Prelude to the Battle of High Bridge
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
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 and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three federal armies south from Chattanooga to capture Atlanta, 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.
Stalemate at Petersburg
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 to no avail. Despite being well-entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as their supplies dwindled.
Union prospects, on the other hand, improved over the winter. Major General Philip Sheridan completed his task of sweeping the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley, and his well-rested troops rejoined Grant in the spring. Determined to break the stalemate at Petersburg, Grant ordered Sheridan to turn Lee’s right flank with the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps along with the 2nd and 5th Infantry Corps, and force Lee out of Petersburg.
Battle of Fort Stedman — Failed Rebel Breakout
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 succeeded initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines, ending the Battle of Fort Stedman.
Many historians consider March 29, 1865, as the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign. On that date, Grant opened his spring offensive against Lee’s army by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry (freshly returned from the Shenandoah Valley) and Major General G. K. Warren’s 5th Corps to attempted to turn Lee’s right flank at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm. Two days later the action resumed at the Battle of White Oak Road and Battle of Dinwiddie Court House as Lee shored up his right-wing to halt the federal Flanking maneuver. On April 1 Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett’s forces at the Battle of Five Forks.
A String of Federal Victories
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. Losing that strategic crossroads further threatened Lee’s already limited supply lines.
Confederates Evacuate Richmond and Petersburg
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 Third Battle of Petersburg and forced the Rebels to withdraw to the city’s inner defenses. By 10 a.m., Lee realized he could no longer hold the Yankees back. He advised President Jefferson Davis to prepare to leave the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee spent the afternoon preparing his withdrawal from Petersburg.
April 6–7 — High Bridge
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. Next 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 moved the remnants of his army north of the Appomattox River at High Bridge to Farmville, where he expected to receive provisions via the South Side Railroad. James Longstreet dispatched 1,200 cavalrymen, commanded by Major General Thomas L. Rosser, to secure the bridges until the Rebel army had passed.
Rebels Thwart Union Plans to Destroy Strategic Bridges
Meanwhile, the Union high command the importance of the two bridges. 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 began the destruction, Longstreet’s cavalry arrived. After a heated fight featuring hand-to-hand combat, the Confederates prevailed. Longstreet’s men killed or captured most of Read’s command and saved the bridges.
Lee’s Army Escapes Across High Bridge
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 to delay Grant’s pursuit. Destruction of the bridges would buy Lee some much-needed time to reorganize and to provision his starving army at Farmville.
Federals Thwart Confederate Plans to Destroy Strategic Bridges
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 destroyed three spans of the railroad bridge, but the Yankees captured the wagon bridge.
Significance of the Battle of High Bridge
Casualties during the two battles at High Bridge were minimal. 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. 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 the oncoming Yankees forced Lee to move the supply trains before he could re-provision his beleaguered army.