The History and Background of
The Battle of Aiken
By James Ewell
Events Leading Up To The
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
The Beginnings of Sherman’s march from Savannah to Columbia
General Sherman targeted
While, resting his troops in
General Sherman’s cavalry commander, Union Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick reportedly spent $5,000 in
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.
The crossing of the
By February 1, 1865, the invasion of
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
General Sherman’s goal was to keep the Confederate Army guessing as to whether he was attacking
The Burning of Barnwell
By February 6, General Kilpatrick had already reached
In two days, General Kilpatrick reached the small railroad town of
He then sent the following message the next morning to
Headquarters Cavalry Command Blackville, Feb. 8, 1865
General: I will encamp to night at Williston and destroy some track; February 9 (will be) at or before
Very respectfully, J. Kilpatrick Brevet Major-General
After sending that message, General Kilpatrick crossed into what is now
General Cheatham then ordered General James Argle Smith, commanding
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:
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
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
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
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
Kilpatrick also called on the 92nd
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
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
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
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
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
Commanders in their reports often overestimated their opponent’s casualties and downsized their own.
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
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.
(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