Mention Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick in some circles, and you spark some harsh words. “Kill Cavalry” they say, was just a self-centered, no-good scoundrel. Hard to find any counterweight to redeem Kilpatrick. By most measures, February 11, 1865 was a defeat for Kilpatrick and his command. But that defeat, on the battlefield at Aiken, South Carolina, translated to a successful mission.
When Kilpatrick’s cavalry occupied Johnson’s Station, just east of Aiken, on February 9, Major-General Daniel H. Hill saw the move as the vanguard of a larger Federal thrust. On February 11, Hill sent Major-General Benjamin Cheatham forward to Big Horse Creek with 3,000 men. Of that force, Cheatham sent a third to Graniteville to defend the valuable textile factory. In Augusta, Hill made preparations to burn all the cotton accumulated in the city.
In response to Hill’s dispatches, Major-General Joseph Wheeler moved his cavalry force, in a long march into the night, to be at Aiken on February 11. Wheeler was ready to square off against his old classmate and adversary. And that morning, Kilpatrick obliged. On the morning of the 11th, Kilpatrick accompanied Brigadier-General Smith Atkins’ Second Brigade of the Cavalry Division on a movement towards Aiken. The rest of the division remained at Johnson’s within a well defended perimeter. Atkins later reported:
Just beyond our pickets a lady informed us that Generals Cheatham and Wheeler had been at her house that morning. We pushed on, our advance easily driving the enemy to the east side of Aiken. The town being apparently vacated, General Kilpatrick directed me to send the Ninety-second Illinois to charge into the town, which they did handsomely, but found it held in force by the enemy.
The Federals had fallen into a trap. Not the first, nor the last that Kilpatrick had made such a mistake, mind you. This time it was the 92nd Illinois in the vice. Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Van Buskirk responded quickly:
I put my regiment in line and moving forward attacked them, forcing back their center. Their line being much longer and force greatly superior they turned both my right and left flank, charging in and forming line in my rear. With skirmishers to protect my front, I formed, faced to the rear, and charged the line in my rear. They fought stubbornly and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued, but they were forced to yield, and fled in wildest confusion.
The 92nd managed to extract themselves with tough fighting, breaking through several lines. Just outside of town, Atkins held a line with the 9th Michigan on the left, 9th Ohio on the right, and 10th Ohio and a section of artillery forming a reserve. But this arrangement did not deter the pursuing Confederates, as Atkins recalled:
The Ninety-second was completely enveloped by overwhelming numbers, and came up to our line of battle so mixed up with the enemy we did not dare to fire; each was claiming the other prisoners and pulling one another off their horses, neither being armed with sabers. Lieutenant-Colonel Van Buskirk killed two of the enemy himself and knocked a third off his horse with his empty pistol.
The fighting concentrated in the center. And in the midst of this, Kilaptrick and his staff attempted to rally the troopers. Colonel William Hamilton, 9th Ohio, noticed, “Some confusion was manifested; some of the boldest of the enemy had followed the general and his escort nearly to the place where our artillery was posted.” While this was developing, Hamilton noticed one of his battalions had pulled off the line and appeared to fall back. Hamilton moved to check the retirement:
Feeling sure, as I did, that there must have been some mistake about the order, as such a movement at that time would endanger our artillery, and also expose a large number of our men of the Ninety-second Illinois and Ninth Michigan Regiments to capture, I ordered the battalion about and charged back upon the enemy, driving them back across the field into the edge of the town, the charge being led against the heaviest force of the enemy by my adjutant, Lieut. A. T. Hamilton, who, at the head of the left flank of the regiment, most gallantly dashed into the town, driving the enemy before him in confusion.
This bought time for the artillery to retire. A similar charge by the 9th Michigan pushed the Confederates back towards Aiken. This bought time for the Federals to retire, as Atkins described:
Our wounded were recovered and brought off the field, and the brigade leisurely fell back, the enemy following in three. We fell back over open ground, splendid for a cavalry fight, the enemy seeking our flanks, but not daring to attack strongly our line of battle, which we continually presented him. His charges were always broken by a few volleys coolly given, and a single regiment charging would always drive him.
Wheeler pressed the Federals back to Johnson’s, but did not engage the larger force under cover there. By all rights, Aiken was a straight up defeat for Kilpatrick and the Federals. They were denied the town and lost 53 killed, wounded, and missing. But, there were implications from this fight that would outweigh the tactical loss. Atkins himself reflected, “This spirited little engagement has done much to convince me of the superiority of our cavalry over the enemy’s.”
But more than just maintaining the spirit of the Federal troopers, the action of the 11th provided the distraction Sherman required on the left side of the march. When Wheeler moved to counter Kilpatrick, he left Major-General Carter L. Stevenson without cavalry to sense to advance of Major-General William T. Sherman’s infantry columns. On February 12, General P.G.T. Beauregard inquired Lieutenant-General William Hardee to make sense of Wheeler’s movement:
Wheeler reported he had gone toward Augusta in obedience to your instructions, leaving 1,400 men to support Stevenson and McLaws. Former officer reports not having yet seen them. Present management of the cavalry surpasses my understanding.
The real “cost” for the victory at Aiken played out in an open field outside Orangeburg that evening. At the lead of Seventeenth Corps’ advance, Brigadier-General Manning F. Force lead his Third Division to the North Fork of the Edisto River. Finding the main bridge guarded, Manning began looking for a way to cross:
A battery and rifle-pit covering the road and bridge from the opposite side prevented a crossing there. I at once extended a skirmish lineup and down stream in the swamp bordering the river and sent out parties to discover some practicable crossing. Colonel Wiles, commanding Second Brigade, found a narrow place about a mile above, where he felled a tree and, in the dark, crossed a captain and seventeen men to solid land on the farther side. A party from the Thirtieth Illinois, First Brigade, found a solid field reaching to the river about a mile below, with swampy shore on the farther side. A foraging party found a road crossing, undefended, about two miles above.
Having located two unguarded crossing points, Manning was able to flank the Confederate positions. This unraveled the entire defense of the North Edisto. The Confederates set fire to the bridge and abandoned the position in front of Manning. The crossing had cost the Federals two wounded. Manning estimated Confederate casualties at six killed, fourteen wounded, and six captured. Once again the Seventeenth Corps had found a way across a South Carolina River and opened a bridgehead. And once again a barrier to Sherman’s advance withered away.
While his methods were certainly circumspect, Kilpatrick had accomplished the mission assigned by Sherman. The battle at Aiken, even in defeat, had served the purpose of distracting key elements of the Confederate forces to concentrate exactly where Sherman needed them to be – away from the main advance.(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 406, 878-882, and 888; Part II, Serial 99, pages 1166-7.)