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.

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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.)

Potter’s Raid, April 8, 1865: “The Clarendon Banner of Freedom”

After seeing to the bridges at Kingstree on April 7, 1865, Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter continued the advance toward Sumter (as Sumterville was shortened to in 1855) on the 8th.  Potter planned to remain on the south side of the Black River for the march to that place.  But to do so, he had to cross the Pocotaligo River, a tributary to the Black River (not to be confused with a river by the same name which flows into the Broad River and Port Royal Sound).  This would prove troublesome for Potter on April 8.

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Potter’s division was on the road that morning at 6:30 a.m.  Reaching Brewington, Potter’s advance marched north only to find the bridge over the Pocotaligo destroyed. “As reconstruction of the bridge, which was 120 feet in length, would have consumed the day,” Potter recalled, “I moved on to Manning, ten miles further west, keeping the south side of the Pocotaligo River, a branch of the Black.”  Along the way to Manning, a report arrived that the bridge over Ox Swamp was destroyed.  This prompted a five mile detour to the south.

Upon reaching Manning, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry skirmished briefly with Confederates.  And… for those following closely the route of Lee’s Retreat, remember the element accompanying Potter was 2nd Battalion of the regiment – Companies A, B, C, and D, under Major Moses Webster.  While that battalion plodded along through South Carolina, the 1st and 3rd Battalion of the regiment were engaged at places such as High Bridge while chasing Confederates across Virginia.

As they left Manning, the Confederates set fire to the causeway over Pocotaligo Swamp, forcing Potter to halt for the day.  This causeway was a mile in length.  That evening, Potter had Major James Place, 1st New York Engineers, work to repair the causeway.  During the night, detachments of Colonel Edward Hallowell’s brigade crossed on the stringers to establish a bridgehead by midnight.  The causeway itself was repaired by the next morning.

For the night, the men of the 54th Massachusetts established camp around Manning, as Captain Luis Emilio recorded:

Manning, a town of a few hundred inhabitants, was occupied at dark, after an eighteen-mile march that day. General Potter established himself at Dr. Hagen’s house.  Major Culp, Twenty-fifth Ohio, Colonel Cooper, One Hundred and Sevent Ohio, and some soldier-printers took possession of “The Clarendon Banner” newspaper office, and changing the title to read “The Clarendon Banner of Freedom,” issued an edition which was distributed.

While Potter cleared the last natural obstacle between him and Sumter, to the south, Brigadier-General Alfred Hartwell’s expedition continued their “patrol” up to the Santee River.

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Hartwell resumed his march at 7 a.m. on the morning of April 8.  His column halted at Pineville around mid-day. From there, he marched to a point he identified as “Mexico,” after a march of some 20 miles.  At Pineville, Hartwell was very close to Potter’s supply base at Murray’s Ferry.  But Hartwell made no effort to coordinate there, as he was not expected to.  Nor did Hartwell spend any time on the railroad (which had already been disabled in February) or Santee Canal infrastructure. Rather Hartwell’s mission was more akin to a “police patrol.”  So his report reflects the nature of that mission:

The people in Pineville implored our protection from the negroes, who were arming themselves and threatening the lives of their masters.  Mr. Reno Ravenel requested me to take him with me to save his life.  The negroes flocked in from all sides. At Mexico I found that Mr. Mazyck Porcher had made his house the headquarters of the rebels in the vicinity. While I was on his grounds his property was protected, but was burned to the ground immediately on my leaving, I think, by his field hands.

Such is a brief window in time to the lawlessness that followed in the wake of Confederate withdrawals at several places throughout South Carolina.  As these regions had, for all practical purposes, been under martial law, the departure of organized military forces left a void which the Federals were unable (and somewhat unwilling) to fill.  As result, people like Mazyck Porcher lost property… perhaps ironically, by the hands of individuals who had formerly BEEN property.  You see, stories of damage and destruction across South Carolina in 1865 are far more complex than a simple discussion of Sherman’s bummers.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1028 and 1042-3; Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 293.)