Potter’s Raid, April 18, 1865: “This last fight of the Fifty-fourth, and also one of the very last of the war” at Boykin’s Mill

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.)

PotterRaidApr18

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.

BoykinsMill

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.

Boykin Mill

(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.)

Potter’s Raid, April 10-14, 1865: Railroad and rolling stock laid to waste between Sumter and Manchester

Having reached Sumter on April 9, 1865, Brigadier-General Edward Potter turned his assigned mission once reaching that objective – destruction of railroads and materials.   Potter later recalled in his overall report of the expedition:

On the 10th detachments were sent up and down the railroad to destroy the bridges and trestle-work. At Sumterville there were destroyed 4 locomotives, 8 cars, carpenter shops, car and blacksmith shops, machine-shop with the stationary engine, freight depot, and store-houses, together with offices and quarters for the employés, and 1,000,000 feet of lumber. On the same day Major [Moses] Webster: with the cavalry detachment, destroyed the railroad buildings, with one locomotive and a small train of cars at Manchester.

Not mentioned was another party, from the 32nd USCT sent northeast towards Maysville.  They captured seven cars and destroyed a railroad bridge.  Another detachment from the 102nd USCT destroyed the railroad bridge west of Sumter, along with four cars, 200 bales of cotton, and a mill.  In addition, Potters men found newspapers and dispatches in Sumter.  And the news excited the men, as Captain Luis Emilio recalled:

Another cause of exultation was the news that Richmond, Mobile, and Selma were in our hands, in honor of which a salute of thirteen shots were fired from the captured guns.

The raiders also attracted many local slaves to abandon their masters.  Major Edward Culp of the 25th Ohio described the exodus:

Upon our march to Sumter, and while in that town, the negroes had flocked to us by the thousands, and of all sizes and colors. It became a serious problem how to dispose of them. Our wagon train had also increased in size, and was now a sight to behold. Vehicles of all descriptions; wagons, buggies, carriages, coaches, and in fact, everything imaginable that was ever laced on wheels – a most absurd procession, and lengthening for miles on the road.

Potter sent a report of the raid’s progress thus far to Major-General Quincy Gillmore on the 10th. The focus of that report was on the action at Dingle’s Mill the day before. However, in that report, he indicated only three locomotives were destroyed (presumably the fourth was found later in the day).  Potter also noted the destruction of “more than 1,000 bales of cotton” since the raid began.  Information gathered in Sumter said that six more locomotives were in Camden to the north, and that trains had been – up to the time the Federals destroyed the railroad in Sumter, at least – running regularly between Camden and Florence.  With that, Potter moved up the line to do more damage.

PotterRaidApr11

On the 11th, the main column followed the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry to Manchester.  There, Potter dispatched the 54th Massachusetts directly to Wateree Junction west of the town.  Concurrently, the 107th Ohio marched up the road towards Camden to Middleton Depot then circled back to join the 54th Massachusetts at the junction. Emilio described the attack on the junction:

A reconnaissance made by Lieutenant-Colonel [Henry] Hooper resulted in the discovery at the junction of cars, water-tanks, and several locomotives, – one of which had steam up.  It was not known whether there was any armed force there or not; and it was important to seize the locomotive before it could be reversed and the rolling-stock run back.  Night had set in.  Some sharpshooters were posted to cover an advance and disable any train-men. Then our column, led by Lieutenant [Stephen] Swails, First Sergeant [Frank] Welch, of Company F, and eighteen picked men, rushed over an intervening trestle for the junction.  Swails was the first man of all, and jumped into the engine-cab where, while waving his hat in triumph, he received a shot in his right arm from our sharpshooters, who in the darkness probably mistook him for the engineer.  The train-hands, some fifteen in number, fled down the railroad embankment into the swamp.

An additional set of locomotives and cars were found up the line to Camden.  Those were run back to the junction, across a burning railroad bridge. These operations netted more locomotives and rolling stock:

Eight locomotives and forty cars were destroyed near the Wateree trestle-work, which is three miles in length. A mile of this was burned, as were also some bridges.

Such was additional progress towards Potter’s assigned mission.  However, with the movements thus far he had expended much of his supplies. And the boats on the Santee could not make the passage up to Manchester:

As the rations of bread, sugar, and coffee were exhausted on the 12th, I sent the wagons and pack-mules to Wright’s Bluff, on the Santee to obtain additional supplies. The wounded and the contrabands, of whom there were large numbers, were also ordered to the same point, to be embarked on the transports. These trains were under escort of the Thirty-second U.S. Colored Troops.

In a dispatch to Gillmore on the 11th, Potter estimated the number of contrabands at 2,500.

On the 12th, the command moved up to Singleton’s Plantation some three miles outside of Manchester to camp.  Culp recalled the camp as “in a beautiful grove of live oaks, one of the fairest portions of South Carolina.”  He went on to describe the plantation:

The Singleton mansion was a fine residence, and the outbuildings, negro quarters, etc., neat and convenient. The mansion was used by General Potter for his headquarters. The family had fled upon our approach.

I think (stress think) that the Singleton mansion mentioned here is that of Melrose, one of many in the area owned by Richard Singleton. (Kensington on the other side of the Wateree is the famous one of the lot.)  The site of Melrose is about three miles south of where Manchester stood, present day within Poinsett State Park.  However, not matching up is the description of Melrose as a “small, quaint little house.”

Melrose

If any readers know more about this, please do offer a comment.  If nothing else, I would offer the location of Potter’s camp deserves a marker.

While waiting the return of supplies, on April 13, Potter sent a force under Lieutenant-Colonel James Carmichael, consisting of the 157th New York and 25th Ohio, to Stateburg and Claremont Station to the north.  Carmichael returned with information that Major-General Pierce M.B. Young commanded two brigades entrenching around Boykin’s Mill.

With this news, Potter had even more motivation to proceed towards Camden.

A few markers indicate points of interest along Potter’s route pertaining to the events of April 11-15.  In Sumter are markers for Potter’s Headquarters and the activities during the occupation.  The site of Manchester, which is just a placename today, has a marker.  And a marker in Stateburg discusses the reconnaissance of April 13 – though I think the date is incorrect.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1029; Part III, Serial 100, pages 162;  Culp, Edward C., The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union, Topeka, Kansas, George W. Crane & Company: 1885, pages 126-7 ;Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, pages 295-6.)

“The railroad is less than three-quarters of a mile from our front”: Foster’s attempt to isolate Savannah

With his forces stopped at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, Major-General John Foster turned to other courses in order to accomplished his supporting task for Major-General William T. Sherman – that of attaining the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  On December 6, Foster landed a force under Brigadier-General Edward Potter at Gregory’s Plantation.  The intent was to move up that neck between the Coosawhatchie River and Tulifinny Creek to the town of Coosawhatchie where the rail line passed.

The force consisted of the 56th, 127th, and 157th New York Infantry, the 25th Ohio Infantry, and the Naval Landing Brigade.  This brigade-sized element landed between 9 and 11 a.m. on December 6 at Gregory’s.  And, contrary to what modern readers might assume, it was the 127th New York that made the initial landings, and not the Marines.  Foster provided a brief overview of the movement towards the railroad in a report sent to Washington that day:

General Potter pushed immediately forward, and about one miles and a half out met the enemy, whom he forced rapidly back to the spot where the road up the peninsula between Coosawhatchie and Tullifinny meets the road running across from one river to the other.  Here the rebels, being re-enforced from the south side of the Coosawhatchie, made a stand and attacked our left vigorously, but our men repulsed them handsomely, capturing a battle-flag and some prisoners, and got possession of the crossing, which we now firmly hold.  A detachment sent to the right destroyed the road bridge over Tullifinny.  Our loss on the whole affair was about 5 killed and 50 wounded.

Tulifinny1

To an observer on the ground, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Woodford, 127th New York, the action was worth a few more sentences:

The rebel pickets were soon met and driven back. Their skirmishers were encountered at about a quarter of a mile south of the turnpike. The center of our line of battle was on the dirt road; the right wing extended into an open field at right angles to this road and parallel to the turnpike; the left wing was refused and lay about forty-five degrees from northeast to southwest. The four companies of the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers held the right center of the line; Company I soon came up, and was ordered in on the left,; the remaining five companies came promptly up as soon as we landed, and were also subsequently sent in upon the left of the line of battle. The severe fighting was nearly over when these latter got into position. Soon after the firing became general, the rebels advanced the left of their line–which lay upon the turnpike, sheltered by the forest on the north and a heavy skirting of trees and hedge on the south–into the field, and endeavored to charge and break our right. The naval infantry, which lay immediately to the right of our regiment, were forced back about 100 or 150 yards, leaving our right uncovered.

Of course, writing his report, Commander George Preble emphasized that his boat howitzer battery saved the Army’s line providing timely support.  No mention of the naval infantry falling back.  At around the same time, the 127th’s commander, Colonel William Gurney, was hit in the arm.  Woodford then took command of the regiment.

With the four companies of my command which were with me I immediately charged the rebel line, but before we reached them they broke and retired. Part of them fell back into the woods north of the turnpike, and part moved west on the turnpike, under cover of their artillery, to their intrenchments near the railroad. Just before we charged we fired by rank, and under this discharge the flag of the regiment in our front–the Fifth Georgia Reserves–fell.

The battle-flag, mentioned by Foster in his dispatch, was contested by the 127th and 56th New York… and Preble would claim it was his naval infantry which had delivered the killing shot to the color bearer.  Regardless, the 127th received the captured honor after the skirmish was over.   By nightfall, Foster had about 2,000 men on the neck.

The Federal landings caught the Confederates off-balance, but not off-guard.  Major-General Samuel Jones had arrived at Pocotaligo the night prior with orders to assume command of the sector.  But Jones walked into a cloud of confusion.  The 5th Georgia men encountered were but a battalion (of around 150 men) guarding the neck.  Of the other forces at Jones’ disposal, 32nd Georgia, a section of artillery, and the South Carolina Cadets from the Citadel were on hand to throw against the threat.  Overnight, Jones collected other elements – to include part of the 47th Georgia and a North Carolina reserve battalion – at the threatened point.  All told about 800 men, counting the cadets.  Colonel Aaron Edwards, 47th Georgia, was ordered to attack the Federal position at daylight.  Jones expected to use the sound of that attack to trigger a bombardment of the Federal positions from a battery on the west side of the Coosawhatchie.

So on the morning of December 7, Edwards sallied forward with his scratch force.  Perhaps being generous, Edwards claimed this force met initial success, but then faltered:

Our skirmishers drove the enemy vigorously until the right of the line became engaged with the enemy’s line of battle, our left at the same time overlapping his right. This position was maintained until after Colonel Daniel’s demonstration on my right, when the enemy made new dispositions on and extending beyond my left. It becoming apparent that the enemy’s force considerably outnumbered mine, which consisted largely of raw troops, it was deemed impracticable to attack him in force, without which it was impossible to drive him from his position. I therefore withdrew in good order, unpursued by the enemy, to my present position. The troops engaged, which were my skirmishers only, behaved with great gallantry.

Jones later claimed that Edwards failed to make the attack “with any spirit.”  But in all truth, his force was outnumbered.  The failure did leave the Federals in possession of the cross roads and within a mile of the railroad, as Foster was quick to claim in his report to Washington:

The railroad is less than three-quarters of a mile from our front separated by a dense wood, through which is only a bridle path, and in the skirt of which are our pickets. I have ordered nearly all the force from Boyd’s Neck to this position, and also some 30-pounder Parrotts, with which we can reach the railroad, even should our men not succeed in gaining it, as I hope they may, as also the road bridge over the Coosawhatchie. Our position is strong, the spirit of the troops excellent, and the landings and means of communication good.

However advanced Foster’s position, he was up against the same tactical limitations which prevented the Department of the South from achieving a break of the railroad over the past two years.  Arrayed on a small, narrow peninsula, with no maneuver space, Foster could only push directly forward.  Even with a small force, the Confederates held the advantage of position.  And though Foster outnumbered his opponent at the point of attack, he was short on infantrymen.  Requests to Washington, though made, would not meet the immediate need.  Foster pressed his subordinates for 1,000 more men from Morris Island and Florida.

In the mean time, the railroad was, as Foster indicated, within range of the Parrott rifles.  All this action taking place, hopefully, to benefit Sherman’s force… which was at the time of the action on December 7, was only some 30 miles away as the crow flies, but on the other side of the Savannah River.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 420-1, 438-9, 448.)