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Battle of High Bridge

April 6–7, 1865

The Battle of High Bridge took place in Prince Edward and Cumberland Counties, Virginia on April 6 and 7, 1865, during the Appomattox Campaign.

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert to strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee's army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade's flank.

The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee's defenses but to no avail. Despite being well entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as supplies dwindled. By the spring of 1865, Lee knew that, when the weather allowed, his army must escape the Union stranglehold or be starved into submission.

On March 25, 1865, Lee made one final attempt to break the Siege of Petersburg by ordering forces commanded by Major General John B. Gordon to attack Fort Stedman, a Union fortification in the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Gordon's pre-dawn attack was successful initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines.

Grant's spring offensive, the Appomattox Campaign, began in late March 1865, when General Philip Sheridan's troops south of Petersburg moved west with orders to threaten or to capture Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which connected to Petersburg from the southwest. Grant intended to cut off supplies coming into Petersburg and to prevent Lee from using the two arteries as avenues of escape from the city. On March 29, Major General G.K. Warren's 5th Corps defeated several Confederate brigades commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis's Farm. Two days later, the action resumed at the Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House, as Lee shored up his right wing to halt the federal flanking maneuver. On April 1, Philip Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett's forces at the Battle of Five Forks. The loss of that strategic crossroads further threatened Lee's already limited supply lines.

Encouraged by the Federal victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate entrenchments around Petersburg on April 2. Federal troops breached the Confederate defenses during the Battle of Petersburg III and forced the Rebels to withdraw to the city's inner defenses. By 10 a.m., Lee realized that the day was lost, and he advised President Jefferson Davis to prepare to leave the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee spent the afternoon preparing his withdrawal from Petersburg.

Lee's plan was to march his beleaguered army west to Amelia Court House, where he expected to find much-needed provisions. From there, he intended to move south to join forces with Major General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of North Carolina. As the Confederates moved west, Sheridan's cavalry began hounding them almost immediately. Three minor engagements took place during the next three days at Sutherland's Station, Namozine Church, and Amelia Springs.

On April 6, Lee was marching the Army of Northern Virginia west towards Farmville, where supplies awaited. Lee's 1st and 3rd Corps, commanded by Major General James Longstreet, led the march. Major General Richard Anderson, commanding the army's 4th Corps, followed Longstreet. Two more divisions, led by Major General Custis Lee and Major General Joseph B. Kershaw, under the command of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, trailed Anderson. The Confederate 2nd Corps, consisting of three cavalry divisions commanded by Major General John B. Gordon, served as Lee's rearguard.

As Lee moved his army west, he attempted to slow the Federal pursuit by destroying bridges behind him. A key bridge along his path was High Bridge, a railroad bridge that spanned the Appomattox River about six miles east of Farmville. Constructed in 1854, the bridge was an engineering marvel, 2,400 feet long and reaching a height of 125 feet above the river. Adjacent to the railroad bridge and closer to the valley floor stood a smaller bridge built for wagon traffic.

After the decisive Union victory at Sailor's Creek on April 6, Lee decided to move the remnants of his army north of the Appomattox River at High Bridge to Farmville, where he expected to be provisioned via the South Side Railroad. Longstreet dispatched 1,200 cavalrymen, commanded by Major General Thomas L. Rosser, to secure the bridges until the Rebel army had passed.

Meanwhile, the importance of the two bridges was not lost on the Union high command. Major General Edward Ord sent a detachment of approximately 900 men, commanded by Brigadier General Theodore Read, from the Army of the James to destroy the bridges before the Rebels could cross the river. Read's men reached the bridges first, but before they could begin the destruction, Longstreet's cavalry arrived. After a heated fight that dissolved to hand-to-hand combat, the Confederates prevailed. Longstreet's men killed or captured most of Read's command and saved the bridges.

Throughout the night of April 6 and 7, Lee's army safely crossed the Appomattox River at High Bridge. Once across, the Confederates turned their attention to destroying the bridges and to delaying Grant's pursuit. Destruction of the bridges would buy Lee some much needed time to reorganize and to provision his starving army at Farmville.

On the morning of April 7, Confederate Major General William Mahone's division was attempting to fire the two bridges when the Union 2nd Corps, commanded by Major General Andrew Humphreys, arrived to prevent the destruction. The Rebels were able to destroy three spans of the railroad bridge, but the Yankees were able to capture and preserve the wagon bridge.

The two battles at High Bridge were not costly in terms of human casualties. The Union lost 847 men, most of whom were captives. The Confederacy lost fewer than 100 men. The consequences of the battle were much higher than the casualty totals however. The Confederate failure to destroy the wagon bridge enabled the Union army to cross the Appomattox River and to maintain its pursuit of Lee’s army. The Army of Northern Virginia reached Farmville, but before most of the soldiers could be provisioned, the supply trains had to be withdrawn in the face of the oncoming Federal army.

Among the Ohio units that participated in the Battle of High Bridge was:

Infantry units:

123rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

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