Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
On June 22, Grant and Major General George G. Meade (commanding the Army of the Potomac) dispatched the cavalry divisions of Brigadier General James Wilson and Brigadier General August Kautz on a raid against Confederate railroads south of Petersburg. With a combined force of over 5,000 troopers and sixteen pieces of artillery under Wilson’s overall command, the Yankees destroyed two trains, several stations, and roughly sixty miles of track along the South Side Railroad while also engaging in several skirmishes with Major General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry.
The Staunton River Bridge
Among Wilson’s targets was the Staunton River Bridge—a long wooden structure that spanned the Staunton River near Roanoke Station (present-day Randolph, Virginia), roughly 100 miles west of Petersburg. A Confederate battalion of 296 well-entrenched reserves, commanded by Captain Benjamin Farinholt, defended the bridge that carried the Richmond and Danville Railroad across the river.
Lee Urges Farinholt to “Make Every Possible Preparation Immediately”
On June 23, Robert E. Lee informed Farinholt that Kautz intended to destroy the bridge. Lee urged Farinholt to “make every possible preparation immediately.” After Farinholt issued a written request for aid from the local citizenry, 642 reinforcements arrived, only 150 of them were members of the Confederate army. Many were old men and boys.
June 25, 1864 — Clash at Staunton River Bridge
Farinholt Fools the Enemy
By the time the 5,000 federal cavalrymen approached the bridge on June 25, Farinholt had mustered a force of 938 men and sixteen pieces of artillery to defend the structure. However, he had cleverly run empty trains back and forth from nearby Clover Depot, fooling the Union commanders into believing that the Rebel force was larger than it really was. Farinholt had also used the previous two days to construct well-placed fortifications around the bridge.
Rebels Withstand Four Yankee Assaults
When the Yankees approached the bridge on the afternoon of June 25, Farinholt began an artillery barrage. Kautz responded with his own artillery fire, while his troopers dismounted and began advancing along both sides of the tracks. The Bluecoats halted upon reaching a drainage ditch approximately 150 yards from the bridge. From there, they mounted four frontal assaults during the afternoon and evening, all of which the outnumbered but well-fortified Rebel defenders repulsed.
During the fourth charge, elements of Rooney Lee’s cavalry began arriving at the Union rear. Wilson determined that the Confederate position was “impregnable” and withdrew during the night, returning to Petersburg leaving the bridge intact.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Staunton River Bridge was a Confederate victory because Kautz failed to destroy the bridge. The Confederacy suffered thirty-four casualties (ten killed and twenty-four wounded). The Union lost 116 soldiers (forty-two killed, forty-four wounded, and thirty missing/captured) during the engagement.