Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review - "Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865" by Eric Wittenberg

[Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865 by Eric J. Wittenberg (Fox Run Publishing, 2018). Cloth hardcover, 5 maps, photos, footnotes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vi,138/183. ISBN:978-1-945602-06-1. $26.95]

While book-length studies of Civil War battles of all sizes abound in the literature, it's only been over the past two decades that most of the engagements associated with the 1865 Carolinas Campaign have been satisfactorily addressed. In the late 1990s, a pair of closely released Bentonville studies by Mark Bradley and Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes told the story of that climactic battle for first time in detail. These were followed by a history of the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads from Eric Wittenberg and Wise's Forks and Averasboro studies from co-authors Mark Smith and Wade Sokolosky, all three excellent contributions. The Union march through South Carolina has also been more generally covered in works from Tom Elmore and Christopher Crabb. The latest addition to this list is Eric Wittenberg's Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion: The Battle of Aiken, South Carolina, February 11, 1865.

The early chapters do a fine job of situating the Aiken battle within the larger context of Sherman's march north through South Carolina. In addition to tracing the movements of Union and Confederate forces in the state prior to the fall of Columbia, Wittenberg provides a series of lengthy biographical sketches of major military figures involved in the Battle of Aiken. These range from notable regimental commanders (like Lt. Col. Matthew Van Buskirk of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry) on up to the highest ranking generals of both sides. Even more can be found outside the main text in the footnotes.

The Battle of Aiken, which lasted for perhaps one frenetic hour in the streets of the town and for most of the day in toto, is recounted in full by Wittenberg, who specializes in cavalry battle narratives of this type. The battle came about when Confederate cavalry corps chief Major General Joseph Wheeler disobeyed orders directing him to reinforce the thin Edisto River line defending Columbia and instead set up a cleverly arranged ambush for his opponent, Major General Judson Kilpatrick, well off to the west in the streets of Aiken. Both commanders were eager to face off against each other. Approaching the eastern outskirts of the town, Kilpatrick ordered Brigadier General Smith D. Atkins's lead brigade to push forward into the streets of Aiken, where it was in turn assailed in front and on both flanks by Wheeler's men, who were deployed in a wide "V" formation that overlapped the Union line and subjected it to converging fire. The Union hero of the battle was the aforementioned Buskirk, who, assisted by the high-volume fire of his outnumbered men's repeating arms, was instrumental in extricating the brigade from its hazardous predicament at Aiken and shepherding the retreating bluecoats back east to Johnson's Turnout. There, they rejoined the balance of Kilpatrick's division and together abruptly checked the pursuing Confederates.

Certainly every Civil War action is deserving of full documentation for the historical record, but Wittenberg makes a strong case that Aiken is worthy of deeper consideration, as well. Though it resulted in a Confederate tactical victory, Wheeler's impetuous move to Aiken completely compromised the planned line of defense in front of the state capital. While it's unclear how much effect the presence of Wheeler's men might have had in delaying the fall of Columbia, their absence rendered impossible any real defense of the city and its hasty, disorganized abandonment in the face of the enemy directly contributed to the fires and destruction that ensued. Interestingly, though there's no contemporary written evidence to support it, Wittenberg believes it more than likely that Sherman deliberately ordered Kilpatrick west toward Augusta to bait Wheeler, who he knew to be an ill-disciplined sort of general. It's certainly plausible given how heavily Sherman's conduct of the campaign up to that point relied on misdirection rather than brute force to achieve its desired results. Sherman's multi-axis advance through South Carolina kept the Confederates off balance and uncertain of Union objectives, which allowed Union forces to successfully navigate numerous potentially dangerous roadblocks and move forward against key strategic points in the state without fighting any major battles. Aiken fits well within this narrative. The author also believes the battle worthy of attention for being one of only four (by his estimate) urban cavalry battles fought east of the Mississippi during the war.

Period photographs are sprinkled throughout the volume (though there are unfortunately no images, modern or archival, of the town or battlefield environs), and the book's five original maps effectively support the text. However, tactical coverage between sides is a bit uneven in terms of small-unit detail. For example, in its discussion of the Aiken fighting, the book's regimental-scale depictions of Union movements and positioning are not similarly carried over to the Confederate side in the maps or narrative, which may well be a function of source limitations. The appendix section has three parts: an order of battle for each side, a list (probably incomplete) of known Confederate casualties, and an interesting short piece contrasting the battles of Waynesboro and Aiken (the 1864 and 1865 fights that were both thought at the time to have "saved" Augusta, which was never targeted). In the research sphere, the bibliography displays the expected depth and range of sources (i.e. newspapers, unpublished manuscript materials, and published primary and secondary sources).

Five or Ten Minutes of Blind Confusion is another winning account of a Civil War cavalry battle by the prolific Eric Wittenberg. The book also satisfactorily addresses one of the remaining gaps in the military historiography of the 1865 Carolinas Campaign.


  1. Thank you for the kind words and the good review, Drew. They are much appreciated.

    I wanted to address one point you raised, as it's not only a fair criticism, it points out a giant problem in researching this campaign. The fact is that it was impossible to track the specifics of the Confederate movements because Confederate accounts of this battle are very few and very far between. There are no known official after-action reports by Wheeler's poorly disciplined command, and few letters or memoirs, unlike Monroe's Crossroads, which was a proud moment for the Confederate cavalry.

    Rather than engage in guesswork--and that's what it would have been--I elected to handle matters as I did. I'd much rather rely on what we knew than to engage in guesswork. But it is definitely a significant problem, and I suspect is probably why there's never been a detailed tactical narrative prior to this.

    Again, I appreciate the kind words and am pleased to know that you enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks for the response/comment, Eric. I figured that was the case, as most authors who've written about the 1865 campaigns have had a similar experience with having to work around an exceptional scarcity of Confederate accounts covering events from the final months of the war.

  2. It really is a problem, Drew. As an initial comment, there is not a lot of good material available on Wheeler's command in general. His men were nowhere near as good about documenting their service as Jeb Stuart's were, for whatever reason. So, with that as a basic operating assumption, we then move on to the fact that good Confederate sources on the Carolinas Campaign are few and far between, and you quickly discover that trying to do in-depth research on anything Confederate-related during that campaign is a real challenge. Big time.

    I started looking for stuff on Aiken when I got interested in it while researching Monroe's Crossroads, and I spent a number of years looking for stuff. What I found is cited in the book and listed in the bibliography. The fact is that there simply isn't much out there. As a researcher who likes to dig deep, it's particularly frustrating, but the fact is that there simply isn't much that can be done about it.

  3. Drew: Thanks for this (as always) insightful review. Unsurprisingly, it appears that Eric has produced another mandatory purchase. As a consumer I also appreciate the honesty of an author who acknowledges that his analysis may be impacted by source limitations. We know that if Eric couldn't locate something, it probably isn't accessible anywhere. I suspect that as the CSA rapidly imploded in early '65 and ad hoc commands were assembled, record-keeping was a very low priority - if a priority at all.


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