On the afternoon of April 7, Lt. Gen. US Grant entered the town of Farmville. As one private put it “stores were shut up, houses closed, frightened women peeped through dilapidated doorways and sullen men lolled about the porches.” The Federals were on the heels of Gen. Robert E Lee’s Confederates and after the events the day before at Sailor’s Creek, it seemed too many in the army leadership that the end was near.
Earlier that morning the Confederates under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet entered Farmville from the south to receive much needed provisions. Trains were lined up along the Southside Railroad near the Appomattox River on the north end of town. Nearly 80,000 rations were stored in the boxcars. Lee took his time in Farmville to visit Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge and discuss the military situation and strategy. But soon after his meeting concluded, Federal cavalry showed up on the outskirts of town.
Lee decided to move Longstreet’s men to the north side of the river. Sadly, not all the men were allowed to get their fill of the provisions on the trains. The trains were moved westward along the railroad with hopes they could supply the army when it got to Appomattox Station. Lee hoped that by putting the Appomattox River between him and Grant, it would allow his army to catch its breath. Not everyone agreed with Lee’s strategy.
As E.P. Alexander stated after the war “Indeed no man who looked at our situation on a map, or who understood the geography of the country, could fail to see that General Grant had us completely in a trap…we were now in a sort of a jug shaped peninsula between the James River and Appomattox and there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Court House, and to that Grant had the shortest road!” Alexander believed Lee should march his army westward along the route of the Southside Railroad to Appomattox Station. Though Alexander did not provide a solution to the portion of Lee’s army that was north of the river near Cumberland Church.
A crucial part of Lee’s strategy involved burning all the bridges across the Appomattox River to keep Grant on the southern side. The bridges across the river at Farmville were successfully burned. Confederate engineers began burning the bridges before all the Confederates were across. As J. Caldwell wrote “when we reached the bridge, we discovered it to be on fire at the other end.” It soon became evident that the bridges at High Bridge were not destroyed.
High Bridge was a modern marvel in 1865. Built in the 1850’s by the Southside Railroad with money provided by Farmville, the bridge carried the railroad over a near one mile flood plain. The Appomattox River was a small creek at this point, but the railroad required a massive bridge to carry the tracks over the wide valley. An engineer wrote of High Bridge “there have been higher bridges not so long, and longer bridges not so high, but taking the length and height together, this is, perhaps the largest bridge in the world.”
Below the train bridge was also a small wagon bridge for local traffic. On April 6th Federal cavalry was successfully deterred from destroying both bridges. Now as the Confederates were crossing the same bridges on the evening of the 6th, they began to make plans for burning the bridges. Removing this crossing was crucial to Lee’s plans for putting distance between the Confederates and pursuing Federals.
Typical for Lee and his command in this campaign, miscommunication and organizational mishaps worked against the Confederates. Though the Confederate engineers were able to fire the railroad bridge, as soon as they started to set fire to the wagon bridge lead elements from the Federal Second Corps arrived. Soon the Confederates fell back and the wagon bridge was saved. Col. Issac Starbird of the 19th Maine wrote they saved the bridge “with water that was in their canteens, together with boxes, dippers and tents, left by the rebels in their retreat.” Federal engineers also climbed out on High Bridge itself and were able to save all but four spans of the railroad bridge.
As the Confederates under Mahone began to march towards Farmville and Cumberland Church, the Federal Second Corps under Maj. Gen. Alexander Humphreys were soon across the Appomattox. Instead of gaining time for his army, Lee would now have to fight off a new threat on the north bank of the river.
The Army of Northern Virginia was in another precarious situation. But one that Lee thought allowed his army to rest and gain some time and distance of the pursuing Federals. Soon bad news arrived off to the east of Cumberland Heights. Federals were approaching from the area of High Bridge. Obviously, Mahone did not destroy the important bridges.