Maj. Gen. William T. 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, 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, mill, forests, and even churches.
By February 1st, the invasion of Carolina had begun. Half of Sherman’s command under Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, who had been shipped to Beaufort by ship from Savannah, began marching apparently towards Charleston. 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 apparently moving towards Augusta where the Confederacy’s gunpowder mills were located. Kilpatrick’s cavalry was with this wing. Sherman’s goal was to keep the Confederates guessing as to whether Augusta or Charleston was to be attacked, while his real objective was to take Columbia.
By the 5th, Kilpatrick had already reached Barnwell. 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. Longstreet’s Corps had passed on this rout to Chickamauga in 1863. Kilpatrick destroyed the track and several cars left at the Blackville station.
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 4 years of the war, the Confederate defenses were depleted. The Army of Tennessee was broken in a defeat at Nashville. To defend against Sherman, Maj. 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 towards Charleston. 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. 19th.
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 3060 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.
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 4 years far away from home, were from Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia.
As Kilpatrick's men moved towards Aiken, residents of the county realized that their worst fears were coming true. Mr. James Courtney determinedly extinguished 3 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.
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. Even after this, 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.
Wheeler carefully planned to trap Kilpatrick. 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’. 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 towards 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 and thus surround him.
Although civilians had warned Kilpatrick that Wheeler and Cheatham were in Aiken, the cocksure officer leisurely marched towards the town. On February 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.
Kilpatrick had been routed back to his defensive position at Monmorenci. 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, the 12th. Kilpatrick sent out a flag of truce that evening to exchange and recover the dead and wounded. On the 13th, Kilpatrick moved out to rejoin Sherman in the march towards 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—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.
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, 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 looking 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 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, thus enabling the region to withstand the Reconstruction period better than other more devastated areas of the South.
Article written by Pete Peters of the Bernard E. Bee Camp 1575, Sons of Confederate Veterans