Originally created 02/21/00

Battle planning starts early



AIKEN -- Pete Peters is planning a war he never will fight.

He'll watch from the sidelines, instead, as legions of Rebels and Yankees bring a battle from long ago to life again.

For a year, he has prepared for a campaign fought more than a century ago -- a re-enactment of the Civil War's Battle of Aiken. As coordinator of the event, Mr. Peters must ready at least 800 men, haul at least 150 hay bales and splinter at least 65 truckloads of wood with help from volunteers.

Re-enacting is something he's always wanted to do. He had 48 relatives who were foot soldiers in the war. Eight were brothers and all were South Carolinians.

"I've always wanted to fight," Mr. Peters said. "I just never have the time."

That's because planning for the next year's Battle of Aiken re-enactment begins soon after the last Rebel yell and Union huzzah fall silent.

More than 100 years have passed since Union Gen. William T. Sherman's infamous March to the Sea. Sherman and his army left a 60-mile-wide swath of burned homes, towns, farms and memories in Georgia and the Carolinas.

"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 is quoted as saying in The Battle of Aiken by Mr. Peters.

Aiken, however, was spared from the general's wrath.

The 135th anniversary of Sherman's march and the heroic defense by Confederates will be re-created this weekend. At least 10,000 spectators are expected to attend the portrayal of the battle that prevented Union soldiers from burning Aiken.

Re-enactments have been held each year since 1995 and the event is billed as one of the largest living-history programs in the Southeast. After this year, it might be the largest.

At least 800 re-enactor soldiers and 100 horses will bring the program to life. It will take nearly 1,000 pounds of gunpowder to keep the 20 cannons firing.

"That many cannons firing and belching smoke is quite impressive," said David Pearson, living history coordinator for the event. "Kids come away quite amazed at what their ancestors went through."

The original Battle of Aiken began Feb. 9, 1865, when Brig. Gen. Hugh J. Kilpatrick's Union cavalrymen entered what is now Aiken County and engaged Confederates near White Pond. Kilpatrick stationed some troops in Montmorenci and made for downtown Aiken with a force of 2,000.

Gen. Joseph Wheeler, commanding 4,500 Confederate cavalrymen, battled Blue Coats in Montmorenci and consolidated his forces in Aiken, using buildings to hide his true numbers. Wheeler planned to trap Kilpatrick and charge the main Union column as it entered town.

On Feb. 11, 1865, Union troops reached Park Avenue, Richland Avenue and Barnwell Street in what now is the heart of Aiken. An Alabama soldier prematurely fired his gun, tipping off Union troops to the trap. Kilpatrick ordered his Union force to attack anyway. But his plans fell apart in the ensuing fight and the Federals fled back to Montmorenci.

The Rev. John Henry Cornish of St. Thaddeus church later wrote about what he saw:

"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 bugles sounded a charge. 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."

Estimates of casualties differed because commanders often exaggerated their opponents' losses and minimized their own. But Union forces never again reached Aiken during the Civil War.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.

Battle of Aiken

The battle site, located at Carolina Star off South Carolina Highway 78 East, opens to schoolchildren from 9 a.m. to noon Friday. Teachers who want to bring a tour group should call Don Sturchie at (803) 685-5510.

Reveille sounds at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. The camp opens at 9 a.m. both days.

The re-creation of the White Pond skirmish starts at 2 p.m. Saturday; the Battle of Aiken re-creation starts Sunday at the same time.

The Rebeliares concert begins at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available at the gate for $3.

Advance tickets for the battle are available at the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, Oreck Vacuums at Augusta Exchange shopping center and Bobby's Barbecue in Midland Valley.

Tickets at the gate cost $8 for adults and $4 for pupils ages 6 to 17. Children 5 and younger will be admitted for free. Proceeds go to historic preservation projects. For information, call the Aiken Chamber of Commerce at (803) 641-1111 or visit www.battleofaiken.org.