Potter’s Raid, April 25, 1865: After 23 days and 300 miles, the raiders return to Georgetown

The Civil War might be winding down in the last week of April 1865, but Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter’s provisional division was still in the field, though marching back to the coast from a successful raid reaching the Sand Hills of South Carolina. On April 21, 1865, a flag of truce relayed the news of a truce, while General Joseph E. Johnston and Major-General William T. Sherman worked out the details of a Confederate surrender.  From that point, Potter’s raiders had a relatively uneventful march to the coast.

PotterRaidApr25

Potter directed the column towards the boat-depot at Wright’s Bluff on April 22.  There he transferred “wounded, sick, and about five hundred contrabands” to the boats to ease the march.  Potter himself departed by boat, heading back to Charleston in order to report and receive any new orders.  In his absence, Colonel Philip Brown, of the 157th New York and First Brigade commander, assumed command of the division.  In total, the Federals put twenty-three miles behind them.

For the march of April 23rd, Captain Luis Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts recorded:

At 5.30 a.m., on the 23d, the Second Brigade led out for the day’s march. Now that hostilities had ceased, the force was dependent upon such supplies as could be purchased. A very large number of contrabands were with the column, straggling, and obstructing the rapid progress it was desirable to make. The day was cool and pleasant; the route through a fine country mainly, but wooded and low in places. Intelligence of President Lincoln’s assassination was received, – sad tidings which could hardly be credited. There was much bitter feeling indulged in by the soldiery for a time.  The division accomplished twenty-three miles that day, bivouacking at Stagget’s Mill.

The next day the column continued the march towards Georgetown, through what Emilio described as “a wooded region where no supplies could be obtained.”  He added, “As a substitute for rations two ears of corn were issued t each man.”  The force marched twenty-three miles, for the third day in a row.

Our last bivouac in the field was broken on the morning of April 25th, when in good weather through a timbered country we completed the march.  …  The troops reached town at 5 p.m. after making twenty-two miles.

Thus ended Potter’s 1865 Raid into South Carolina. Potter offered a summary and results in his official report:

The results of the expedition may be summed up in the capture of 1 battle-flag, 3 guns, and 65 prisoners, 100 horses and 150 mules, and the destruction of 32 locomotives, 250 cars, large portions of the railroad, and all the railroad buildings between Camden and Sumterville, 100 cotton gins and presses, 5,000 bales of cotton, and large quantities of government stores.  Five thousand negroes joined the column and were brought within our lines. Our entire loss was 10 killed, 72 wounded, and 1 missing.

Those figures relate a remarkable level of destruction wrought by a small force, and at the very end of the war.   Though one might say such was hardly worth the effort.  Potter’s Raid could not do much more to hasten the end of the war than what had already been done elsewhere. Yet, the real impact of Potter’s Raid was well beyond the military needs expressed in its mission objectives.

In his summary, Emilio indicted higher numbers of contrabands and livestock than Potter had reported:

Potter’s Raid occupied twenty-one days, during which the troops marched some three hundred miles. About three thousand negroes came into Georgetown with the division, while the whole number released was estimated at six thousand.  Our train was very large, for besides innumerable vehicles, five hundred horses and mules were secured, of which number the Fifty-fourth turned in one hundred and sixty.

Whether the figure was 6,000 or 5,000 who were emancipated as result of Potter’s Raid, that statistic was, I would submit, the most important of those tallied.  Instead of being inland to await the resolution of the war and receiving emancipation, thousands had taken advantage of the opportunity to “self-emancipate” in those closing days of the war. And those thousands arrived at the coast, adding to the crisis facing Federal commanders.  Would there be more forty acre plots?  Or would Federal leaders encourage “fair labor contracts“?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1031;  Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 307-9.)

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