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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Aiken’s battle is not unique: Waynesboro also saw fighting during the Civil War

February 1, 2019

Now in its 25 year, the recreated Battle of Aiken has become one of the most popular events on our town’s cultural calendar. This year’s reenactment scheduled for Feb. 23-24 commemorates a cavalry engagement that took place in downtown Aiken in the same month in 1865. Just days after destroying much of the town of Barnwell, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, the head of Gen. Sherman’s mounted forces, moved west toward the mill in Graniteville and the powder works in Augusta; only a defensive action by the Confederates under Fighting Joe Wheeler saved the Aiken-Augusta area from financial ruin in the last months of the war

Despite the unique outcome of this military skirmish – the battle proved a rare Confederate victory in a long line of rearguard defeats as Sherman moved through the Deep South – the Battle of Aiken was one of many altercations between the federal cavalry under Kilpatrick and the rebel cavalry under Wheeler. Following the Battle of Atlanta as Sherman marched through Georgia to Savannah and consequently up through the Carolinas, both Kilpatrick and Wheeler met many times in combat. In fact, just two months before their encounter in Aiken, both forces clashed just 47 miles southwest in Waynesboro, Georgia.

In December 1864, Waynesboro boasted a population of little over 300, but the town’s location on the main rail line between Augusta and Savannah made it a strategic target. Kilpatrick was under orders to make a feint toward Augusta and disrupt Southern lines of communication by digging up rails and destroying bridges, thus impeding any harassment of Sherman’s main forces as he advanced toward his ultimate Georgia target, Savannah. Kilpatrick succeeded in his mission, pushing Wheeler’s forces back through the streets of Waynesboro and beyond the town, inflicting casualties and property damage as the Confederates retreated north toward Augusta.

Just as with the Battle of Aiken, the heaviest fighting was in the downtown area; and both towns offer evidence today of the toll taken on both sides. Union dead are buried in the churchyard of First Baptist Church and Confederate dead at St. Thaddeus here in Aiken; the Confederate Memorial Cemetery in Waynesboro boasts a dozen Confederate graves in two perpendicular rows, all of them overshadowed by a 25-foot monument erected by the Ladies Memorial Association in 1877.

About 20 miles south of Waynesboro, however, is a Civil War site linked to Kilpatrick’s mission in Waynesboro and possessing a much larger modern footprint. It’s the remains of the Confederate prison known as Camp Lawton. With the threat of Sherman’s invasion of Georgia, approximately ten thousand of the inmates at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville were transferred to a new, hastily constructed facility outside of Millen. In addition to keeping Wheeler from harassing Sherman’s main force, Kilpatrick was under orders to liberate the camp.

Unknown to federal forces, however, the Confederate facility had been abandoned after only six weeks of operation and all the prisoners force-marched to other locations. When Sherman’s men arrived at Camp Lawton, they burned what the rebels had left behind – the pine stockade and other remnants of the 40-acre facility – out of retaliation for the conditions they found there. According to at least one account, about 700 Union prisoners died during the camp’s brief period of operation due to inadequate rations, exposure to the elements, and poor medical care.

Today’s visitors to Magnolia Springs State Park, which encompasses the site of the original camp, will find remains of the earthen fort that housed the guards. There is also downhill from these breastworks a purpose-built history center in the general location that was once enclosed by the pine stockade.

During 2009-2010, an archaeological team from Georgia Southern University excavated the site; and many of the small domestic items they discovered during their dig – buckles, buttons, tobacco pipes, spoons, coins – are on display in the center along with a host of informational placards describing the challenges of camp life. To the right of the entrance is a small auditorium wherein visitors are encouraged to watch a short film providing historical context before wandering through the principal exhibition area.

Of particular interest is the invitation to “adopt” a prisoner by selecting at the first station a card outlining the individual’s basic biography; at the end of the self-guided tour, one can access a digital file to uncover the ultimate fate of your adoptee. My chosen prisoner – a private from Illinois – did not survive the horrors of the camp.

The park is open every day of the year; there is a fee for parking and a fee for entrance to the history center. For more information, visit GaStateParks.org/magnolia springs or call the visitors center at 478-982-1660.

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