Union walked into Aiken fight

Union Gen. William T. Sherman had many targets to burn in his march to Columbia, but Aiken wasn't one of them.

The tiny town near the Savannah River was too inconsequential for Sherman to trifle with, even for a general who embraced the destructive philosophy of "total war."

It was not too small for Gen. Judson "Kill-Cavalry" Kilpatrick. The brash, bold, caustic cavalry leader was in a months-long grudge match with his Confederate counterpart, Augusta native Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Wheeler.

The pair had chased each other across Georgia in the wake of Sherman's army, their units scrapping at every chance.

Both had bested each other in one skirmish or another before Aiken, although only Wheeler could boast that he had literally caught his adversary with his drawers down.

That happened outside Waynesboro, where Kilpatrick had set up for the night with a mistress.

When Wheeler's soldiers opened fire, "clad in a skullcap, drawers, undershirt, and slippers," Kilpatrick sprung out of the house and jumped bareback onto a sorrel horse.

He barely escaped the hail of bullets and left behind his uniform, gilded sword, his best horse and two ivory-handled revolvers.

Kilpatrick left out the bit about retreating in his underwear in his report to Sherman. Instead, he claimed that after "fighting ... through the rebel lines" he gave Wheeler's troops "a severe repulse."

As the two headed north into South Carolina, Kilpatrick learned from some prisoners that Wheeler's command was scattered. It seemed a ripe opportunity for Kilpatrick to pillage Aiken.

"I will render Wheeler powerless to ... annoy your flank or wagons again during the campaign," Kilpatrick pledged to Sherman.

Sherman wasn't interested and refused to send any infantry for a skirmish.

"I don't care about Aiken, unless you can take it by a dash," was his response.

That was enough for Kilpatrick, who made plans to ransack the town on Feb. 11. Before they arrived, they stopped at a farmhouse, where the housewife disclosed that Wheeler and the new chief of the Army of Tennessee had been by earlier that day.

Kilpatrick ignored the warning and pressed on into town. Near the outskirts of Aiken, they spotted an enemy detachment and gave chase into the town -- just as Wheeler had planned.

Rebel infantry and cavalry had Kilpatrick's troops surrounded on three sides. As soon as they passed into Aiken, the remainder of the cavalry closed the rear so that the Union troops took fire from four sides.

"There was a clash of horses, flashing of sabers, a few minutes of blind confusion," one Union soldier would later write.

Kilpatrick ordered a retreat and galloped out of town with three enemy soldiers trying to pull him from the saddle. He left behind two-dozen casualties.

The general was in such a panic that he immediately ordered his men to break camp once he was safe behind his line. When he realized that the pursuing enemy only numbered roughly 50, he ordered a charge that sent the Rebels back into Aiken.

Wheeler explained his lack of a pursuit of Kilpatrick to Gen. Beauregard: "Here our ammunition gave out and we had to halt and reload, having no sabers."

Kilpatrick later characterized the fight for Sherman as a "reconnaissance" at which he was "furiously attacked by Wheeler's entire command."

They responded by "fighting gallantly, disputing every foot," according to Kilpatrick.

Wheeler's victory saved not just Aiken, but "served to relieve the anxiety of Augusta's residents (including Wheeler's father and maiden sister), raised the spirits of Confederate units elsewhere in the state, and won Wheeler and his men the thanks of (South Carolina) Governor A.G. McGrath [sic]."

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Records go online

WASHINGTON --- The National Archives and Ancestry.com published newly digitized Civil War records online for the first time Wednesday, allowing users to trace family links to the war between North and South.

Nearly 275,000 newly published pages are among the most heavily used documents for research in the National Archives' Civil War holdings, curators said. The pages contain about 3 million names of those who enlisted for a draft from 1863 to 1865, although only about 40,000 were drafted to fight. Archivists estimate 17 million Americans have an ancestor who fought in the war.

The digitization project is part of a five-year deal with Ancestry.com worth millions of dollars. The public will have free access beginning today for a week before a subscription is required to access the records.

Ancestry offers a 14-day free trial before requiring a paid subscription of $12.95 to $19.95 per month. The company has about 1.4 million subscribers who can search about 2 billion names.

-- Associated Press

Sources for this story:

"Kill-Cavalry" Sherman's Merchant of Terror by Samuel J. Martin

From Shiloh to San Juan, the Life of "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler by John P. Dyer

A Soldier to the Last by Edward G. Longacre