.  This name came from his rashness in battle that got his own men killed.  He had a total disregard for his soldiers and his goal was total destruction of the enemy at any cost.  He was obnoxious, boastful, and a notorious womanizer.

 

While in Savannah, General Kilpatrick told his corps, “In after years when travelers passing through South Carolina shall see chimney stacks without houses, and the country desolate, and shall ask who did this? Some Yankee will answer: Kilpatrick’s Cavalry!” His men would soon leave a scorched swath across South Carolina burning homes, farms, mills, forests, and even churches.

 

Sherman said, "I know that Kilpatrick is a damn. fool, but I want just that sort of man to command my cavalry on this expedition."

 

The crossing of the Savannah at Sisters Ferry

 

By February 1, 1865, the invasion of Carolina had begun. Half of General Sherman’s command under Maj. General Oliver O. Howard had been shipped to Beaufort by ship from Savannah.  They began marching, apparently, towards Charleston.

 

The other wing of General Sherman’s army under General Henry Slocum moved up the Georgia side of the Savannah River crossing into Carolina at Sister’s Ferry (near modern day Clyo, SC).  These men were apparently moving towards Augusta, where the Confederacy’s gunpowder mills were located. General Kilpatrick’s cavalry was with this wing.

 

General Sherman’s goal was to keep the Confederate Army guessing as to whether he was attacking Augusta or Charleston, while his real objective was to take control of the city of Columbia, South Carolina.

 

The Burning of Barnwell

 

By February 6, General Kilpatrick had already reached Barnwell, South Carolina. After looting and burning the town, Kilpatrick sarcastically renamed it “Burn-well” in a memo to General Sherman.

 

In two days, General Kilpatrick reached the small railroad town of Blackville, South Carolina. The railroad that ran through Blackville connected Augusta, Georgia to Charleston, South Carolina. For four years this railroad, which ran through Aiken, had transported Confederate troops from various states to numerous battlefields.  General Longstreet’s Corps had passed on this rout to Chickamauga in 1863. General Kilpatrick destroyed the track and several cars left at the Blackville station.

 

He then sent the following message the next morning to Sherman:

 

Headquarters Cavalry Command Blackville, Feb. 8, 1865

 

Major-General Sherman:

General: I will encamp to night at Williston and destroy some track; February 9 (will be) at or before Windsor, and the following day make demonstrations toward Augusta. Will, if prudent, destroy Government property at Aiken, and as much railroad as possible and return to Windsor. I will be prudent, bold, but not rash.

 

Very respectfully, J. Kilpatrick Brevet Major-General

 

After sending that message, General Kilpatrick crossed into what is now Aiken County, near White Pond.  It was here he first engaged with Colonel Charles C. Crew’s regiment of Major General Joe Wheeler's Cavalry. The Battle of Aiken had begun.

 

In Augusta, Georgia, Major General Daniel H. Hill was in command of area forces on January 19, 1865. To protect the area, General Hill had the Georgia Militia, commanded by Major General Gustavus W. Smith, and Hardee's old Corps of the Army of Tennessee, commanded by Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham. General Hill moved these units, which consisted of just over 3,000 men, to form a defensive line for Augusta at Big Horse Creek.

 

General Cheatham then ordered General James Argle Smith, commanding Cleburne’s Division, to defend Graniteville, South Carolina.

 

General Hill followed up with a correspondence to General Cheatham that reflects the extent of preparations that were being made in defense of the area:

 

Augusta, Feb. 10, 1865

Major General Cheatham

 

General--The preservation of the factory at Graniteville is of great importance to the Confederacy as well as to the security of your line. Do you think it prudent to send five hundred men so far out? If the operator at Aiken has brought off his instruments, you might put up a station at Big Horse Creek.

 

Respectfully, D. H. Hill Major- General

 

Between this defensive line and General Kilpatrick's advancing Union Cavalry, operated General Wheeler's Cavalry Corps and the Aiken Home Guard.

 

Moving From Williston to Aiken

 

As Kilpatrick's men moved towards Aiken, residents of the county realized that their worst fears were coming true.

 

Mr. James Courtney determinedly extinguished three fires that Union Cavalry had started to destroy his home. Each time Courtney extinguished the fire, the cavalry would restart it. After the third time, the cavalry shot him in the leg to prevent him from saving his house. Mr. Courtney sent a request for a Union surgeon to come stop the flow of blood, but the surgeon refused to come. James Courtney slowly bled to death while his home burned in front of him. Courtney, possibly, was the first casualty in Aiken County.

 

After skirmishing with General Kilpatrick at White Pond and Johnson's Station (Montmorienci), General Wheeler consolidated his troops in Aiken where he devised a plan to surprise and trap Kilpatrick’s Cavalry. The Aiken Home Guards scouted and advised Wheeler as to Kilpatrick's movements.

 

Ramsey and Kelly Toole, brothers at home because they were too young to fight, had ropes placed around their necks and were threatened with hanging if they didn't reveal where their horses were hidden in the swamps. Their mother was forced to prepare dinner for the officers, only to see her dishes thrown against a tree when they were through. Even after this, a fire was started under the Toole house as they left, although Mrs. Toole was able to extinguish the blaze.

 

A lady in Johnson's Station (Montmorienci) reported on the destruction and pillage of personal property: "It may have been an hour after their arrival when Pauline came rushing to me saying the Yankees had come...our first floor was specially filled with armed men. At first I very politely unlocked several trunks assuring them that they only contained ladies apparel...This band of 150 men ransacked every nook and corner, breaking open trunks and boxes, singing, whistling, swearing...one young villain came in, fastened the doors, demanded our watches, and using the most profane language and terrible threats ordered us to confess where our gold and silver was buried...the entreaties of our faithful servants alone saved the house from conflagration...They began digging and found all the concealed provisions but gave us a few hams and some rice. We have lost all our silver, china, and glass. All our blankets, quilts, shawls and all the pillow cases were used as bags to remove provisions."

 

Advancing of troops on Aiken

 

  • As refuges fled through Aiken and into Augusta, panic ensued.

 

  • Would the towns be destroyed?

 

  • Would Kilpatrick do as he had said and burn everything in his path?

 

  • Would Kilpatrick destroy Augusta or would the troops burn the town to prevent its capture?

 

General Wheeler very carefully devised a plan to trap General Kilpatrick. General Wheeler formed his cavalry in the shape of a ‘V’, with the bottom of the ‘V’ pointed west towards Augusta. The railroad and Park Avenue ran down the center of the ‘V’. Thin lines of skirmishers were deployed between the top tips of the ‘V’, which paralleled Williamsburg Street. As General Kilpatrick approached, the line would fall back towards the west. The plan was that General Kilpatrick would be rash and would charge after the retreating Confederates.  As they charged into the ‘V’, General Wheeler would then pull his men in around the top of the ‘V’, collapse it around General Kilpatrick, and thus surround him.  An so the battle would unfold on that fateful day of February 11, 1865 when Kilpatrick took his men to Aiken, SC.

 

The best description of the battle is from John Reed from the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry:

 

 ...we were within a half mile of the town of Aiken, when we dis­covered long lines of rebel cavalry.  The column halted...Kilpatrick came dashing up to the head of the column and desired to know the reason of the halt. Just then, a locomotive ran out in plain view near Aiken and whistled and whistled.  Kilpatrick brought up the artillery and sent a few rifled shells toward the locomotive and into the town.

Kilpatrick also called on the 92nd Illinois Silver Cornet Band to play Yankee Doodle. The next thing in order was for the 92nd Illinois to charge into the town...

 

Now we felt that we were going into a trap, but Kilpatrick took the lead...

 

Gen. Atkins ordered the 9th Ohio into line of battle on the right of the road, flanking the artillery, and the 9th Mich. Cav. into line of battle flanking the artillery on the left of the road. holding the 10th Ohio Cav. in reserve...

 

The ladies of the town waved their handkerchiefs in welcome and smilingly invited the officers and men into their houses. But that kind of a welcome was unusual in South Carolina...

 

It was an additional evidence of danger. In the farther edge of the town the enemy was in line of battle..."

 

After the accidental shot per Reed: "...(the officers) quickly formed the regiment to charge back again to the brigade, the rebels having formed in line in our rear.

Every man in the regiment appeared to be conscious that the only way to get out was to assault the rebel line and cut a hole in it. We rode forward to the charge...

the rebels awaited our approach until within close range, when they demanded a halt and surrender, and were answered by every man in the regiment pumping into them the eight Spenser bullets in his trusty repeating rifle...

 

It was a desperate charge, and the men fought face to face and hand to hand...

 

Now the brigade bugle sounded the charge and with a yell the 9th Ohio and the 9th Michigan charged... into the town of Aiken...recapturing a great many of the boys that had been taken prisoners...

 

We were five miles from camp, where the balance of the division lay behind their rail barricades (Montmorienci)...

 

The rebels at Aiken, came thundering down upon our four little regiments, and the five miles back to camp was a battle field all the way..."

 

Private D. B. Morgan of the 5th Georgia Cavalry gives a Confederate account of the battle:

 

"General Wheeler was trying to entrap him and capture his whole force...This ruse, no doubt, would have worked well but for the extra enthusiasm of an Al­abama regiment (who) ...opened fire and thus precipitated a general engagement...Our regiment had just been issued sabers with wooden scabbards, which were awkwardly attached to our saddles. I was mounted on a very fine mule. We charged the enemy through scrub oak forest and open peach orchard, through the village, driving them back...It was an all day fight. As we halted in one of the charges, my mule was shot from under me, the ball passing immediately under my left leg and entering the poor creature's heart. With an unearthly yell...she bounded into the air and in falling, caught me half dismounted, with my left leg under her body. The soft plowed ground on which I fell prevented its being broken..."

 

The Rev. John Henry Cornish of St. Thaddeus Church would write:

 

"...Several shells came whizzing by us from a battery on Railroad Avenue... Two shells went through the house at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Laurens Street; one struck in the yard of the old parsonage...The enemy came nearly to the street passing the west end of the Aiken Hotel...The bugles sounded a charge. It is a marvelous what a different aspect was thrown over the scene in an instant. The horses started and came tearing down Richland Street, the men rising in their stirrups, with their pistols in their hands, yelling and screaming, each one looking as if he could devour a dozen Yankees...The enemy was driven back. There was a fight also in Williams' old field. The enemy was driven back to Pole Cat Pond (Montmorienci)...Five of our wounded were brought to my house where the surgeons attended to them...Two of the killed were taken to the (St. Thaddeus) church yard, where they were put in coffins and buried."

 

Kilpatrick had been routed back to his defensive position at Monmorenci.

 

A later account of the battle reports that a Confederate cavalryman rode up to the General Kilpatrick and snapped his pistol at his chest, but the gun did not go off. The General then fled, losing his hat in the rout.

 

Reaching his defenses at Montmorenci, General Kilpatrick lined up behind barricades previously built. The Union troops skirmished with the forces of General Wheeler for the rest of the day and the following day, February 12. General Kilpatrick sent out a flag of truce that evening to exchange and recover the dead and wounded.

 

On February 13, General Kilpatrick moved out to rejoin General Sherman in the march towards Columbia. General Wheeler did the same, sweeping wide in an attempt to get ahead of General Sherman to help in the defense of the capitol.

 

Commanders in their reports often overestimated their opponent’s casualties and downsized their own.

 

  • Kilpatrick states that Wheeler lost 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 taken prisoners - a total of 251 Confederate casualties. Wheeler admitted 50 killed and wounded.
  • Wheeler also claimed that the Confederates attack resulted in 53 killed, 270 wounded, and 172 captured - a total of 495 Union casualties. Kilpatrick admitted to losing 25 killed and wounded and less than 20 captured.
  • Thus, total Federal casualties were between 45 and 495, while the Confederates lost between 50 and 251. Twenty Union soldiers lie buried in the First Baptist Church graveyard, while two Tennessee cavalrymen lie in the St. Thaddeus graveyard. It is presumed that the rest of the Confederate dead were shipped to their homes.

 

General Wheeler was hailed as savior by the citizens of Aiken, the Governor of South Carolina, and by General D. H. Hill. If not defended against, General Kilpatrick would have undoubtedly destroyed Aiken, and the Graniteville mills.

 

Although it is clear that General Sherman did not care about Augusta, General Kilpatrick was rash and always looking for an opportunity to advance his career. If not contested, General Kilpatrick would possibly have destroyed the railroad as far as Hamburg. There he possibly would have shelled the Confederate Powder Works in Augusta from his side of the river or even may have made a dash into the city if he found it lightly defended. If bluffed, Confederates may even have destroyed Augusta to keep it from falling into Union hands.

 

Coming at the end of the war in the midst of the Confederate defeat, the Battle of Aiken makes few of the standard histories of the war. The Confederate victory is however crucial to the local history of the region because the victory prevented the destruction of the local capital and economy.  This helped the region to withstand the Reconstruction period better than other more devastated areas of the South.

 

Aiken County played a very important role in the History of South Carolina and Reconstruction.  However, Reconstruction is another story entirely. 

 

(This article was compiled from historical resources from the Aiken County Historical Museum, The Official Record of the War Of Rebellion, The Southern Society Historical Papers, and 10 Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken.   There was no willful attempt to copy or plagiarize any works past and present. The attempt was to give the reader a better understanding of the events leading up to and immediately after the Battle of Aiken. We would like to thank the Aiken County Historical Museum for the information that they have on display.) 

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