After leaving Amelia Court House, Gen. Robert E. Lee headed his columns west in the hopes of putting some distance between himself and the pursuing Union armies under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee knew that his worn out and hungry men would stand little chance being caught in the open by Grant’s thousands. Lee would have to outpace the enemy if he wished to resupply his men and then potentially slip south into North Carolina to join up with Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. A critical element to Lee’s maneuver was to secure the crossing of the Appomattox River. One stood at Farmville while the other was several miles away and served as the trestle for the Southside Railroad, the gargantuan High Bridge. Constructed in 1852 and spanning some 2,400 feet in length, this engineering behemoth would become the site of two major skirmishes on April 6 and April 7, 1865.
Before dawn on April 6, Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord, the commander of the Army of the James directed his Chief of Staff, Bvt. Brig. Gen. Theodore Read on a reconnaissance in force toward High Bridge. His orders were to destroy the crossing, if possible, in an effort to keep the Confederates on the same side of the Appomattox as the Federals. Read took along the 54th Pennsylvania and the 123rd Ohio. His infantry was supported by three companies from the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry.
Upon his approach late in the morning, Read dispatched the Bay State troopers ahead to scout the bridge. Shortly after their departure, elements from Maj. Gens. Fitzhugh Lee’s and Thomas Rosser’s divisions struck Read’s infantry. After engaging the 3rd Virginia Reserves in redoubts around High Bridge, the Fourth returned to find their infantry comrades in a swirling melee. The ensuing fight cost the lives of Read and Brig. Gen. James Dearing, the last Confederate general to die in action. Also lost at some point in the action was Captain John Goddard of the 4th Massachusetts. The Bostonian had been on leave to see his mother when word arrived of the fall of Richmond and Petersburg. Goddard returned to his regiment in time to join the pursuit of the Confederate army. He received a fatal sabre wound during the engagement. Afterwards, his own sabre and silk sash were returned to his mother. The gray troopers quickly overwhelmed the Federal regiments, pushing them toward High Bridge, where the remnants were forced to surrender.
For the time being, High Bridge was safe. Events transpiring to the east, however, would once again put it in danger. Later that day along the banks of Sailor Creek, after a sharp contest, the VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Shenandoah smashed two corps of Lee’s army, forcing 7,700 Confederates to surrender. Despite the loss, Lee continued onward. He planned to resupply the remainder of his army at Farmville and destroy the Appomattox River crossings.
Early on the morning of April 7, as the Confederates were marching into Farmville, elements from Maj. Gen. Francis Barlow’s II Corps division approached High Bridge. Somehow, the orders to burn the bridge were slow in reaching the lower levels of the Confederate command structure. Rather than immediately engaging gray infantry sent back as a rearguard by Maj. Gen. William Mahone, Barlow’s men fought to extinguish the flames. Fortunately, the Federals were able save High Bridge and the fighting was soon joined with Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth’s brigade engaging the Rebel infantry. Reinforced by another division, the blue infantry eventually pushed back their counterparts and secured the crossing. During the ensuing pursuit, Smyth, a veteran of many of the Army of the Potomac’s battles, was killed while supervising his skirmishers.
The failure to destroy High Bridge seriously interrupted Lee’s plans. Although Barlow halted on the outskirts of Farmville, the Federal threat was too great to be ignored. With a river crossing in the hands of the enemy and without a defensible position, Lee was forced to abandon the town. The second fight at High Bridge continued to force Lee west. Grant’s armies were closing in and the options left for Robert E. Lee were dwindling quickly.