For 22 years the Battle of Aiken has been commemorated – celebrated – as the battle that saved the Town of Aiken from the depredations so many South Carolina towns suffered at the hands of Union troops.
“We’re just happy that we’ve been able to continue this event for so many years,” said Pete Peters, co-founder and spokesperson for the annual event. “Each re-enactment takes on a life of its own. We’ve had a lot of adventures over the years.
Historically, General Joe Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry ran General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s Union troopers out of Aiken and back to the Union barricades at Montmorenci. Wheeler’s rout of Union cavalry was one of the last Confederate victories of the War Between the States.
“General Wheeler is a local hero. He was actually born near here in Augusta,” said Peters. “The Battle of Aiken definitely saved this town. Kilpatrick rode into Barnwell – the town next to Aiken – and burned it,” Peters said. “He wrote a letter back General Sherman – it said ‘General, I’ve renamed the town and its name is now Burnwell.’”
Captain Jeff Reno of Athens, Georgia, has been participating in the Battle of Aiken re-enactment for eight years as the commander of the 5th Georgia Volunteer Cavalry. The 5th Georgia cavalry served at Aiken under General Wheeler and “pretty much” through the Atlanta campaign until the final surrender according to Reno.
“The Battle of Aiken was basically a cavalry battle. Judson Kilpatrick was the Federal cavalry commander under Sherman. Wheeler [and his cavalry] was really the only defense that the Confederates had at that time,” said Reno.
For Reno – personally – the “beauty” of the event is the camping, fellowship with other re-enactors, and the animals – horses. The battle scenarios are only a small part of the annual program – in his eyes.
“We’ve learned so much about the sacrifices of the animals and how much sustenance that just the animals needed to travel. It was unbelievable,” said Reno. “We cannot imagine doing it as they did it then – with wagon trains that were twenty miles long,” he said. “There were so many horses that they could drink a small creek or stream dry.”
Jim Jacks – and his daughter Victoria – have been doing the Battle of Aiken commemoration since 1996. His daughter was only two. Jacks owned one of the farms near the Powell Pond Road site.
Jacks joined the cavalry and fought with Hampton’s Legion for ten years before moving on to the 6th South Carolina for another decade. He’s done cavalry, infantry, Confederate, Yankee, and civilian impressions over the years.
“Whatever the battle needs, we do. As long as you’re part of it, it’s a lot of fun,” said Jacks.
One of Jacks’ fondest memories was watching the survivors of the engagement pulling the “dead soldiers” from the battlefield and putting them in rows alongside the field.
“My daughter -who was two-years-old at the time – got a stick and was poking the soldiers to see if any were alive,” recalled Jacks. “Thank goodness she didn’t find any. It would have scared her to death.”
When Jim Jacks took a hit on the battlefield, Victoria was convinced that he died and miraculously came back to life – like a modern-day Jesus. Over the years, the now twenty-two-year-old learned that the “it was fake.”
“After the battle, Daddy would ride up to the line where the spectators were and I’d get to jump up on the front of his horse and ride back to the camp with him,” said Victoria Jacks. “I really enjoyed that.”
In twenty years, her priorities may have changed – a little. “I love the ball – I’m being honest,” she said. “Tomorrow, I’ll ride sidesaddle in my riding habit.”
The Battle of Aiken was unique in that it was initially a mounted fight. A horseshoe-shaped ambush – no pun intended – was set up in town. One Alabama trooper fired his weapon too soon.
“The trap was sprung a little too quickly. A short fight happened near the center of town. It was a close-quarter battle on horseback,“ said Captain Scott McDaniel with the 20th South Carolina. “There were clubs, rifles, pistols. People were whacking each other with swords,” he said
Local legends regarding the battle, and General Kilpatrick, abound. Kilpatrick, it seems, had a compulsion to set fires.
One legend purports that the brash young General Kilpatrick nearly lost his life in the Battle of Aiken. His life was spared -according to local tradition – when a Confederate trooper’s pistol misfired. Another legend maintains that his hat was “captured” during the fighting in Aiken.
In South Carolina – and the Confederacy as a whole – the economy was collapsing. There was a shortage of food in general. Sustainment became a huge issue for the Confederate army – even though they were fighting on home ground. The supply system was barely working. The supplies just weren’t there. Both Union and Confederate armies were foraging.
“There were shortages on the civilian side as well. It wasn’t a pretty situation if you were a logistician,” said McDaniel. “Some of the locals were complaining as much about Wheeler’s troopers as they were about the Federals,” he said. “At some point you’ve got to eat and you’ve got to feed your horses. It was a PR problem – even for the good guys.”
While the Confederates in South Carolina didn’t know Sherman’s grand strategy, they knew that the powder mills in Augusta and the factories in Graniteville were vital targets – that had to be protected.
“The Yankees were headed towards Columbia. That was their goal. They wanted to get to Columbia,” said Colonel Edward Coke, a veteran re-enactor with Confederate sympathies. “They wanted to burn that place – Columbia – and everything in South Carolina. Kilpatrick’s main objective was to hit the factories at Graniteville.”
The Confederate attack from the ambush in town drove Kilpatrick’s troopers back to Union defensive barricades.
“Wheeler was a pretty good cavalry commander. You could put him with Nathan Bedford Forrest and JEB Stuart,” said Coke. “Wheeler ran all over. Mostly he was going after Kilpatrick.”
The Battle of Aiken – fought by cavalry led by Fightin’ Joe Wheeler – saved the town from destruction by Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry. The town survived the war while many neighboring towns were decimated by fire.
“Our town was not burned. It was saved. It later became a winter resort for northerners and the wealthiest families from the North – including the Astors, Whitneys, and Vanderbuilts,” said Pete Peters. “It became an equestrian center from 1890 until world War II. Today Aiken has 52 polo fields as part of that legacy,” he said. “Of course, they train horses here for the Kentucky Derby.”
Tourism connected with the local re-enactment has also had a significant impact on the Aiken economy over the decades. During a three-day period from 5,000 to 10,000 people arrive to participate and witness the re-enactment of the Battle of Aiken.
“It’s very important for our community. It promotes the name of Aiken across the country,” said Peters. “This year we have a German re-enactor, a Dutch re-enactor, and an English re-enactor. They assured me that they are from Southern Germany, Southern Holland, and Southern England,” he noted. “How did they ever hear of the Battle of Aiken?”
-By Bob Ruegsegger