While quietness masks Union maneuvering among the islands near Charleston this day, an unwelcome surprise awaits Union forces marching into Aiken. The opposition thus far to Sherman‘s advances in the state has been ineffective. Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, however, hopes to reverse the course of the war that has gone so badly awry for the South. When the Federals march confidently into Aiken, Wheeler’s forces stationed downtown open fire.
Fierce fighting quickly erupts, primarily on Richland Street in front of the city’s First Baptist Church. Although having the advantage of numbers, Union forces are unable to overcome the surprise attack. After several hours of combat, the Federals are forced to retreat. The Battle of Aiken belongs to the Confederacy, a much needed victory following a long, demoralizing streak of Rebel losses to Sherman’s forces.
Following the battle, twenty Union soldiers are buried in the graveyard of the First Baptist Church.
Meanwhile, slaves freed by Sherman’s army, many Baptists, are streaming into nearby Beaufort. Occupied by the Union Army since March 1862 and the headquarters of the United States’ freedmen programs, Beaufort is now taxed by this newest wave of black refugees. A relief worker among the freedmen describes the scene this day.
Beaufort, Feb. 11,1865
I returned last night at 7, P.m. from Hilton Head, whither I again went Thursday morning to hasten the coming of the schooner Howard, laden with our long delayed relief for the freedmen and refugees. By two days hard work (sleeping on the floor at night) I succeeded in getting the tax remitted on all goods for the refugees; a promise by the quartermaster of wharfage at once; and an agreement by the captain to work day and night to unload his cargo, and then to come to Beaufort instantly.
Meanwhile water freezes in the streets: and in Beaufort fifteen hundred wretches without shirts or blankets, huddled like pigs in old cow-sheds, under public buildings, and on the sunny side of any wall or fence they can find, — dying by scores, of cold, and diseases caused by cold. Every day as I ride by, I am greeted by the piteous cry, “Massa has dem close come?” and have to frame some new form of reply to reconcile encouragement with disappointment.
They are coming into our lines now at the rate of about one hundred a day, and should communication with the army be re-established, or should it move toward Charleston this number will be largely increased.
Those families which have able-bodied men or women among them are taken by the cotton planters to. their plantations; but the sick and old, who are a very large proportion of the whole, are left in the charge of the Superintendents of Freedmen, and are, from necessity, huddled into churches, under buildings, and into tents, barns, and even cow-sheds, for shelter. Government gives them rations, but not clothing or utensils.
I am doing my utmost to have the goods judiciously given out, so that if there should be a surplus of any thing we could send it elsewhere; but I have very little idea that there will be. We are very much in want of men’s underclothes and women’s dresses.
There are at least three women to supply, for every man; most of the latter being supplied by the Government in one way or another.
I wish to repeat, in order to emphasize what I have already said about some money for straw &c. Many of the people are entirely without any sort of bedding, and sleep at night on the bare floor or ground.
I am perhaps less able to give a general summary, than those who have seen the whole field at a distance, and have not had their attention absorbed by particular details and occurrences; but, as nearly as I can remember, about the 2d of January four hundred refugees arrived in Beaufort, and were distributed among the plantations on Port Royal Island,— about the 5th two hundred and fifty more came, very decrepit and feeble, and were sent immediately to Saint Helena Island. During the next week, perhaps five hundred more arrived; and by that time the movement of Sherman’s army to Beaufort had begun, and transportation could not be given to the negroes.
Nevertheless a few hundred got to Hilton Head Island, and were mostly distributed among the plantations there.
Since Sherman’s army moved from Beaufort, five or six hundred more have come into Hilton Head Island from Savannah and from the main land north of Savannah, and about as many more from Sherman’s rear into Beaufort.
There are at present, on those of the Sea Islands occupied by our forces, about four or five thousand refugees.
The rest who lingered at Savannah, being about two or three thousand more: and probably in all, at least one thousand
have died of disease and exposure.
James P. Blake
Sources: Wayne Jones, “The History and Background of the Battle of Aiken” (link); “The Yellow House and the Battle of Aiken” (link); James Blake, African Americans Following Sherman, February 11,1865, The Freedmen’s Journal (link)