The Battle of Aiken

Pete Peters

William Tecumseh Sherman, resting his troops in Savannah, 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.”

Sherman’s cavalry commander, Union Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, reportedly spent $5,000 in Savannah for matches for his troopers. Kilpatrick, better known as “Kill Cav” for his rashness in battle that got his own men killed, was obnoxious, boastful, and a notorious womanizer. At Savannah, he 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.

By Feb. 1, 1865, the invasion of Carolina had begun. Half of Sherman’s command under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, who had been sent to Beaufort by ship from Savannah, Ga., began marching toward Charleston, S.C. The other wing of Sherman’s army under Gen. Henry Slocum moved up the Georgia side of the Savannah River crossing into Carolina at Sister’s Ferry and was moving toward Augusta, Ga., where the Confederacy’s gunpowder mills were located. Kilpatrick’s cavalry was with this wing. Sherman’s goal was to keep the Confederates guessing whether Augusta or Charleston would be attacked, while his real objective was to march between these two cities and take Columbia, S.C.

By Feb. 5, Kilpatrick had already reached Barnwell, S.C. After looting and burning the town, Kilpatrick sarcastically renamed it “Burn-well” in a memo to Sherman. In two days, Kilpatrick reached the small railroad town of Blackville. The railroad that ran through Blackville connected Augusta to Charleston. For four years this railroad, which ran through Aiken, had transported Confederate troops from various states to numerous battlefields. James Longstreet’s corps had passed on this rout to Chickamauga in 1863. 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, Kilpatrick crossed into what is now Aiken County, near White Pond, and engaged with Col. Charles C. Crew’s regiment of Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler's cavalry. The Battle of Aiken had begun.

After four years of the war, Confederate forces were depleted. The Army of Tennessee was broken in a defeat at Nashville. To defend against Sherman, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard had various forces, some consisting of militia units composed of young men and old men, and others of units whose ranks had been greatly depleted by the war. Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, Commander of the Departments of South Carolina and Georgia, was falling back from Savannah toward Charleston. Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler's Cavalry Corps was almost in daily contact with Sherman trying to delay the Union progress as much as possible. In Augusta, Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill was placed in command of area forces on Jan. 19, 1865.

Augusta was vital to the Confederacy. Huge manufacturing facilities produced virtually all of the gunpowder used by the Confederate forces. In addition, the Graniteville mill was producing 4,000,000 yards of cotton cloth a year. To protect the area, Hill had the Georgia Militia, commanded by Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, and Hardee's old Corps of the Army of Tennessee, commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham. Hill moved these units, which consisted of 3,060 men, to form a defensive line along Big Horse Creek. Cheatham ordered Gen. James Argle Smith, commanding Cleburn's Division, to defend Graniteville. Between this defensive line and Kilpatrick's advancing Union cavalry, operated Wheeler's cavalry corps and the Aiken Home Guard.

Hill followed up with Cheatham in correspondence that reflects the extent of preparations 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
 

Wheeler had approximately 4,500 cavalrymen in the Aiken area: Gen. Allen's Division, consisting of Anderson's, Hagan's, and Crew's brigades, and Gen. Hume's Division consisting of Dibrell's, Ashby's, and Harrison's brigades. The men, most of whom had fought four years far away from home, were from Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia.

As Kilpatrick's men moved toward Aiken, residents of the county realized their worst fears were coming true. 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. Courtney sent a request for a Union surgeon to come and stop the flow of blood, but the surgeon refused to come. Courtney slowly bled to death while watching flames from his home. (Family members eventually saved the home.) Courtney, possibly, was the first casualty in Aiken County.

A lady in Johnson's Station (Montmorenci) 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 pillowcases were used as bags to remove provisions.

Ransey 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 eating. Even after these insults, a fire was started under the Toole house as they left, although Mrs. Toole was able to extinguish the blaze.

As refuges fled through Aiken and into Augusta, panic ensued. Would the towns be destroyed? Gen. Hill wrote Wheeler on the 8th, "It seems to me that a concentration of your cavalry upon Kilpatrick would crush him ... I hope that you will keep us constantly apprised of movements." After skirmishing with Kilpatrick at White Pond and Johnson's Station (Montmorenci), Wheeler consolidated his troops in Aiken where he devised a plan to surprise and trap Kilpatrick. The Aiken Home Guards scouted and advised Wheeler as to Kilpatrick's movements.

Wheeler carefully planned to trap Kilpatrick. Wheeler formed his cavalry in the shape of a ‘V’, with the bottom of the ‘V’ pointed west toward Augusta. The railroad and Park Avenue ran down the center of the ‘V’. A thin line of skirmishers was deployed between the top tips of the ‘V’, which paralleled Williamsburg Street. On the approach of Kilpatrick, the line would fall back toward the west. It was hoped that Kilpatrick would be rash and would charge after the retreating Confederates into the ‘V’. Wheeler would then collapse the tops of the ‘V’ around Kilpatrick, surrounding him.

Although civilians had warned Kilpatrick that Wheeler and Cheatham were in Aiken, the cocksure officer leisurely marched towards the town. On Feb. 11, the Union troops marched up Park, Richland and Barnwell avenues. Wheeler's advanced picket line on Williamsburg Street fell back as planned towards York Street. Here, the plan fell apart when an Alabama trooper fired his gun prematurely, thus springing the trap too soon. Wheeler, realizing that he must act quickly or lose the initiative, ordered all units to attack. The key engagement occurred on Richland Avenue in front of the Baptist Church Amidst Rebel yells and shouted commands, the two sides entangled in a hand-to-hand battle. Scattered fights occurred in other parts of the town, including a desperate fight around the Williams' house off South Boundary. To add to the confusion, a Federal battery of the 10th Wisconsin lobbed 59 shells into the town.

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 Michigan Calvary into line of battle, flanking the artillery on the left of the road, and holding the 10th Ohio Cavalry 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 (Montmorenci). 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:

Gen. 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 wrote:

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 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 Montmorenci. A turn-of-the-century account of the battle reports that a Confederate cavalryman rode up to the general 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, Kilpatrick lined up behind barricades previously built. The Union troops skirmished with Wheeler for the rest of the day and the following day on Feb. 12. Kilpatrick sent out a flag of truce that evening to exchange and recover the dead and wounded. On Feb. 13, Kilpatrick moved out to rejoin Sherman in the march toward Columbia. Wheeler did the same, sweeping wide in an attempt to get ahead of Sherman so as 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, for a total of 251 Confederate casualties. Wheeler admitted losing only 50 killed and wounded. Wheeler also claimed that the Confederates attack resulted in 53 killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured, or 495 Union casualties in all. Kilpatrick admitted to losing 25 killed and wounded and less than 20 captured.

Therefore, total Federal casualties were between 45 and 495, while the Confederates lost between 50 and 251. Several unknown Union soldiers and one unknown Confederate lie buried in the First Baptist Church graveyard. Two Tennessee cavalrymen lie in the St. Thaddeus graveyard. It is presumed that the rest of the Confederate dead were shipped to their homes.

The citizens of Aiken, the governor of South Carolina and Gen. D. H. Hill hailed Wheeler as savior. If not defended against, Kilpatrick would have undoubtedly destroyed Aiken, and the Graniteville mills.

Although it is clear that Sherman did not care about Augusta, Kilpatrick was rash and always looked for an opportunity to advance his career. If not contested, Kilpatrick would possibly have destroyed the railroad as far as Hamburg. There, he possibly would have shelled the Confederate Powderworks in Augusta from his side of the river or even made a dash into the city if he found it lightly defended. If bluffed, Confederates may 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, enabling the region to withstand the Reconstruction period better than other more devastated areas of the South.

Ironically, post war Aiken would quickly welcome Northerners back as it became first a health resort, then a grand winter sporting resort for the Northern elite.