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Book details the victory – and loss – of the Battle of Aiken

February 22, 2019

The Battle of Aiken on Feb. 11, 1865, marked one of the final Confederate battlefield victories in the final months of the Civil War.

But the win proved to be a strategic loss for the Confederacy, which surrendered to the Union at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.

Eric J. Wittenberg, a Civil War historian and author, outlines a detailed assessment and account of the Battle of Aiken in “Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865.”

“It’s something that nobody has ever really dealt with that aspect of the battle before,” Wittenberg, a lawyer who lives in Columbus, Ohio, said Tuesday during a telephone interview. “It’s a badly overlooked and almost completely forgotten battle that is worthy of study. By doing what I have done, I hope I have focused on the men on both sides who fought and died there.”

“Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion,” a reference to a trooper’s comment about the chaos of the battle that came and went quickly, is available on amazon.com.

Keith Jones, the editor in chief for Fox Run Publishing in Burlington, North Carolina, also will have copied of the book, published in the fall, for sale at the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Aiken on Saturday and Sunday.

With their victory at Aiken, the Confederate soldiers saved the textile mills in Graniteville, the Confederate powder works in Augusta and Aiken itself from being burned. But the mission left Columbia vulnerable, and the Union Army burned much of South Carolina’s capital city just six days later on the night of Feb. 17-18, 1865.

The fall of Columbia cut off valuable railroad lines that connected Augusta and Charleston to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia, making both cities “worthless to the Confederacy,” Wittenberg wrote.

In his book, Wittenberg describes the specific tactical and strategic battle decisions Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, the commander of the Confederate cavalry forces, and Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, the cavalry commander for Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, made during the Battle of Aiken.

“Wheeler’s chasing after Kilpatrick and the cavalry in an effort to save Augusta, which was never really going to be threatened – of course, Wheeler didn’t know that – meant that [Gen. Pierre G.T. ] Beauregard had insufficient resources available to defend Columbia,” Wittenberg said. “He didn’t have much to begin with, but when you strip 5,000 men and you send them off on a wild goose chase, it means there was no where near enough men to defend the line at the Edisto River, which in turn, means that Columbia is going to fall. And we all know what happened to Columbia.”

Wittenberg also noted Kilpatrick’s folly and the Confederate soldiers’ fervor, both evident at the Battle of Aiken.

“Kilpatrick was a man who didn’t learn from his mistakes,” he said. “It nearly got him captured in 1864 outside of Richmond. It nearly got him captured in Aiken. And it nearly got him captured at Monroe Crossroads [in North Carolina in March 1865]. It demonstrates that a careless commander even though he enjoys every advantage can still be defeated if advantage is taken of that commander’s carelessness.”

Wittenberg said the book also describes how the Confederate soldiers at Aiken were fighting hard so close to the end of the war.

“Even at that late date, those Confederates were still plenty full of fight and plenty able to give as good as they got,” he said.

Wittenberg also noted another connection between Kilpatrick and Aiken: the Union general was the great-grandfather of Gloria Vanderbilt, the socialite and fashion designer from the ’70s who is the mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

Vanderbilt is the niece of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who married Harry Payne Whitney. Harry Payne Whitney was the son of W.C. Whitney, who owned Joye Cottage in Aiken.

In 1934, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sued little Gloria’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and won custody of her niece.

“Gloria Vanderbilt spent most of the winters of her youth in Aiken,” Wittenberg said. “I’ve always found it interesting that Gloria Vanderbilt, who was a beloved figure in Aiken, is the great-granddaughter of a man who is hated and loathed as a ‘Merchant of Terror’ as one of his biographers titled his book. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.”

Wittenberg said he as spent years studying Sherman’s Carolina campaign and currently, with a friend, is researching Sherman’s passage through South Carolina. That research reignited his interest in the Battle of Aiken.

“There was nothing out there that addressed it at all other than a paragraph or two to be found in any source,” the author said. “I like things that are obscure. I like things that other people don’t talk about. Those are the things that interested me the most.”

Wittenberg will not be at the re-enactment this weekend, but he has visited Aiken.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Aiken because it’s a thoroughly lovely town,” he said. “I look forward to coming back again sooner rather than later.”

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