Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Battle of Aiken

Out of the land of the lost and back to the land of the living, we'll head down the Whiskey Rd. (so-named for its storied history as a main drag for bootleggers) and then out to the edge of Aiken, currently the site of much road contruction. But first let's make a slight detour to Hitchcock Woods, a 2000-acre forest and municipal park that will be preserved in perpetuity thanks to Thomas Hitchcock and his daughter, Helen, who donated the first 1,200 acres in 1939. The residents of Aiken, including countless horses, thank them. I've heard it said that Hitchcock Woods is the largest municipal park in the country, but this isn't true. Hitchcock Woods is the largest FORESTED municipal park in the country. Incidentally, the largest municipal park in the country (and world!) is South Mountain Park in Phoenix, at a whopping 17,000 acres. I've found it a good place to experiment with sunstroke.

One day we took a trek through the woods, stopping by the site of an old mansion. Unfortunately, all that was left were some stairs and a brick retaining wall. Now, I've posted some photos of questionable quality, but I'll spare you these. Then we stepped down into a creek and started walking. It hadn't rained in awhile, so we were pretty certain a flash flood wouldn't come through. I wouldn't be typing this if it had. The name of the creek escapes me, but I recall it being really obvious. It might have been Sandy Creek, actually. Does it look like something Hitchcock would shoot? Hey, I tried! Civil War-era ammunition, bayonets, and muskets are still being found, buried in the sand for nearly 150 years. Now, that's a perfect segway to...

...the Battle of Aiken. Every year in late February folks from all over turn out to re-enact the Battle of Aiken. Yeah, if I posted more often I could've given you enough notice to get your flights booked and get down there. As it is, it was last weekend. People camp out all weekend and dress up in Civil War-era costumes. It's really a big deal. You want to know why it's a big deal? Okay, I'll tell ya. As for the photos in this post, they're all from this little spot on the outskirts of town. We had initially gone to check out the Dinner Bell, an apparently abandoned restaurant. However, when we got there we not only weren't sure that it was abandoned, but, in a move certain to give the Health Department fits, it looked like it might've been in operation. There were two cars outside (granted, one had a flat tire) and the door was open. We considered going over to see what was up, but decided against it. And, anyway, this Travel Trailers outlet and a video game store were right across the street.

“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.” That's William Tecumseh Sherman, while he and his troops caught their breath in Savannah, GA. Sherman's cavalry commander, Union Brigadier Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (AKA Kill Cav), was of the same mind: “In after years, when travelers passing through South Carolina shall see chimney stacks without houses, and the country desolate, and shall ask who did this? Some Yankee will answer: Kilpatrick’s Cavalry!” The guy reportedly spent $5,000 just outfitting his troops with matches before they left Savannah. Here's a look at the HVAC set-up in the travel trailer, in case you were interested.

Union troops began invading SC on February 1, 1865, with one wing of Sherman's Army, including Kilpatrick, following the Savannah River, seemingly headed toward Augusta and the Confederate Powder Works, which was producing most of the Confederacy's gunpowder. The other wing of the army was heading toward Charleston. Thus, the Confederacy was not sure if Augusta or Charleston would be hit next. In fact, Sherman's real plan was to attack Columbia. Four days later Kilpatrick was in Barnwell, just outside Aiken. In a letter to Sherman reporting on the state of things, Kill Cav referred to the town as "Burn-well." Next he turned his attention to the railroad. Please, not the Hamburg-Charleston! The railroad had been transporting Confederate troops during the war and Kilpatrick went to nearby Blackville and began tearing up track and lighting more stuff on fire. Here's the inside of Travel Trailers HQ. I guess no one wanted the furniture.

On February 8, Kilpatrick wrote to Sherman that he was heading into Aiken. "I will be prudent, bold, but not rash." Kill Cav then crossed into Aiken County and began fighting Col. Charles C. Crew’s regiment of Major General Joe Wheeler's Cavalry, thus commencing the Battle of Aiken. At this point, near the end of the war, the Confederacy was in bad shape. Many outfits were comprised of young boys and old men. And the Confederacy desperately wanted to protect the Confederate Powder Works and the Graniteville Mill (and the 4,000,000 yards of cotton cloth it produced each year). Major General D. H. Hill, the commander at Augusta, positioned 3,060 men to protect the area, while Joe Wheeler began defensive maneuvers with his 4,500 troops. Meanwhile, Kilpatrick's men were beginning their work in Aiken, shooting Mr. James Courtney after he repeatedly doused the flames with which Union troops were trying to burn his home. Denied aid from the Union surgeon, Courtney bled to death on his lawn while his house burned, and became the first casualty of the battle. Lots of times you wonder how long a place has been abandoned. Here, this swell calendar was thoughtfully left behind and we know that everyone high-tailed it sometime in September 1996.

People started to flee Aiken, fearing the worst. One woman reported, "This band of 150 men ransacked every nook and corner, breaking open trunks and boxes, singing, whistling, swearing...one young villain came in, fastened the doors, demanded our watches, and, using the most profane language and terrible threats, ordered us to confess where our gold and silver was buried." The young Toole brothers had nooses put 'round their necks and were threatened with lynching if they didn't give up their horses. Mrs. Toole provided dinner for some Union troops, only to have the diners set her house on fire. (She was able to put it out.) Confederate troops went about finding a way to ambush Kilpatrick's forces, arrayed in a "V" formation as they moved forward. Major General Wheeler hoped Kilpatrick would go after retreating Confederates, allowing Wheeler's men to sneak up behind and attack the upper flanks of Kilpatrick's "V".

Kilpatrick had been warned by civilians of Wheeler's activities, but kept going. On Febraury 11, Kilpatrick's men were moving through the streets of Aiken. Confederate troops were ready to ambush, waiting for the signal to attack. It was at that point that a soldier from Alabama got a little nervous and fired his gun prematurely, alerting the Union soldiers to the Confederate's presence and wrecking the ambush. Wheeler gave the order to attack immediately and hand-to-hand fighting broke out amidst the streets and homes of Aiken. Meanwhile, a Federal battery of the 10th Wisconsin started shelling the town. Sounds like chaos, eh? John Reed, serving with the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry, made a few interesting observations, noting that "Kilpatrick...called on the 92nd Illinois Silver Cornet Band to play Yankee Doodle" and "The ladies of the town waved their handkerchiefs in welcome and smilingly invited the officers and men into their houses. But that kind of a welcome was unusual in South Carolina. It was an additional evidence of danger." Fighting was fierce as Union troops looked for a way through the Confederate's line as the Confederate's continued their attack. Here's a shot of Bubba's Video Games, just next door to Travel Trailer's.

Here's a Confederate account from Private D. B. Morgan of the 5th Georgia Cavalry: "Our regiment had just been issued sabers with wooden scabbards, which were awkwardly attached to our saddles. I was mounted on a very fine mule. We charged the enemy through scrub oak forest and open peach orchard, through the village, driving them back. It was an all-day fight. As we halted in one of the charges, my mule was shot from under me, the ball passing immediately under my left leg and entering the poor creature's heart. With an unearthly yell...she bounded into the air and in falling, caught me half dismounted, with my left leg under her body. The soft plowed ground on which I fell prevented its being broken." The Rev. John Henry Cornish of St. Thaddeus Church reported that, "The enemy was driven back to Pole Cat Pond. Five of our wounded were brought to my house where the surgeons attended to them. Two of the killed were taken to the church yard, where they were put in coffins and buried." Kilpatrick and his men were finally forced to retreat. It is alleged that during the retreat a Confederate calvaryman shot his pistol at Kilpatrick's chest point-blank, but it failed to go off. On February 12, Kilpatrick raised the white flag and each side went to deal with the dead and wounded. The next day Kill Cav's force was off to join Sherman in his attack on Columbia, with Wheeler, considered the hero of the Battle of Aiken, sweeping wide, trying to arrive at the capital city before Sherman. Wheeler was unsuccessful; Sherman entered Columbia on February 17, 1865 and took the city.

During the Civil War no one could agree on casualties. Kilpatrick claimed there were 251 killed or wounded Confederate soldiers, while Wheeler said their were 50. Wheeler, on the other hand, claimed 495 Union soldiers killed or wounded; Kilpatrick said there were less than 45! In any case, Wheeler's defeat of Kilpatrick is considered to have saved everything from the Hamburg-Charleston Railroad to the Powder Works to Augusta itself from certain destruction, later easing the pain of Reconstruction. And the Battle of Aiken is refought every year! If you want more info, go to the Battle of Aiken home page, which provided much of the detail for this post. Thanks Pete Peters!

Above is a Willie Nelson sticker from behind Bubba's Video Games. I saw Willie and Company do their thing at the Augusta-Richmond Civic Center about a year ago. Great show. Willie's guitar playing was stellar, incorporating some nice Spanish/flamenco touches. Incidentally, Willie is marketing his own biofuel (i.e. vegetable oil) for use in diesel engines. His own tour bus has used it for some time. Go Willie! This post was powered by Sister Rosetta Tharpe-The Original Soul Sister, a lovely 4 CD box set of her blues and gospel tunes. Dunno who Rosetta Tharpe was? Go here and watch the video. But don't stop until you've made it to the guitar break in the middle. Not THAT'S cool. Y'know, it's not all blues with me. I come from the land of former independent rock giants and r & b superstars. It was all I could do not to title this post "Aiken to Be." Next time it's off to Cumberland Island on the Florida border. See ya then.


willow said...

ahhhh 1996 was a very good year.

Andrew Z. Luder said...

The Dinner Bell is called Roy's Dinner Bell, and they are still serving food, the breakfast is quite good!! When I worked full time for the National Guard, we used to stop there for food on the way to Barnwell.

Nate and Di Fulmer said...


My wife and I have been digesting your blog for the past 6 hours from the first post until, well... here so far. Great stuff, man! Surprised to see someone who appreciates dilapidation of all kinds as much as I do. We both grew up in Aiken, and are currently living in Mt. Pleasant, right across the Cooper from Charleston. Had to stop and comment here, thought we could add some info here. The "sandy creek" is called Sand River and it's dry 98% of the time... Don't let that deceive you, though it has claimed lives from unpredictable quicksand, even when it's bone dry. Believe the last death was in the late 70's, though As for the mansion you mentioned briefly, it was sort of an obsession for us a few years back. Surprised you found it out there. My grandfather actually worked for the Hitchcocks at the mansion during the depression era. He would take me on walks back there as a child and tell me stories about the place. One in particular involved "recovering" discarded food and alcohol from a gully that runs behind the house after large soirees and parties were over. On the path to the "ruins", there is a bench made from a plank of wood that is set into two trees... Grandpa always told me that he and his brother nailed it to the trees for the local boy scout troop to rest on while they cleaned up the rubble in the 50's after the place burned. Today, the trees have literally grown around the plank... makes it seem like almost part of both trees. Can't help but sit there for a moment when visiting. After he died, we did several day's research on the property at the local museum and library. The house had a very colorful history. It was built in 1905 by a man named Edward Smith, and the architect, Joseph Leitner, who was well known for many other famous large homes and also railway stations in the northeast. All of the old home in Aiken had names, and this one was no exception. It was originally called Pineland, but after changing hands several times, it was renamed Boxwood in 1921. I forget the name of the owner at that point(Baroness Von something-or another) Stories about her were found in several series of articles on historical Aiken by an author from The Aiken Standard in the late 70's. the Baroness was apparently very eccentric, refused most visitors, and was convinced someone was going to kill her. Ironically, in 1928, someone abducted the Baroness from Boxwood, and possibly did just that, as she was never heard from again following a frantic telephone call for help. I forget the actual conspiracy theory, but it involved the German Royal family somehow. After that craziness, the house was empty until 1931, when Mrs. Hitchcock purchased the property. That was about the time my grandfather began working there, and the time period of most of his stories... Sadly, he never shared anything about German Baronesses. The Property is much more extensive than it appears from the front, there’s a second staircase and you can fight your way through the growth into the actual remains of the foundation of the house itself. The steps and retaining wall were part of a very large earthen patio that sported an architecturally-unique garden that was only shared by one other home, also built by the same architect, in Boston. The basement was accessible until it caved in about 10 years ago, and there are portions of the ground floor (behind and below the patio) that still have paint and tile visible inside. We have a photocopy of a picture of the house in the 30's from a book found in the museum... sorry, can't remember which one. Also, if you haven't seen it, check out The Many Faces of Aiken, a Pictorial History by Will Cole. It was published in 1985, and is available at the Aiken Library... But they won’t let you leave the room with it. We got a copy on Amazon in 2004, and got a steal at only $4.00 for it although there were 2 other listings were over $150 a copy... Oh, and amazingly, it's signed: Best wishes, Will Cole. It has to be one of the best sources of old pictures of buildings and structures in Aiken County, from the Hamburg train depot to Ellenton, many of the "winter colony" homes (of which some do and do not still stand), defunct downtown businesses, and all of the Horse Creek Valley Mills. In addition, there are a ton of interesting facts, trivia, and stories. You would really dig it - I just feel it. Anyway, we have many more posts to explore, and I've gotten off track on a ramble, so thanks again for the kickass blog, we feel like we've been home for a few hours.

- Nate

Jmhouse said...

I believe I should be the one saying "Wow!" Thanks for leaving such a fantastic comment! Now I just wish I was somewhere close to Hitchcock Woods so I could go on a recon mission and look for some of the things you mentioned. It's funny you mentioned the quicksand, because that occurred to us as we walked across a particularly wet and spongy section of that creek. I'd also love to go back and get another look at the remains of that mansion. As for finding it the first time--well, if there's a ruined mansion nearby I'll find it! I'm gonna have to go on the hunt for those books. It sounds like a tough job to track 'em down, but I'll see what I can do.

I've never been to Mt. Pleasant, but quite enjoy Charleston. I noticed the link to John Sinclair on your website. As a large fan of the MC5 I must endorse that whole-heartedly. I'll check out more of your site when I get a chance. Looks cool.

Thanks again for stopping by and being so kind. And thanks again for the great info. I love this kind of thing!


Nate and Di said...

No, thank you! We’ve finished every post of City of Dust in reverse. Bravo!

Funny, this all started when we tried to find pictures of the old Clearwater Sky City department store across from the finishing plant there... it Closed in 1989, when we were nine, and was bulldzed in the early 90's. We both remembered it fondly (I remember getting pictures taken there with Santa when I was around 4) and wanted to see if anyone had any old pics. The Clearwater store was very large, encompassing the whole shopping center where Bi-Lo and about 10 other business are presently. It had a cafeteria, photography studios, pharmacy, ice-cream shop, auto Department, and rows and rows of checkout stands that stood before a seemingly endless wall of plate glass that graced the front of the store- always decorated with posters advertising the current sales. Looking back, it contained many of the things we here in the Southeast can only associate with Wal-Mart Supercenters in 2006. Back then, it was the largest department store in Aiken County. Today, it just seems odd such a large store was located in such a small town, but I suppose the HCV mills provided a fairly sizable customer base.(hell, our families travelled there from 20 miles away in Aiken, and I'm sure it pulled in folks from across the river after seening the broad street location, so I guess it may have been a prime spot back then, afterall.) Anyhow, Google hit on the pic of the comparitively tiny(and quite ugly)Sky City on Broad Street from your blog, and that's how we got sucked in.

You've also gotten me hooked on Detroitblog, too, BTW...
Almost finished over there now. Fascinating stuff, especially his visit to the Motown Building before it was razed. Can't believe he found Marvin Gaye's Desk with personal his papers still inside, damn! After that, it looks like I've got quite a few "Urban Exploration" sites to explore... I can see this becoming a huge problem soon, he he.

We're huge Mc5 fans... and really fans of most of the many Detroit music eras and scenes over the years.(BTW, completely off topic, but we really enjoyed your posts about the old delta blues artists like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell...)
John Sinclair currently has a blues radio show that we helped bring to podcast form with his buddy Ferre at Radio Free Amsterdam last spring.

He's really a true historian. I believe the episodes we've taken off the feed are in the archive over there. Check out some of the episodes from the past year. He occasionally talks about our adventures on the Nate and Di show... We tend to push the envelope of acceptable at times, lol. If you get a chance, Check out our soundseeing/storytelling tour of an Abandoned Drive-in Theater in Virginia that we managed and lived above for a few months before it closed in late spring, 2001. Think the post is dated June 6,2006 - it's right up your alley. Even included a few pics from our time living there. (BTW, we haven't even updated the blog, but our visit was inceredibly timely, as the building was just demolished in mid-July, the marquee is all that is left besides remains the tattered plywood screen, and the new owners apparently use it for truck storage now :( So much for the our boss's recent claims it was gonna re-open even while he was selling it to a trucking company... Scmuck. It was a true slice of americana frozen in time.

On a brighter note, We're trying to get John over here for the Piccolo-Spoleto festival next spring when he's in the States, and it looks like it may pan out. We'd love to be able to sit and just hang out with him, as he's been a hero of mine since I was a teen and is a genuinely nice person.

Still no sign of the Clearwater Sky City... I got a bit sidetracked here instead... Sigh.

Thinking about treking out on our own urban exploration tour down here. Mt. Pleasant has some gems, we hear... Theres an abandoned army arsenal and bunker from WWII on Sullivans Island, and there are dozens of empty plantation mansions in varying states of decay all withing 30 minutes driving time. Dunno why, but the tours of restored locations like most of downtown Charleston and the Yorktown here in Mt. P. are cool, but not nearly as enticing for some reason.
Have you ever thought about basing travels on a specific location? Is that unusual? Sick? We're thinking about going up to Kings Park Psychiatric in NY during our next vacation... Creepy, yet serene somehow - a whole abandoned city of HUGE buildings to accidentally kill ourselves within, lol. Have some friends from NJ that told us they've been there many times and have yet to cover the same hall twice... Seems like it should be the holy grail of U. E.

Shit. I've gotten off on tangents again...

Anyhow, thanks for the entertaining and informative blog, I'll be reading and we'll be keeping our eyes especially peeled for some more CSRA-based posts if you ever get back down that way.


Nate and Di said...

Oops, meant to mention one other thing earlier: Another bit of fascinating Hitchcock Woods trivia about another very large and famous hotel in Aiken that I hadn't seen mentionned at CoD.

The Highland Park hotel was built in the late 1860's and had over 300 luxury room that accomodated wealthy winter colony residents.
It was once the largest hotel in SC.

It burned in 1898...

...and was rebuilt even larger and moved up Kalmia Hill slightly.

It partially burned in 1907...

...and was rebuilt agian and thrived for 30+ years.

In April 1939 Sarah Colley made her first professional appearance as the Minnie Pearl character at a women’s club function there.

And it Burned again in 1940...

The end finally came when the property was cleared and divided up into many separate residential lots following the final fire in 1940 - Rich socialites must've had a few firebugs amongst the, lol. Those houses are now located right on Park avenue at the top of Kalmia Hill. The golf course is one of the few remaining legacies. Parts of the burned 1898 foundation are visble on the edge of Hitchcock Woods right behind the present-day golf club on aptly-named Highland Park Drive. We found a melted glass inkwell there a few years back just barely covered in leaves and soft and loamy soil. When cleaned up, we discovered the glass was stamped along the beveled edges with manufacturer and date - 1889!

Some of the original buildings are also still used by the golf club, such as the laundry facitilies, which have become the Highland Park Golf Club Clubhouse and Guest House.
I wish I could find some online pictures of the second rebuild - it was as nearly as awe-inspiring as the Hampton Terrace Hotel in N.A.

These will kind of give you an idea:


I did find some better historical photos of the original after the additional wings were added:

(That piece is definitely worth $80, nice.)

Still no post-1898 shots... I'll see if I can scan some up soon.

OK... I'm out. No, really... this time, I mean it.

Jmhouse said...

Wow, I had no idea this hotel even existed. A perfect counterpart to the Hampton Terrace in N. Augusta. Cool postcard/photos, too. I'd like to see a photo of that inkwell though. Got one? That's a great find!


Doug Sterling said...

On an unrelated note, I had no idea South Mountain was the largest municipal park in the world! I go there all the time... it's about a thirty minute drive from my house. Lovely views, especially around sunset. Scorpion Gulch near the entrance of the park is a cool little place to stop and look around, as well.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the comment, Doug! I know Scorpion Gulch. That old stone building is a classic: