Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter started his division out of Camden, South Carolina at 7 a.m. on April 18, 1865. His objective was Confederate locomotives and rolling stock reported to be trapped on the Camden Branch Railroad in the vicinity of Boykin’s Mill. Potter had a battalion of 102nd USCT advance down the railroad and destroy the line. (And recall the remainder of the 102nd USCT was with Colonel Henry Chipman, which on that morning was struggling to join with Potter… and we’ll discuss in a moment.)
Potter met no resistance until nearing Boykin’s Mill, some five miles outside of Camden where the roads crossed Swift Creek. There Major-General Pierce M.B. Young had his main line of resistance. Young’s small force, numbering around 800, consisted mostly of South Carolina Home Guard bolstered by veterans from the 53rd Alabama Cavalry, 9th Kentucky Mounted Infantry, and a few artillery pieces. Also, reflecting the situation at war’s end, Young’s ranks included individuals, detachments, convalescents, and men under almost every administrative status one might contemplate. It was, as we say, a scratch force.
But Young held a good position. To his right, the mill pond covered approaches from the east. To his left, a dense swamp between the railroad and the Wateree River left few routes for any Federal flanking maneuver. To further bar Federal passage, Young had cut dams so as to flood the roads approaching the Confederate position and removed planks and beams from the Camden road and railroad bridges. So long as Young held the center, where the bridges crossed Swift Creek, he might give Potter a costly delay.
Approaching Swift Creek, Potter demonstrated with the main body of his column along the Camden Road. Major Edward Culp of the 25th Ohio recalled:
Our skirmishers were advanced to the edge of the swamp, but found the water too deep to wade. The 107th Ohio, 54th Massachusetts, and 102d U.S.C.T. were sent to the right some distance, with a colored man, a native of that country, to pilot them through the swamps. The 25th Ohio was moved to the edge of the swamp, and gained possession of some rebel works constructed in anticipation of our march to Camden by that road. The right of the Regiment rested on the railroad, and we were to charge across the trestle work as soon as our flanking regiments made their attack.
The map below, from Captain Luis Emilio’s history of the 54th Massachusetts, depicts those positions from the Federal perspective (and thus north is to the bottom) to the left (west) of the main roads, and where most of the action in the Battle of Boykin’s Mill would occur.
At the railroad bridge (also to the left and off Emilio’s map), Potter positioned one of his 12-pdr Napoleon guns. The “moving part” of Potter’s command then attempted to slog their way around the Confederate left, as Emilio recorded:
In this flanking movement Lieutenant-Colonel [H. Northy] Hooper led the Fifty-fourth along the creek over ploughed fields bordering the wood of the swamp, with Company F, under Captain [Watson] Bridge, skirmishing. From contrabands it was learned that the swamp was impassable nearer than Boykin’s Mills, some two miles from the road. When in vicinity of the mills, the enemy’s scouts were seen falling back.
The crossing point described by Emilio is the road leading across to “Island” on his map. Hooper describing the crossing point in his official report, added:
It was quickly discovered that the enemy was prepared to dispute our passage. There were found to be two streams. They could be crossed above by a dike and 150 yards below by a road that crossed one stream by a bridge, the boards of which were removed; the second stream fordable; fifteen yards beyond the ford, up a steep ascent, was a breast-work of cotton bales. The dike was covered by the fire of the enemy. The dike and the road met and formed a junction on the enemy’s side of the creek.
Seeing the crossing points too well defended for direct assault, Hooper sent a force downstream to a ford reported by his guides. Major George Pope led Companies A, D, G, and I to that ford only to find the Confederates already there. Attempting to feel the Confederate strength, Pope ordered Company A to demonstrate at the ford site. At that same instance, the Confederates delivered their own volley. In that volley, one of the South Carolina Home Guard, Burwell Henry Boykin, son of the owners of Boykin’s mill, is said to have killed Lieutenant Edward Lewis Stevens. As frequent reader over at The Cotton Boll Conspiracy has recently mentioned, Stevens had the dubious honor of being the last Federal officer killed in action during the Civil War… and as legend has it, was shot by a fourteen-year-old boy literally defending his home.
At the mill dam, Hooper had one of the sluice gates opened with an aim to drain the waters down to better allow crossing, pending Pope’s maneuvers. When word came that Pope could not force a crossing, Hooper informed Potter and asked for artillery support. That came in the form of the second Napoleon gun of Potter’s main force.
… and after a dozen discharges of shell at the position of the enemy I had the satisfaction to see quite a number of rebels rapidly leave our front. A column composed of the five companies under my immediate command then charged across the two streams over the dike in single file. Although the enemy maintained his position for a while, he soon fled. The regiment gained the enemy’s breast-works and the affair at Boykins’ Mill was over.
While the 54th Massachusetts forced a crossing at the mill, the battalion from the 102nd USCT managed to get across further down-stream by crossing on logs. The 107th Ohio followed them. The presence of this force did factor in the Confederate retreat.
In this flanking movement that unhinged Young’s Swift Creek line, the 54th Massachusetts suffered three killed (two enlisted besides Stevens) and twelve wounded. Emilio later reflected upon this, which would prove to be the 54th’s last charge of the war:
This last fight of the Fifty-fourth, and also one of the very last of the war, was well managed by Lieutenant-Colonel Hooper, when less discretion would have resulted in a repulse and heavy loss. The charge was a plucky affair under exceptionally adverse conditions.
After clearing the Confederates around the mill at about 4 p.m. that afternoon, the cheering of Hooper’s men prompted a general advance from the rest of the Federal force on the main road from Camden. Potter pursued Young’s retreat for three miles before going into camp for the evening.
Leading the pursuit that afternoon was Major Moses Webster with his battalion from the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry. Webster’s troopers had been very busy on April 18th, as in the morning they rendered service to Chipman and the 102nd USCT. Chipman had woke that morning in a precarious position:
Brisk skirmishing commenced with the enemy’s cavalry on the morning of the 18th at different places, who made spirited resistance, fighting behind breast-works of rails, which they would not leave until driven from them by skirmishers. We were hemmed in on every side, but moved steadily forward. My loss during the forenoon was 1 man killed, and 1 officer and 7 men wounded.
Thus Chipman’s foray to join Potter, which was originally designed to work with Brigadier-General Alfred Hartwell’s force operating out of Charleston, was turning into a disaster. But before noon, the situation took a turn for the better:
At 11 a.m. Lieutenant [Charles] Barrell joined me, accompanied by Major Webster and detachment of his cavalry. They had driven the enemy from my front, and gave information concerning the movements of General Potter’s forces. Skirmishing with my rear guard was kept up till afternoon. I joined the command of General Potter at 8 p.m. at Swift Creek, where my regiment was united.
Disaster averted, Chipman’s men went into camp with Potter’s division. All of the men weathered a heavy rainstorm that evening.
Though able to turn Young’s position at Swift Creek, Potter found most of the trains had again eluded him. One locomotive and a few cars were captured. But the rest fell back down the line. But that was of little worry. Trains could not run where there was no track. And the track south of Stateburg was already torn up. Potter anticipated capturing the remainder on the 19th.
There would be some action in the days that followed, but the action at Boykin’s Mill had for all practical purposes broken the Confederate defenses. Rather fitting the the important role played by the 54th Massachusetts and the USCT during the day’s action. The war had turned full circle in many regards on this day 150 years ago.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1029; Part III, Serial 100, pages 1039 and 1040; Culp, Edward C., The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union, Topeka, Kansas, George W. Crane & Company: 1885, pages 130-1 ;Emilio, Luis F., History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, pages 301-4.)