Aiken's Headquarters During the Civil War

If it could talk, the modest yellow house at 204 Park Avenue in Aiken would tell war stories. The house, built in 1860, was used as headquarters for General Joseph Wheeler as he planned "The Battle of Aiken."

The American Civil War lasted much longer than anyone believed it would. From April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865, 11 Southern slave-holding states declared their secession (withdrawal) from the United States (the Union) and fought for their autonomy. Together they created the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy). These states were bound together in a struggle to maintain an agricultural economic base that was largely dependent on the labor of enslaved people.

North Versus South: Tensions Build

Abraham Lincoln angered slaveholders during his presidential campaign when he spoke out against expanding slavery beyond where it was already legal. He was elected president in 1860 and, with the support of abolitionists (people who were opposed to slavery), outlawed slavery completely.

Outraged, slave-holding states—led by South Carolina—eceded from the Union. "The Ordinance of Secession" was signed in Charleston on December 24, 1860. Six more southern states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas) soon joined South Carolina in secession to form the first Confederacy, appointing Jefferson Davis as their president. The "Confederated States" intended to be completely separate and divided from the Union or the "North" (the rest of the free states in the United States).

The Civil War Begins

As soon as possible, the Confederacy captured all federal (Union) forts within its borders. On April 12, 1861, the Confederacy fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and the Civil War officially began. Four more Southern slave-holding states (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee) quickly seceded to bring the total number of Confederated States to 11.

The first Emancipation Proclamation was announced in September 1862. This executive order declared freedom for all slaves in the Confederate States of America that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863. It officially brought an end to slavery in the South, but the fighting continued for two years.

Terror in Aiken

Just two months before the end of the war, Aiken residents lived in terror. South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens had sanctioned the start of conflict, and the people of South Carolina and her sister state Georgia suffered for that action. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops burned and destroyed houses, farms and factories on his "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah. While resting his troops in Savannah, Sherman reportedly declared, "When I go through South Carolina, it will be one of the most horrible things in the history of the world. The devil himself could not restrain my men in that state." Sherman fixed his sights on the capital of South Carolina. Columbia would pay the debt he believed the South owed the Union.

Sherman sent a detachment of the Fifth U.S. Calvary, led by General Judson Kilpatrick, toward Aiken, burning the towns of Blackville and Barnwell along the way. General Kilpatrick’s soldiers were sent to destroy the railroad all the way to Hamburg; the textile mills in Graniteville, which made cloth for Confederate uniforms; and the paper mill in Bath (located west of Aiken), which made paper for Confederate money. Sherman also ordered them to destroy a powderworks plant in Augusta that made crucial gunpowder for the Confederate army.

The Confederates Win a Battle

Kilpatrick entered the village of Aiken on February 11, 1865, expecting no obstacles. To his surprise, he was greeted by the Confederate detachment led by General Joseph Wheeler.

General Wheeler set up his headquarters at 204 Park Avenue, a modest yellow frame house with an open porch built in 1860. Although Federal soldiers outnumbered Confederates by nearly 1,000 men, Wheeler counted on the element of surprise to push back Kilpatrick’s attack. He stationed his men at the old freight depot on Williamsburg Avenue.

Wheeler’s plan would have worked flawlessly except for a premature shot accidentally issued by one of his men that alerted the advancing troops. Despite the mishap, Wheeler attacked. Most of the action occurred on Richland Street in front of the First Baptist Church. Fifty-nine shells were fired on the village of Aiken. But the Federal troops retreated after several hours of fighting, and General Wheeler claimed the victory in “The Battle of Aiken.”

Kilpatrick did not accomplish the directives of his mission. When the Civil War ended in April 1865, at least 620,000 soldiers and thousands of civilians had lost their lives.