Originally created 12/05/03

Battle of Aiken gets new site



AIKEN - Organizers of the Battle of Aiken have bought 87 acres of rural woodland off South Carolina Highway 19 near Interstate 20, providing the annual Civil War re-enactment a permanent home and easy access for visitors.

The deal was finalized Thursday, and a battlefield fit for skirmishing should be set for the Feb. 21-22 event, said Pete Peters, a past commander of the Barnard E. Bee Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsors the battle.

The group has cleared much of one 900-foot-by-400-foot staging area, which took on the somber tone of a battleground Thursday as smoke from leveled trees being burned drifted skyward under a cold drizzle.

Long-term plans include erecting a granite monument to memorialize Confederate soldiers from Aiken County.

Organizers hope the land's proximity to the interstate will boost the event's popularity. Crowds have topped 10,000 in years past at the Carolina Star gun range off U.S. Highway 78. The new location is about eight miles from downtown Aiken, four miles closer than last year's event.

The move makes sense, Mr. Peters said, because the Sons of Confederate Veterans were paying as much to rent land as it will cost to pay the mortgage on the 87 acres. The group has moved the event three times in the past nine years.

"We are no longer going to be gypsies," said Danny Francis, the current commander of the Barnard E. Bee Camp. "This is going to be our home."

The Sons of Confederate Veterans paid about $125,000 for the land, a large chunk of which once belonged to Confederate Col. Edward Croft, who led men from Aiken into the Battle of Gettysburg.

It's likely that men who fought in the first Battle of Aiken 139 years ago marched across the same land. Union Gen. William T. Sherman's troops made their way to Aiken on Feb. 11.

Most of the city's service-age men were fighting elsewhere, Mr. Peters said, and their sons and grandfathers were left to defend Aiken.

They did so successfully, sparing Aiken from the devastation Sherman's soldiers levied across Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

"Why didn't the winter colonists go to Orangeburg?" Mr. Peters asked, referring to wealthy vacationers from the Northeast who spent the winter months in Aiken. "Well, basically, it was burnt."

Last year's battle, which featured about 1,000 soldiers, was interrupted by Mother Nature's own barrage of strong winds, lighting and rain. Vendors' tents were flattened, and the re-enactment ended early.

Organizers said this year's event will christen the new battleground with three times as many soldiers arriving from throughout the country to participate.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.