Potter’s Raid, April 20, 1865: “The explosions were terrific” – destruction of trains at Middleton

On April 20, 1865, having driven off the last Confederate forces between his forces and the trains on the Camden Branch Railroad the previous day, Brigadier-General Edward Potter sent detachments to Middleton Depot.  The destruction of those trains would mark the completion of Potter’s assigned mission – a hard earned completion of the task.

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At least three regiments “worked on the railroad” that morning.  Captain Luis Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts recalled:

The rolling-stock was ours, massed on the Camden Branch, whence it could not be taken, as the Fifty-forth had destroyed the trestle at Wateree Junction, on the 11th. General Potter devoted the 20th to its destruction. That day the Fifty-fourth marched to Middleton Depot and with other regiments assisted in the work. About this place for a distance of some two miles were sixteen locomotives and 245 cars containing railway supplies, ordnance, commissary and quartermaster’s stores. They were burned, those holding powder and shells during several hours blowing up with deafening explosions and scattering discharges, until property of immense value and quantity disappeared in smoke and flame.  Locomotives were rendered useless before the torch was applied. The Fifty-fourth alone destroyed fifteen locomotives, one passenger, two box and two platform cars with the railway supplies they held.

The 25th Ohio and 157th New York Infantry regiments from First Brigade were also detailed to assist the destruction of the trains.  Colonel Philip Brown recorded similar tallies as Emilio’s, indicating some overlap in the accounting by the participants.  Major Edward Culp, of the 25th, was closer to the scene:

The next morning, April 20th, the 25th Ohio was sent to the railroad, where for two miles the road was crowded with cars, including sixteen locomotives.  The cars were loaded with clothing, ammunition, provisions, and, in fact, everything imaginable. The Regiment was bivouacked some distance from the railroad, and men detailed to fire the train.  Several cars were loaded entirely with powder, and in other cars were thousands of loaded shells. The explosions were terrific, and for several hours it seemed as if a battle was being fought.  After completely destroying the train the Regiment returned to camp at Singleton’s.

Around noon the work on the trains was nearing completion. Potter’s official report stated the day was spent “thoroughly destroying locomotives, 18 in number, and in burning the cars, of which there were 176.”

While this was going on, Confederate cavalry continued to spar with Potter’s rear guard.  Lieutenant Edmund Clark reported, “one howitzer was engaged on the Statesburg road; fired four rounds.”  Culp mentioned, “The rebel cavalry still hovered about, and fired into camp continually, but without much damage.”  Thus, while no “battle” was taking place, the “fighting” in South Carolina continued, after the “last battle” in South Carolina was over.

Potter’s force returned to the Singleton Plantation, where it had camped from April 12-14.  Local residents throughout Sumter County were by that time huddling at various plantations, reeling from over a week of Federal foraging and fighting.  To the south of Potter’s camp that evening was Millford Plantation, the home of John Laurence Manning, former state governor.  Manning’s wife was Susan Hampton Manning, an aunt of Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton III.  Given the connections, one might have expected Millford to become one of many homes in the area to be set afire.  But it survived.

The story of how that happened is attributed to different dates, but most often to sometime on April 19 or 20th.  The story goes that Potter arrived at Millford and remarked of the beauty of the architecture.  Manning responded that the home was designed and built by Nathaniel F. Potter of Rhode Island, adding “and it will be destroyed by a Potter.”  With that Potter is said to have responded, “No, you are protected. Nathaniel Potter was my brother.”  And thus the Rhode Island granite structure was saved and survives to this day.

A standing representative of the Old South spared to be mixed with the New South as Potter’s raid drew to a close.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1029; Part III, Serial 100, pages 1031 and 1041;  Culp, Edward C., The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union, Topeka, Kansas, George W. Crane & Company: 1885, page 132 ;Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 306.)

Potter’s Raid, April 19, 1865: Fighting at Dinkins’ Mill and Beech Creek

Having cleared the Confederate defenders from Boykin’s Mill on April 18, 1865, Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter continued marching south on April 19 in pursuit of Confederate trains on the Camden Branch Railroad.  Potter started the march that morning at 6 a.m.  The First Brigade, under Colonel Philip Brown, had the lead that morning.  The 107th Ohio Infantry marched by way of the railroad while the 157th New York and 25th Ohio lead the march on the main road to Manchester.  In the rear, the 54th Massachusetts formed the rear guard, supported by the iron 6-pdr and two field howitzers captured earlier in the campaign.

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Potter’s column was barely out of camp when they encountered the first Confederate resistance of the day.  Confederate cavalry were posted at a rail breastwork with artillery support.  Major Edward Culp later recalled:

The 157th New York took the left of the road and the 25th Ohio the right. We advanced in line of battle, driving the rebels before us, until they reached higher ground, where, supported by several pieces of artillery, they intended to make a stand.  The 25th advanced steadily under a galling artillery fire until within one hundred yards of the enemy’s position, when [Lieutenant-Colonel Nathaniel Haughton] ordered a charge, and the rebels retreated across Rafting Creek.

This was but the first round of the fighting of April 19. As the Federals passed through, they turned nearby Oakland Plantation into a field hospital.  Oakland had been Major-General Pierce M.B. Young’s headquarters the day before.  And the house had suffered damage from a stray cannon shot (either on April 18, as the marker says, or on April 19).

At Rafting Creek was a Confederate defense similar to that seen the day before at Boykin’s Mill.  The main road, on which the 157th New York and 25th Ohio advanced, crossed Rafting Creek near Dinkins’ Mill.  Potter recalled the position:

The mill dam had been opened and the swamp was not fordable, while in the road the water was waist-deep, and any force attempting to cross here was exposed to a fire from the enemy behind rifle-trenches and with two guns commanding the road.

Young’s force at Dinkins’ Mill consisted of the remainder of the Kentucky Orphan Brigade, 53rd Alabama Cavalry (or Partisan Rangers, as some prefer), 11th Georgia Cavalry, a couple sections of artillery, and South Carolina militia.

Potter had the two infantry regiments maintain a strong skirmish line along the creek, reinforced by the two Napoleon guns of Lieutenant Edmund Clark’s section from Battery F, 3rd New York Artillery. Clark’s gunners expended over thirty rounds that day including the fighting at the barricade earlier in the day.

Potter dispatched Colonel George Baird with four companies of the 32nd USCT to feel for a crossing downstream from the mill.  Meanwhile the 107th Ohio was pressing against the line at the railroad bridge a mile downstream from the main road.  But neither of those movements produced the desired effect for Potter. In the rear, the 54th Massachusetts reported sporadic fighting with Confederate cavalry, but was able to fend off the attacks.

Finally around mid-morning, Potter sent Colonel Henry Chipman with the 102nd USCT and four companies of the 32nd USCT upstream, about a mile to the left, to find a crossing.  Chipman accomplished this with the loss of one killed and two wounded.  Around noon, Chipman’s force engaged the right flank of the Confederate defenders on Rafting Creek.  With sound of that engagement, Potter ordered Brown’s brigade forward.  Within a short time, the Confederate position was carried.

With the position on Rafting Creek turned, Young withdrew most of his forces to the east toward Providence.  But the 53rd Alabama and 11th Georgia continued south towards Stateburg.  The Confederates formed another defensive line at the crossing of Beech Creek.

After breaking for lunch, Potter’s force continued the march south.  The march continued with the 157th New York on the right of the road, 25th Ohio on the left of the road, and the 107th Ohio still marching along the railroad line to the west.  Reaching Beech Creek, the Federals encountered the Confederate defense, as Brown reported:

Here quite a strong force of the enemy was encountered, but the determined men of the two regiments moved briskly forward and so completely routed the enemy that they made no further serious opposition to the march.

Culp was a little less complementary, stating, “In fact, it became hard work to keep up with them.”  Into the evening the Federals pursued the fleeing Confederates.  Under pressure from the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, the Confederates finally scattered some four miles beyond Beech Creek and turned east.

Potter opted not to continue pursuit of the Confederate force, and remained focused on his objective – the trains on the Camden Branch Railroad.  However, he also decided since those trains were going nowhere further on the line, he would wait until the next morning to descend upon them at the end of the broken line at Middleton Depot.  Captain Luis Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts later wrote, “Beyond Statesburg the resistance was slight, the column proceeding until 10 p.m., when the Fifty-forth reached its former camp at Singleton’s, having marched eighteen miles.” The 107th Ohio continued its march down the railroad until 3 a.m. the next morning, reaching the large Singleton Plantation once again.

The day’s fighting had cost the Federals ten casualties.  Confederate losses were not recorded in detail.   I know there are a lot of points to quibble over when identifying the last of this or last of that.  Indeed, at 7 a.m. on April 19, somewhere upstream in the Wateree watershed, a detail from the 12th Ohio Cavalry, part of Major-General George Stoneman’s raid, captured, and burned, the Nations Ford bridge of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad without a fight.  But these casualties care considered the last in a “named battle” in South Carolina during the Civil War.

However, that would not mean the fighting was done.  Potter still had some trains to destroy.  And after accomplishing that, he had to find his way back to the coast.   Although driven and scattered, the Confederate forces in the area were still around to contest Potter’s movements.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1029; Part III, Serial 100, pages 1030 and 1035;  Culp, Edward C., The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union, Topeka, Kansas, George W. Crane & Company: 1885, page 131 ;Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 306.)

Potter’s Raid, April 17, 1865: “They broke and fled in disorder… we marched into Camden”

After a two day march to bypass Confederate defenses along the Camden Branch Railroad, Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter directed his division on to Camden, South Carolina on April 17, 1865.  Colonel Philip P. Brown’s First Brigade had the honor of leading the march that day.   And on point was, again, Lieutenant-Colonel Nathaniel Haughton and the 25th Ohio Infantry.

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The advance met Confederate skirmishers almost from the start.  But not until reaching Swift Creek, around 9 a.m., was resistance strong enough to cause Potter’s march to pause.  There, a party of entrenched Confederates blocked passage.  Haughton dispatched Major Edward Culp and four companies to outflank the Confederates:

Major Culp, with Companies E, K, G, and B, waded the swamp some distance to the left, and struck the enemy on the flank, Colonel Haughton at the same time charging the enemy in front with the balance of the Regiment; they broke and fled in disorder, and at 3 o’clock p.m. we marched into Camden.

While engaged at Swift Creek, Lieutenant Edmund Clark’s Battery F, 3rd New York Artillery “fired eight rounds from the Napoleons.” And the Federals recorded no casualties in the advance to Camden.

Few military targets remained untouched in Camden after the Fifteenth Corps’ visit earlier in February.  Only the rail line received any great attention from Potter’s men.  Culp later recorded his impression of the town:

The inhabitants were pretty thoroughly subjugated, and in favor of peace on any terms. They were not particularly in love with Sherman’s army, and had some pretty hard stories to tell, which were, most of them, true enough.

While Potter occupied Camden, to the south, at Stateburg, Colonel Henry Chipman and part of the 102nd USCT ventured alone through a swirl of Confederate skirmishers.  Chipman arrived at Stateburg around noon on the 17th.  Not finding Potter at the point designated for his juncture, Chipman took assessment of the situation.  Information, presumably passed from civilians or escaped slaves, indicated the Confederates were fortifying Swift Creek and that Potter had marched around to Bradford Springs.  “I marched in the same direction,” Chipman reported, “following his trail, camping for the night near the springs.” Chipman’s force was at that time isolated and unsupported behind the Confederate defenses, all unknown to Potter.

Establish contact with Potter, Chipman sent out First Lieutenant Charles L. Barrell and two orderlies.

Lieutenant Barrell, after leaving the camp, met a Confederate colonel and his orderly; by his coolness and bravery succeeded in capturing the orderly, whom he made a guide to conduct him past the Confederate forces into our lines.

Barrell was able to reach Potter and get word of Chipman’s position. Barrell’s actions that evening earned him the Medal of Honor.

Though able to occupy Camden without serious delay, Potter found the locomotives were shifted south along the railroad to a point below Boykin’s Mill.  So Potter camped his division at Camden and prepared an advance to that point for the next day.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1041; Part III, Serial 100, pages 1040, and 1041;  Culp, Edward C., The 25th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union, Topeka, Kansas, George W. Crane & Company: 1885, pages 129-30.)