One of my favorite ancestors is Simon Poland, who served in the Civil War. Simon served as a corporal in the 10th Ohio Cavalry. Simon was my great great grandfather. He was the father of Cora Poland, who married Tommy Lucas. Tommy Lucas was the father of Marion Idella Lucas, who married Ora Otis Snyder, Sr.
As you may recall from my previous posts, Simon was captured at the Battle of Aiken in Aiken, South Carolina on February 11, 1865 and was held as a prisoner at the infamous Andersonville prison camp for the balance of the war. Fortunately for Simon, given the inhuman conditions at Andersonville, the Civil War only lasted for a few more months.
In the way of some background, the 10th Ohio Cavalry was attached to the army of General William Tecumseh Sherman on Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” after Sherman captured Atlanta. During Sherman’s March to the Sea, his army “lived off the land” and destroyed many military targets as well as industry, infrastructure and civilian property. Sherman’s March to the Sea ended on December 21, 1864 with the capture of the port city of Savannah, Georgia. Before embarking on his March to the Sea, General Sherman had informed General U.S. Grant that one of his stated goals was to “Make Georgia Howl” and he did just that, inflicting devastating damage on Georgia and the Confederacy.
Following the March to the Sea, Sherman’s Army continued north through Georgia and into the Carolinas. Prior to invading the Carolinas, General Sherman stated: “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.” His statement was an obvious reference to the fact that it was South Carolina that began the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter and seceding from the Union.
By February 1, 1865, the invasion of the Carolinas had begun. Simon’s regiment, the 10th Ohio Cavalry, remained attached to Sherman’s army. Sherman’s cavalry commander was Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. Interestingly, Kilpatrick is an ancestor of CNN commentator, Anderson Cooper. Gen. Kilpatrick reportedly spent $5,000 in Savannah for matches for his troopers. Kilpatrick, better known as “Kill Cav” for his rashness in battle that got his own men killed, was obnoxious, boastful, and a notorious womanizer. At Savannah, he told his corps, “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!” His men would soon leave a scorched swath across South Carolina.
The 10th Ohio Cavalry was with the wing of Sherman’s Army that was apparently moving towards Augusta, Georgia. Sherman’s goal was to confuse the Confederates by making them think that his army was moving towards either Augusta, where the Confederacy’s gunpowder mills were located, or Charleston, South Carolina, when his real objective was Columbia, South Carolina. Kilpatrick’s Cavalry, including the 10th Ohio Cavalry, approached Aiken, South Carolina. Kilpatrick’s objective was to destroy the railroad and government property in Aiken and any unheeded foray into Aiken almost certainly would have also involved destruction of civilian property as well. Aiken is located in the southwestern part of South Carolina, about 20 miles from Augusta, Georgia. While Aiken now has a population of about 30,000, its population at the time of the Civil War was well less than 2,000. Notable residents of Aiken over the years have included South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and the Perry brothers, William “Refrigerator” and Micahel Dean, both of whom played in the NFL.
As Kilpatrick’s Cavalry approached Aiken on February 11, the residents of Aiken realized that their worst fears were coming true and began to flee the town. Confederate General Joseph Wheeler had approximately 4,500 cavalry in the vicinity of Aiken. Wheeler proceeded to set a trap for Kilpatrick in the town of Aiken.
Wheeler formed his Confederate cavalry in the shape of a ‘V’, with the bottom of the ‘V’ pointed west towards Augusta. The railroad and Park Avenue ran down the center of the ‘V’. A thin line of skirmishers was deployed between the top tips of the ‘V.’ On the approach of Kilpatrick’s troops, the line was to fall back. . It was hoped that Kilpatrick would be rash and would charge after the retreating Confederates into the ‘V’. Wheeler would then collapse the tops of the ‘V’ around Kilpatrick’s troops and thus surround them.
Although Kilpatrick had been warned that Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry troops were occupying Aiken, the reckless Kilpatrick blindly ignored those warnings and marched into the town. Kilpatrick’s troops entered Aiken and proceeded into the awaiting ambush. The Confederate soldiers were hiding in ambush, waiting for the signal to attack. As the 92d Illinois Mounted Infantry entered Aiken, the ladies of the town waved their handkerchiefs and smilingly invited the Union officers and troops into their homes. While that was not the customary welcome received by Union troops when they triumphantly entered a southern town, they ignored this telltale warning, further facilitating the Confederate plan. However, the Confederate plan plan fell apart when an Alabama trooper fired his gun prematurely, thus springing the trap too soon. The Confederate general, realizing that he must act quickly or lose the initiative, ordered all units to attack. The key engagement occurred in front of the First Baptist Church. The Union troops were soon surrounded and outnumbered but bravely fought their way out of the ambush and retreated in wild confusion to the outskirts of town in the midst of wild, hand-to-hand fighting. Gen. Kilpatrick was almost captured himself in the confusion of this battle.
Just outside of town, Kilpatrick’s troops had established a line manned by the 1oth Ohio Cavalry, 9th Ohio Cavalry and the 9th Michigan Cavalry. Accounts of the battle indicate that when the Union troops were pushed out of town and into the second line of cavalry, including the 10th Ohio Cavalry, that the retreating Union and pursuing Confederate troops were so close that the second line Union troops dared not fire, noting that the Union and Confederate soldiers were pulling each other off their horses trying to claim prisoners. It was in this phase of the battle that Simon Poland was likely taken prisoner. Notably, Simon’s brother, Alexander Poland, a member of the 9th Ohio Cavalry also participated in this battle.
The Union and Confederate troops skirmished for the rest of the day and into the next morning. Ultimately, Kilpatrick sent out a flag of truce so that he could recover his dead and wounded. Kilpatrick ultimately withdrew and rejoined Sherman on his march to Columbia.
Commanders in their reports often overestimated their opponent’s casualties and downsized their own. Kilpatrick states that Wheeler lost 31 killed, 160 wounded and 60 taken prisoners, for a total of 251 Confederate casualties. Wheeler admitted losing only 50 killed and wounded. Wheeler also claimed that the Confederates attack resulted in 53 killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured, or 495 Union casualties in all. Kilpatrick admitted to losing 25 killed and wounded and less than 20 captured.
Therefore, total Federal casualties were between 45 and 495, while the Confederates lost between 50 and 251. What we do know is that our ancestor, Simon Poland, was captured and taken prisoner during the Battle of Aiken.
By almost any yardstick, the Battle of Aiken was a defeat for the Union troops and Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, their no-good scoundrel commander, whose rash and reckless conduct almost got a whole brigade of his 3rd Cavalry Division captured and destroyed. Nevertheless, the Battle of Aiken, in the bigger view, was strategically important as it served to distract and divert key parts of the Confederate army and keep them out of the way of the main advance of Sherman’s army. The outcome of the Battle of Aiken was also vital for the citizens of Aiken as it prevented the ransacking and destruction of their town. Each year, the residents of Aiken reenact the Battle of Aiken and have a weekend of festivities to commemorate the battle. I am putting a visit to Aiken on my “bucket list.”