Overshadowed by events that took place elsewhere on April 9, 1865, Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter marched his division towards Sumter, South Carolina. Potter had Colonel Edward Hallowell’s Second Brigade cross the Pocotaligo River on the repaired causeway over Pocotaligo River during the night of April 8-9. With that bridgehead, Potter began the day’s march towards Sumter at dawn on April 9.
On the north side of the Pocotaligo, the Federals found the country open and waiting for their arrival – in more ways than one. Throughout the day, escaped slaves joined the column, often bringing their own transportation. Captain Luis Emilio, 54th Massachusetts, observed:
At daybreak on a rainy morning the troops moved toward Sumterville, through a fine region with numerous plantations, from which the negroes flocked to the force by hundreds. The train had grown to a formidable array of vehicles, augmented every hour. During the morning the enemy’s light troops fell back readily after exchanging shots.
Facing Potters advance was a scratch Confederate defense. Colonel George W. Lee mustered the 20th South Carolina Militia in Sumter, with a few hundred men. Augmenting Lee, Colonel James F. Pressley brought mounted irregulars and a detachment of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry. Adding to this force, convalescents and furloughed soldiers joined the defenses. All told, the Confederate forces probably numbered less than 500. But they did have benefit of three artillery pieces – two field howitzers and one 6-pdr field gun (which apparently was not in working order). From the convalescents, artillery Lieutenants William Alexander McQueen and Raphael Pampere volunteered to manage the howitzers.
While mounted Confederate detachments harassed Potter’s advance during the morning and mid-day, most of the Confederate force established a defensive line on Turkey Creek near Dingle’s Mill. The two howitzers were in position to cover the causeway over the creek’s swamp. Above that point, the millpond covered the Confederate left. Dense swamps covered their right. In all, a fair defensive position.
Potter received information, presumably from escaped slaves, of the Confederate dispositions. “Before arriving at this point,” he recorded, “on the afternoon of the 9th I ordered Colonel Hallowell’s brigade to turn the enemy’s position on the left by taking a plantation road which led to the main road between Dingle’s Mill and Sumterville.” However, Hallowell was unable to gain the flank, “owing to the incapacity of the guide” assigned to the column.
Meanwhile, at around 2:30 p.m., the lead of Colonel Philip Brown’s First Brigade ran up against the main Confederate line. The 107th Ohio Infantry first encountered Confederate skirmishers just before Turkey Creek. Brown feed in the 25th Ohio to extend the line. This drove the Confederates over Turkey Creek. Major Edward Culp, 25th Ohio Infantry, later recorded:
Our skirmishers advanced to the edge of the swamp, and found the bridge burning and the enemy behind good earth-works on the opposite side of the swamp. The 25th Ohio moved to a natural embankment just at the edge of the swamp, which offered good protection, and with its left resting on the road, and near the burning bridge, awaited the orders to charge.
The two Confederate howitzers swept the approaches to the causeway and pinned down the Federal advance at that point. To counter, Potter brought up Lieutenant Edmund Clark’s detachment of Battery F, 3rd New York Artillery, with their two Napoleons. Clark placed one gun on the road and the other in an open field to the left of the Federal line. While effective, to the point of disabling one howitzer and killing McQueen, the artillery did not clear the way. A rush by the two Federal regiments failed to dislodge the defenders.
Then one of the escaped slaves (traditionally, it is said one of those who worked at the mill) approached the Federal officers offering a path to flank the Confederate right on the down stream side of the swamp. Lieutenant-Colonel James Carmichael moved with the detachment of the 56th New York to find this path. As Brown later reported, this was “an undertaking of great difficulty on account of the depth of the mud and water and the almost impenetrable growth of underbrush.” But Carmichael managed to find a way through and get to dry ground on the opposite side of the swamp.
… but not waiting for his whole command to form, with the detachment of the Fifty-sixth New York Veteran Volunteers and one company of the One hundred and fifty-seventh New York Volunteers he charged on the enemy, killed the officer commanding the enemy’s artillery, completely routing the entire force, and captured 2 pieces of artillery and 1 battle-flag.
With the 20th South Carolina Militia in flight, the Federals advanced across Turkey Creek. The Confederates made one more stand before Sumter. But Brown promptly dealt with this with a skirmish line and a few more rounds from Clark’s Napoleons. Just before dark, Potter’s men entered Sumter.
Potter reported 26 casualties in the action at Dingle’s Mill – six killed or mortally wounded and twenty wounded. Confederate figures were six killed, eight wounded, and two captured.
In addition to the two howitzers, the Federals later captured the 6-pdr gun (a cast iron type). All three cannon, along with limbers and caissons, were assigned to Clark, who then formed an additional section of artillery with men of the 25th Ohio. Clark’s Napoleons fired 57 rounds during the engagement, out of their original stock of 360 rounds. The expenditure was not prohibitive on the expedition, but this did prompt considerations for resupply.
Culp, with the 25th Ohio, entered Sumter that evening. Years later he recalled:
Sumter was a beautiful little city, with a wealth of shade, many elegant residences, and two female seminaries in full blast.
This was the first visitation of Yankee troops, and the inhabitants used much common sense in their intercourse with the soldiers. The “Sumter Watchman” was nearly ready for the press, and our corps of printers were soon at work getting out another number of the “Banner of Freedom,” which had quite a circulation after we left.
As Potter and his men settled into camps at Sumter that spring evening, they had some rumors in the air about the fall of Richmond and other events in Virginia and North Carolina. Hammer blows fell upon the Confederacy at all points. Potter’s was, though small in comparison, hitting deep into the heart of secession. Not aware of the evolving situation far to the north, Potter continued with his mission – destruction of the railroads. Sumter being a railroad town, it would receive full attention over the days to follow.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1028, 1033, and 1036; Culp, Edward C., The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union, Topeka, Kansas, George W. Crane & Company: 1885, pages 123-5; Emilio, Luis F., History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 294.)