The dramatic battle for High Bridge only postponed the inevitable.
A few miles from where present-day U.S. 406 meets County Road 619 at Rice, Va., a bridge once carried the Southside Railroad over the Appomattox River. Built in 1852 and dubbed the High Bridge, it was an impressive structure of wood and iron perched on 21 brick piers, running some 2,400 feet in length and standing 126 feet high.A wooden bridge for wagons stretched below.
Locals understandably took great pride in High Bridge. One contemporary described it with forgivable hyperbole: “There have been higher bridges not so long, and longer bridges not so high, but taking the height and length together, this is, perhaps, the largest bridge in the world.” It was also the site of one of the last battles of the Civil War, and the scene of a remarkable mounted duel between two opposing generals.
Shortly before the end of hostilities, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant initiated the week-and-a-half-long offensive known as the Appomattox Campaign. Fought entirely in Virginia, its main purpose was to cut off Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and—through relentless pursuit—drive its exhausted, starving troops to surrender. For his part, Lee was determined to evade Grant’s forces, move southwest and hook up with General Joseph Johnston’s forces in North Carolina. Bridges naturally became a primary objective of both armies, with the Confederates fighting to hold and destroy them before the pursuing Federals could cross, and the Union forces seeking to seize them and prevent the Confederates from escaping.
Constant fighting ensued between March 29 and April 9, 1865, with the Rebels waging a desperate war of defense and evasion. At Sailor’s (or Sayler’s) Creek on April 6, after three separate engagements, nearly 8,000 men and eight generals—around one-fourth of Lee’s forces— laid down their arms. As he observed what was left of his retreating army, a stunned Lee remarked to Maj. Gen. William Mahone,“My God, has the army been dissolved?” A victorious Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan telegraphed Grant, “If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.” Grant passed the message along to President Lincoln, who responded, “Let the thing be pressed.” Lincoln’s exhortation to Grant was unnecessary; the determined commander was pursuing Lee with characteristic bulldog tenacity.
That same day, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, in company with Maj. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, led what was left of the army toward High Bridge with the intention of retreating to nearby Farmville, where much-needed food and supplies awaited. The bridge was one of only two structures spanning the river in this area, and both armies rushed to control it. A detachment of 900 Union troops was racing toward the bridge, with orders to destroy it; they were part of Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s Army of the James, under the command of Ord’s young one-armed chief of staff, Brevet Brig. Gen. Theodore Read. Most of Read’s troops were infantry, with the exception of three companies of cavalry from the 4th Massachusetts, some 80 horsemen under Colonel Francis Washburn.
Word of Read’s advance party reached Longstreet, who sent his Confederate cavalry, 1,200 strong under Generals Rooney Lee and Thomas L. Rosser, to intercept the advancing Yankees. Riding with Lee and Rosser was General James Dearing. Just weeks away from his 25th birthday, the handsome Virginian had ranked first in his class at West Point, but resigned when his state seceded. He had been appointed a brigadier general of volunteers the previous year, making him one of the South’s youngest general officers. Dearing had fought for the Confederacy from the beginning, serving as a lieutenant at First Manassas, and he was here as it was all coming unraveled.
Colonel Washburn and his horse soldiers got to the bridge first, secured its south end and prepared to burn it. The infantry, meanwhile, halted at a farmhouse half a mile away. Rooney Lee’s Rebel cavalry soon encountered Read’s infantry and immediately opened fire. Washburn, hearing the firing, ordered his cavalry back to the infantry’s defense. Read’s force was effectively cut off from Ord’s army. In order to break through the Rebel ranks, Read instructed Washburn to charge, unaware that the 4th Massachusetts troopers would be riding into a force of Rebel cavalry some 15 times their number. Washburn led his horsemen in a gallant but ultimately doomed saber charge—a hopeless attempt to break through the massed Rebels.
As the two forces clashed, Generals Read and Dearing caught each other’s eye, and the fight became personal. As their respective forces watched, they engaged in a dramatic close-range pistol duel on horseback. With only one arm, Read was at a fatal disadvantage; he was killed almost instantly, but not before shooting his adversary. Dearing fell from his horse, mortally wounded.
Taken to the City Hotel in Lynchburg, Dearing lived for two weeks after the surrender at Appomattox. His old West Point classmate, Union General Ranald S. MacKenzie, visited the young man as he lay dying and paroled him. Dearing thus achieved the dubious distinction of being the last Confederate general to die in the war (although his commission had not yet been formally approved), as well as the last American officer to be killed in a duel.
After stopping Washburn’s charge, the Rebels counterattacked. Most of Washburn’s men—including Washburn himself—fell, and the Federal infantry surrendered. With losses of only around 100 men, the Rebels had killed, wounded or captured most of the 900 men in Read’s advance party. For the moment at least, the Confederates’ path was open; they crossed High Bridge and marched toward Farmville.
Early on April 7, it was the Confederates’ turn, under General Mahone and a rear guard, to attempt to destroy High Bridge and its wagon bridge to prevent Union pursuit. They left the job unfinished, however; although they succeeded in burning four of the major structure’s spans and the wagon bridge, both bridges were saved by the timely arrival of Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys and the Union II Corps. The Federal forces crossed on the less damaged wagon bridge, and the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia resumed. So pressed were they by Grant’s forces that Lee and Longstreet had no time to resupply at Farmville; they pushed on, further depriving their already starving men of a desperately needed respite.
Lee’s next move was to try to reach Appomattox Station, more than 30 miles to the west, where three more trainloads of supplies waited. That night, after having met and repulsed Humphreys’ corps at Cumberland Church, Lee received a communication from Grant:
The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
Playing for time, Lee refused, but asked Grant for terms. Then on April 8, George Custer’s cavalry descended on Appomattox Station. After overpowering a small Rebel contingent, Custer captured the supply trains—along with the wagons and artillery—on which Lee depended. The situation was becoming increasingly grim for the Confederates. The next day, after a failed attempt to break through the Union lines, Lee saw the futility of further resistance and surrendered the tattered remnants of his army.
The small but decisive Rebel victory at High Bridge, while reflective of the army’s glory days, availed the South nothing. Although it allowed Lee’s army another three days to maneuver, it only slowed his retreat and delayed the inevitable. In the end, the battle at High Bridge proved a mere footnote to the Appomattox Campaign—and to the war.
Historian Ron Soodalter’s latest book is The Slave Next Door (University of California Press, 2009).
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.