Forgotten Heroism at the End of the War in South Carolina
It was 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, 1865. At the Wilmer McLean House near Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant had just signed their names to the final surrender terms by which the Army of Northern Virginia laid down their arms and after shaking hands, General Lee mounted Traveler and rode back to the camp of his army.
Three hundred miles south of Appomattox, the Federal and Confederate armies in South Carolina clashed one final time near Sumter, South Carolina at a place history barely remembers called Dingle’s Mill. A scratch Confederate force of approximately 200 local militia, mostly elderly men and teenaged boys waged a short but desperate fight against two brigades of Federal troops at a crossing of Turkey Creek four miles south of Sumter. The name of the battle is drawn from the fact that the embankment of the mill dam for Dingle’s Mill formed part of the road into Sumter upon which the Federal forces advanced.
|The precise location of the graves of three New Yorkers killed during the battle is unknown but marked near the entrance to the field with these three stones and a plaque.|
On April 5th, a division of Federal infantry under the command of Brigadier General Edward E. Potter of New York landed at Georgetown on the South Carolina coast. The division totaled 2,700 men and consisted of two brigades; the First Brigade with the 25th Ohio, 107th Ohio, 157th New York regiments, all veterans of service in the Army of the Potomac in the 11th Army Corps, under the command of Colonel Philip P. Brown. The Second Brigade consisted of colored troops under the command of Colonel Edward N. Hallowell, including his 54th Massachusetts, the 32nd U.S.C.T., and the 102nd U.S.C.T. Potter also had two guns of Battery B of the 3rd New York Light Artillery, a few engineers from the 1st New York, along with some cavalrymen from the 4th Massachusetts.
General Potter had been tasked by General William T. Sherman with marching inland from Georgetown with the mission of destroying railroad infrastructure and rolling stock on any of the functioning railroads stretching across the central portion of the state between the cities of Florence, Sumter, and Camden. “Those cars and locomotives should be destroyed if it costs you 500 men,” Sherman enjoined Potter. Sherman’s army lay in camp in North Carolina and having just fought the Battle of Bentonville, Sherman wanted to ensure that no further reinforcements could arrive from the south to supplement General Joseph E. Johnston’s army. Three primary railroad lines were Potter’s targets: the Northeastern Railroad which stretched from Charleston north 102 miles to Florence where it connected with the Wilmington & Manchester Railroad which ran between Florence and Sumter; and the Camden & Branchville stretched 37 miles between those two towns.
|The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the above monument in 1913 and had it moved to its present location in 1929.|
Sumter lay 82 miles inland from Georgetown and it took the Federals four days to reach the outskirts of town. “The hardships and sufferings of the men on these marches through Southern swamps and morasses, harassed by the enemy, no pen can describe,” Jacob Smith of the 107th Ohio recalled. “But they were cheered on by the prospect of soon encountering the last of the armed foe, and the end to all this long period of service in defense of the government was evidently not far distant.”
During the subsequent fighting at Dingle’s Mill, Private Henry S. Finkenbiner of the 107th Ohio earned a Medal of Honor for his actions at the engagement although it would be 1898 before he received his medal. His account of the engagement follows and is drawn from Jacob Smith’s regimental history of the 107th Ohio Infantry.
We had been driving the enemy each day after leaving Georgetown and on April 9th when near Dingle’s Mill we rested for a short time and took coffee, after which we started again but had not marched a mile when we came in contact with the Rebel skirmish line. General Potter then sent an aide back to Colonel John S. Cooper of the 107th Ohio for two companies of skirmishers. Companies A and K were taken who soon drove the Rebels across a swamp nearby and the millrace.
The embankment of the milldam formed a dike that the public used as a road to Sumterville. The mill near the millrace was set on fire by the enemy and the floor of the brigade crossing the millrace was torn up and piled on the enemy’s side of the race near the mill and fired to keep us from crossing. Word came to our colonel that the Rebels were evacuating the place, but our colonel contended that they were still there in force and asked for three volunteers to cross over on the enemy’s side to ascertain whether the report was true, and if not, to gain some information relative to their position.
|Battlefield map provided in a kiosk on the Dingle's Mill battlefield.|
I volunteered along with Jacob James of Co. D and Jacob Brobst of Co. A. The crossing was affected by crawling over the millrace on the burning stringers of the bridge. After we had crossed, we came to where the road made an oblique to the right and then for the first time, we discovered the enemy. We then threw our guns to our shoulders and fired at them. Scarcely had we fired when a volley was discharged at us from a detachment of the enemy concealed near us in the bushes. They had been put there as a support to a battery placed on an elevation in the rear of the detachment; this battery threw grape and canister over where we stood.
When this volley was fired at us, Jacob Brobst fell, one of his legs being shattered by a ball. At this surprising volley, we started to run back when we heard Brobst cry out, ‘For God’s sake, don’t let the Rebels get me!’ We immediately retraced our steps and with my gun under his back to help support him, we carried him from under the battery and to safety.
|Corporal Henry S. Finkenbiner|
Co. D, 107th O.V.I.
Just as we got Brobst to the ambulance, we saw Colonel Haughton with the 25th Ohio file on the high narrow dike which the Rebel battery commanded at short range. I immediately ran to General Potter and informed him of the situation of the enemy and that to go on with the 25th Ohio meant the annihilation of the regiment. The General recalled the 25th Ohio and during the afternoon the 157th New York and some other troops crossed the swamp a couple of miles south from our present position and flanked the enemy and drove them from the field.
Here a little incident occurred that might have been somewhat embarrassing had my design or intention been accomplished. On our way to the troops, we came across a Rebel lieutenant who had been killed by a cannon ball through his shoulder. I discovered that he had on his feet a pair of well-fitting fine boots with a neat patch on the instep of each boot. I said, ‘Hold on Jake, those are my boots.’ I raised his leg to pull off one of the boots when I saw they looked rather small for me, so I sat on the ground and measured feet with the dead lieutenant and found them too small, and so went away without taking them along. That night I was on picket near the suburbs of Sumterville, our guard post being in a tobacco shed. The next morning a lady came to the fence near us and inquired about her brother who was not with the Rebel troops when they retreated. I told her of the dead lieutenant we found with the neat patches on his boots, when she cried out, ‘My God, that was my brother!’ How do you suppose I would have felt just then facing that young lady with those boots on my feet?
Colonel Philip Brown was so impressed with the daring of the three men who made the reconnaissance that he gave them honorable mention in a general order issued a few days later. “These men were on the advanced skirmish line and while within the direct range and close fire of the enemy’s artillery crossed the burning bridge on the millrace to ascertain the enemy’s position,” he wrote. “The danger incurred and the daring evinced by their conduct are such as to reflect the highest military credit upon themselves and their regiment. One of them, Jacob Brobst, was wounded and has since lost his leg. He could not have suffered more gloriously.”
Colonel Post of the 107th Ohio promoted Brobst to the rank of sergeant and Finkenbiner to corporal for their heroism, but it would be until 1898 before Finkenbiner, then a resident of North Manchester, Indiana, would receive a letter from the Secretary of War bestowing upon him the Medal of Honor. “The medal came in a neat leather case made especially for it,” Jacob Smith observed. “In appearance the medal looks much like a G.A.R. badge, but it is a trifle larger and attached to a bar with a ribbon of emblematic colors. The back of the star is engraved as follows: Congress to Private H.S. Finkenbiner, Co. D, 107th Ohio Vol. Inf. For Gallantry at Dingle’s Mills, S.C., April 9, 1865.”
Located along U.S. 521 four miles south of Sumter, the Sumter County Historical Commission has preserved a portion of this battlefield including the graves of three Union soldiers killed in the war’s final days.
Smith, Jacob. Camps and Campaigns of the 107th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. Navarre: Indian River Graphics, 2000, pgs. 187-195
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