Potter’s Raid, April 6-7, 1865: Close enough “to give them a bit of my Yankee eloquence”

After a strong march of nineteen miles on April 5, Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter continued to move his two brigade division to the south of Black River.

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On April 6, the detachment from the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, under Major Moses Webster lead the march at 6:30 a.m.  Following was the Second Brigade under Colonel Edward Hallowell, including the USCT regiments.  Hallowell summarized the day’s march, “… country more open and rolling. Marched nineteen miles and camped near Thorntree swamp.”  Captain Luis Emilio, in the 54th Massachusetts added, “The column entered a better region with rolling ground, where foraging parties found good supplies and draught animals.”  Towards the end of the day’s march, the cavalry skirmished briefly with mounted Confederates at Seven Mile Bridge.  Otherwise the day simply marked another march.

The column resumed the march at 6:30 a.m. on the 7th.  Nearing Kingstree, Emilio recalled the Federals moved “… through a more open and settled country, containing still more abundant supplies, which our foragers secured, but, by orders, burned all cotton and mills.”

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Upon reaching the Northeastern Railroad, Potter dispatched two side columns.  Webster and the 4th Massachusetts dashed for Murray’s Ferry to link up with the boats on the Santee River.  Potter wanted those boats to proceed, if possible, up the Santee to the railroad bridge near Manchester.

The 102nd USCT, the other side column, marched north on the railroad to reach the bridge over Black River.  The troops briefly engaged Confederates guarding the bridge.  The bridge was soon destroyed, either by the retreating Confederates or by the advancing Federals.

Advancing further on the main road, Potter’s column crossed Keele’s Swamp and continued on towards Mill Branch.  Opposite Kingstree around 3 p.m., Potter dispatched Companies A and H of the 54th Massachusetts, under Captain Charles E. Tucker, to destroy the Eppes Bridge over the Black River to Kingstree.   Emilio later recalled Tucker’s account of the foray:

Leaving the main column, we filed to the right, marching by that flank nearly or quite a mile.  I had previously mounted old Cyclops (a horse of Lieutenant Richie’s, who was not on the raid), and put on as many ‘general’ airs as my general health and anatomy would endure. Great clouds of smoke were now coming up over the woods directly in our front. [Lieutenant Edward] Stevens deployed one platoon on the left of the road, holding the other for support. [Lieutenant F.E.] Rogers disposed of his company on the right in the same way.  Advancing, we were wading knee-deep. We had not gone far before we received fire from the enemy. The fire was returned. We advanced in sight of the bridge and easy musket-range, when the enemy abandoned the temporary works they had improvised from the flooring of the bridge on the opposite side of the river, making quick their retreat and leaving behind the heavy timbering of the work in flames.  During the interchange of shots Rogers and two men of his company were wounded. We did not or could not cross the river. I remember well of being sufficiently near to give them a bit of my Yankee eloquence and calling attention to their nervousness in not being able to shoot even old ‘Cyclops.’  Our object being accomplished, we started for and joined the regiment at Mill Branch about two o’clock next morning.  My impression is that the force opposed to me was a company, or part of a company, of dismounted cavalry.

With the bridges over Black River destroyed, Potter’s right flank was secure.  After a march of fifteen miles, he went into camp near Mill Branch.  Three days out of Georgetown, Potter had encountered only light resistance and was half way to his objective.

There was one other Federal column moving up from the coast of South Carolina that April.  For sake of complete coverage, let me briefly discuss the composition, mission, and progress of that force.  On April 5, Brigadier-General Alfred Hartwell assembled a force consisting of the 54th New York, 55th Massachusetts, and a section from Battery F, 3rd New York Artillery.  Hartwell was to clear out Confederate forces and lawless bands encountered south of the Santee River.

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Starting from Four-Mile Tavern, north of Charleston, on April 6, Hartwell’s command marched to Goose Creek.  Receiving information from escaped slaves that Confederate cavalry were assembling nearby at Dean Hall, Hartwell sent two companies on an overnight march to intercept.  This force failed to locate the Confederates, being “misled by the guide,” but reached Twenty-five Mile House on the State Road.

Hartwell resumed the march at 7 a.m. on April 7 and advanced along the Santee Canal in the direction of Black Oak.  Along the way, he dispatched a detachment to Biggins’ Bridge.  Hartwell’s main force proceeded to the house of a Mr. Cain, some twenty-two miles distant.  Cain was reported as supporting the Confederates operating in the area.   There, Hartwell chanced upon the cavalry missed the night before.

I sent two companies to deploy and surround the house in which they were reported to be, and surprised them.  The enemy, however, got notice of our approach in season to escape, leaving several blankets and guns, and their supper ready cooked.  Mr. Cain had several sons in the rebel army; he had entertained those who had just gone, and had recently given them a grand dinner; his barn, accidentally or by some unknown incendiary, was burned.

Though Hartwell’s column but a few dozen miles from Potter’s force, he was not coordinating movements or objectives.  Over the days which followed, Hartwell would spend more time attempting to restore order over a lawless land.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1036 and 1042; Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 291-3.)

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While you are marching Lee’s Retreat, also follow the march of Civil Rights

For those of use tracing the Appomattox Campaign “on the road” these are familiar stops:

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But at several places along that same route, we see trail-blazes and markers of another sort:

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I’ve mentioned the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail a few times before.  That marker series highlights sites across southern Virginia which have significance in the history of education reforms leading the efforts for Civil Rights.  From the Virginia’s Retreat website:

Even after emancipation, African Americans, like Native Americans and women, were denied education equal to white males. Young women were offered no public education beyond the 7th grade, and were denied the foundation allowing them to become teachers or nurses. African American children were denied even the most basic facilities and materials, and came by education only through the efforts of individuals committed to making a difference, sometimes holding class under a tree. Through small, steady steps over decades, the evolution of opportunity came slowly and sometimes at great cost.

Often these markers are co-located with Civil War Trails markers, as at Dinwiddie Court House:

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And I think that co-location, where found, is important.  We see in play there in the photo some of the many layers of history which define that particular site.  We might marvel in the complexity of history as it lays in situ.

But most important, we see a real, physical link in the interpretive thread of Civil War to Civil Rights.  We often try to simplify our story.  We want to graft on Appomattox to Selma as if 100 years in between were just time marked on the line.  In that, we bypass ten-thousand Topekas or Selmas.  Some of those occurred at the same locations where the closing acts of the Civil War played out.  Consider, for instance, the story of Prince Edward County Public Schools at a point 100 years after the armies marched through (an event 100 years from this posting).  I’ve often wished that other counties, regions, and states would pursue similar marker “trails” to showcase how our education system evolved during those first 100+ years after the Civil War.

So, if you are out tracing the march to Appomattox during this 150th anniversary, be on the lookout for the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail blazes.  Take a moment to read the stories they offer.  Consider them with the full context of what was going on 150 years ago, 100 years ago, and today.

There are about fifty markers in the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail, and we have most of those in the Historical Marker Database.