Following the fall of Atlanta, Georgia, to Union forces in September 1864 and the capture of Savannah in December, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman directed his attention toward South Carolina — the so-called “Cradle of the Confederacy.”
Although during the “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman’s forces exercised selective restraint on civilians and property, the 60,000-man Union army had retribution in mind as they moved north into South Carolina.
Sherman’s immediate objective was the capture of the capital, Columbia. To confuse his opponents, he sent diversionary forces east toward Charleston and west toward Augusta, Georgia, to freeze the Confederate defenders in place while the main force marched northward toward Columbia.
Sherman detailed a Union cavalry contingent of 5,000 troops under Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to demonstrate westward toward Augusta, and, if possible, destroy the principal Confederate powder works located there. In early February 1865, the force destroyed and set fire to towns including Barnwell (which Kilpatrick mockingly renamed “Burnwell”), before reaching Johnson’s Turnout (now Montmorenci) southeast of the small town of Aiken.
Kilpatrick’s maneuvers drew the Rebel cavalry under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler away from routes leading to Columbia, where Wheeler had been fighting a delaying action against Sherman’s main force. When Wheeler learned that Kilpatrick’s cavalry had arrived at Johnson’s Turnout, he decided to get between the enemy and Augusta — thinking that was now Sherman’s primary objective.
On Feb. 11, Kilpatrick took one of his four brigades from Johnson’s Turnout to reconnoiter Aiken, located six miles farther west and 20 miles from Augusta, just across the Savannah River. Wheeler’s cavalry had already reached Aiken, however, and waited in ambush for Kilpatrick’s arrival.
Along the way, Kilpatrick learned from a local woman that Wheeler had visited her house that morning. Arriving at Aiken, Kilpatrick shelled the town and sent the 92nd Illinois Regiment charging down its streets.
Wheeler was waiting toward the end of town when nervous gunfire compelled the Rebels to attack prematurely. Nearly surrounded, the 92nd Illinois charged the Confederates.
The other three Union regiments formed in line of battle, but brigade commander Brig. Gen. Smith D. Atkins said they could not fire because the Union troops were “so mixed up with the enemy each was claiming the other prisoners and pulling one another off their horses.”
Union troops eventually halted the Rebel onslaught with a volley and drove them through the town. The battle raged on with charges and countercharges, until the Federals began a retreat back to Johnson’s Turnout.
A running fight continued for five miles, until Kilpatrick’s men reached the safety of their barricaded reserve force. Atkins was pleased that his relatively small force fought and held their own against Wheeler’s entire command.
Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and Atkins attributed the Rebel losses to his men being armed with Spencer seven-shot repeating rifles. The Yankees considered their maneuvers successful, since they had drawn Wheeler away from Sherman’s line of march.
Yet, Confederates took solace in having driven Kilpatrick’s cavalry out of Aiken, saving it from destruction. South Carolina Gov. Andrew Magrath sent a message thanking Wheeler for saving the town of Aiken.
To observe these historical events, Aiken hosts an annual battle reenactment that attracts thousands who honor the men who fought there in early 1865, and celebrate a regenerated community that thrives to this day. I attended the reenactments in 1996 and again in 1999.
For more on Sherman and Kilpatrick, see “Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman,” edited by Michael Fellman, and “Kill-Cavalry: The Life of Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick” by Samuel J. Martin.
The next stop on this tour of Civil War cities and towns will be Hanover, Pa. Kilpatrick reprised his confrontation at Aiken with a struggle against Confederate cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart that preceded a battle at another small town, named Gettysburg.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point