High Bridge Trail State Park
“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.”
— C.O. Sanford, Southside Railroad Chief Engineer, 1852
From 1849 to 1854, the Southside Railroad constructed rail lines between Petersburg and Lynchburg, Virginia, directly connecting Piedmont farmlands to inland ports along the James River. In 1852, company investors from Farmville subsidized the construction of High Bridge—a monumental railroad trestle that traversed the Appomattox River Valley a few miles outside of town. Standing 125 feet tall and spanning 2,440 feet across, High Bridge was a feat of engineering excellence; however, its strategic setting would become a major point of contention between Union and Confederate troops during the waning hours of the Civil War.
The Battle of Sailor's Creek: April 6, 1865
On April 2, 1865, following the Union victory at Five Forks, Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew his troops from the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg and retreated west towards Amelia Court House. There, the rebel commander hoped to maneuver south into North Carolina—where he intended to unite the Army of Northern Virginia with General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee—and obtain some much-needed supplies for his beleaguered men. However, when the Confederates consolidated at Amelia Court House on April 4, the expected provisions failed to arrive. With no additional sustenance, Lee halted his march and dispatched foraging parties into nearby communities—a regrettable decision Lee would later describe as the “fatal error” that doomed his army.
The delay at Amelia Court House provided ample opportunity for the pursuing Federals to converge upon the stagnant rebel forces. In the late evening hours of April 4, Union cavalry under General Philip Sheridan and elements of Charles Griffin’s V Corps swiftly captured the Richmond-Danville Railroad at Jetersville Station seven miles south of Amelia Court House, thereby obstructing Lee’s only direct route to North Carolina. Confederate command was not made aware of the Union blockade until early the following afternoon. Lee briefly considered attacking Jetersville, but was ultimately dissuaded by waning daylight and the arrival of Union reinforcements from General Horatio Wright’s VI Corps. Unable to march south, the Confederate commander had no choice but to continue west towards Farmville, where he was informed 80,000 rations awaited his men.
On the evening of April 5, Lee organized the entire Army of Northern Virginia along Deatonville-Rice’s Station Road in preparation for an overnight march to Farmville. General James Longstreet’s First and Third Corps led the Confederate cavalcade, followed by the infantry divisions of George Pickett and Bushrod Johnson under Lieutenant General Richard Anderson, Richard Ewell’s Reserve Corps, and John B. Gordon’s Second Corps acting as rear guard. Supply wagons were dispersed between each column. What was intended to be an expeditious and coordinated withdrawal turned out to be a sluggish and cumbersome operation. The Deatonville-Rice’s Station Road—a poorly maintained, one-lane highway—became incredibly congested by the army’s wagons and increased foot traffic, hampering the westwardly progress of Lee’s men who were already exhausted from days of constant marching and malnutrition. As dawn broke on April 6, the last of Gordon’s men withdrew from Amelia Court House; their movements witnessed by Union scouts. This information was relayed to II Corps commander General Andrew A. Humphreys, who mobilized his troops for immediate pursuit.
Around 1 p.m., Anderson’s divisions were confronted by mounted cavalry under General George Crook at Holt’s Corner, an intersection one mile north of the Little Sailor’s Creek crossing. The Federal horsemen harassed the Confederate supply wagons, forcing Anderson to form battlelines and fend off the skirmishers. Longstreet’s Corps, who had already crossed Little Sailor’s Creek at this point, were unaware of the events unfolding behind them and continued their march to Rice’s Station, creating a sizeable gap between the two columns.
The action at Holt’s Corner stopped Ewell’s corps from advancing. Faced with the inevitability of future attacks, Ewell ordered his men to entrench on the bluffs across Little Sailor’s Creek and sent his wagon trains north along Jamestown Road to avoid the fighting. Gordon—hard pressed by Humphreys’ II Corps and unaware of Ewell’s maneuvers—blindly followed the wagons north, exposing Ewell’s column to the combined Union force of Sheridan’s cavalry and Wright’s VI Corps rapidly approaching from the southeast.
Anderson’s men managed to fend off Crook’s cavalry and cross Sailor’s Creek. Upon arriving at Marshall’s Crossroad, the Confederates encountered another contingent of Union cavalry under General George Custer blocking the intersection. Custer’s men attacked Anderson’s supply wagons, causing great damage to the convoy, but were eventually repulsed by members of Pickett’s division. Confederate infantrymen hastily constructed crude roadside defenses as engineers frantically worked to repair the broken-down wagons. Custer attempted several more attacks that afternoon, but his forces repeatedly faltered against the stubborn rebel line.
At 5 p.m., the cavalry divisions of Custer, Crook, and Thomas C. Devin organized under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt and mobilized in unison towards Marshall’s Crossroads. Anderson’s Confederates delivered a punishing barrage of musket fire into the approaching blue column, but failed to break their advance. As the last wisps of smoke spewed from the rebel rifles, the Union cavalry assailed the enemy breastworks with a magnificent charge. Thousands of Federal horsemen poured over the parapets with overwhelming rapidity while the Southerners struggled to maintain rank. The rebel line quickly collapsed and the battle devolved into a chaotic rout of the Confederate army. Anderson ordered a full-scale retreat towards Lee’s position at Rice’s Station, but it did little to salvage his command. Of Anderson’s 4,500 men, 2,600 were killed, captured, or wounded. Fifteen artillery pieces and over three hundred wagons were also seized during the retreat.
While Ewell’s Corps fortified the hillsides above Sailor’s Creek, Wright’s VI Corps and Sheridan’s cavalry formed battle lines a half-mile away at Hillsman’s Farm. Sheridan positioned five of Wright’s batteries (twenty pieces of artillery) in front of the family farmhouse and proceeded to shell the entrenched rebel army. Ewell had no response to Sheridan’s cannonade as his ordnance were mistakenly sent north with Gordon’s wagon train. Without any artillery support, the Confederates anxiously cowered behind their defenses as Union bombs rained down for nearly thirty uninterrupted minutes.
When the Union artillery ceased fire at 6 p.m., Wright deployed two infantry divisions—those of Brigadier Generals Truman Seymour and Frank Wheaton—across Sailor’s Creek to attack the battered rebel positions. However, due to recent rains, the creek had swelled beyond its banks, complicating Wright’s battle plan. Union infantrymen trudged through chest-deep water and were subjected to deadly rifle fire from the ridgeline above. Eventually, the VI Corps reformed their lines on the west bank of Sailor’s Creek and continued their uphill advance against the Confederate army.
Ewell extended his lines as the Union infantry struggled across Sailor’s Creek. He motioned George Washington Custis (G.W.C.) Lee’s troops to his left flank while Joseph Kershaw’s Brigade protected his right, leaving Commodore John R. Tucker’s Confederate Navy at the center. Wheaton’s Brigade was he first to approach the entrenched rebels. While marching uphill, Union soldiers waved white handkerchiefs as a mocking invitation for Ewell’s men to surrender. The Southerners took exception to this gesture and responded with a close-range volley that decimated the Union center.
As Wheaton’s infantry fell back to the creek, Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield led an impetuous counterattack with portions of G.W.C. Lee’s command. The Confederates charged down the slopes in an undisciplined melee, only to be met with withering cannon fire from Major Andrew Cowan’s Union Artillery Brigade. Wheaton reorganized his troops and pushed forward once more, inflicting numerous casualties as the rebels withdrew to their initial positions. Crutchfield, himself, was killed during the assault.
Ferocious hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Union army surged into the enemy defenses. The entire Confederate line was overrun within a matter of minutes. The rebels attempted to retreat west towards Farmville, but were cut off by Custer’s cavalry, who had just arrived from Marshall’s Crossroad. Surrounded on all sides, Ewell had little choice but to surrender his entire force.
Two miles north of Hillsman’s Farm, Gordon’s command maneuvered along Jamestown Road with Humphrey’s II Corps in close pursuit. The main Confederate wagon train attempted to cross Sailor’s Creek at an area called Double Bridges, but became immobilized when the wooden crossings collapsed. Gordon, realizing the vulnerability of his situation, ordered his men to form battle lines on the hills around Lockett’s Farm and defend the wagons at all costs.
Gordon’s men put up a brief resistance but were soon overwhelmed by the superior Union force. The Confederates were driven down the ravine towards Sailor’s Creek where they barricaded themselves behind the stalled wagons they were supposed to protect. The II Corps continued to press the exhausted rebel troops and managed to outflank their scant defenses at Double Bridges. Gordon’s command crumbled as his men either surrendered or fled up the west banks of Sailor’s Creek. The Confederates lost 1,700 men and two hundred wagons as darkness brought an end to the fighting that day.
In all three conflicts, the Confederate army lost over 8,500 soldiers—at least eight hundred killed and 7,700 captured, wounded, or missing—which represented over one-quarter of Lee’s fighting force. Federal casualties totaled roughly 1,180 men. The Lockett and Hillsman farmhouses were commandeered as field hospitals following the battle and saw nearly one thousand wounded pass through their doors. As the shattered remnants of Lee’s once mighty Army of Northern Virginia trickled into Rice’s Station that evening, the dejected Confederate commander exclaimed, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?”
The Battle of High Bridge: April 6, 1865
In the early morning hours of April 6, prior to the action at Sailor’s Creek, General E.O.C. Ord—commander of the Union Army of the James—dispatched raiding parties along the Appomattox River with orders to “destroy all necessary river crossings,” which would have prevented a large portion of Lee’s army from reaching Farmville. At 4 a.m., Colonel Theodore Read, Ord’s chief of staff, personally mobilized eight hundred infantrymen under Lieutenant Horace Kellogg and three cavalry companies commanded by Colonel Francis Washburn towards High Bridge—the famed Southside Railroad trestle—intent on burning it to the ground. Vigilant Confederate pickets reported the Union movements to General Longstreet, who sent 1,200 cavalrymen under Generals Thomas Rosser and Fitzhugh Lee to stop them.
As Read’s raiding party approached High Bridge, Kellogg’s infantry took up positions in the woods while Washburn’s cavalry confronted a small contingent of Confederate defenders (the 3rd Virginia Reserves) who occupied several redoubts around the viaduct. After several shots fired, the Reserves retreated from their positions. Washburn’s men were preparing the combustibles when suddenly a commotion arose from their rear—Rosser’s cavalry had arrived and engaged the Union infantry a half-mile south of the bridge. Washburn charged directly into Rosser’s front—not realizing the strength of the Confederate force—and became entangled in vicious hand-to-hand combat.
The Federals were driven back to High Bridge and surrendered their entire command after fifteen minutes of fighting. Colonel Read was killed during the assault and Washburn mortally wounded. The rebels managed to save the bridge while sustaining less than one hundred casualties. Of their losses, however, was Brigadier General James Dearing, who sustained fatal injuries and became the last Confederate general killed during the Civil War.
The Battle of High Bridge: April 7, 1865
“[We] slowly drove the enemy's skirmishers across the plain, every man in both lines being in plain sight of us, so that we saw each shot and each man drop and every movement, a grander display than it is possible to produce in any amphitheater of these days.”
— Colonel Thomas L. Livermore, 18th New Hampshire Volunteers
Following the disaster at Sailor’s Creek, Lee ordered his remaining forces to continue their retreat towards Farmville. Longstreet mobilized his men along Rice’s Station Road while Gordon’s battered corps, reinforced by Major General William Mahone’s division, crossed the Appomattox River at High Bridge—salvaged from Union destruction the previous morning. But now, the tables had turned. Lee wanted to use the river as a barrier to delay the Union’s pursuit of his army. The First Regiment of Engineers, commanded by Colonel T.M.R. Talcott, were issued orders to destroy High Bridge and its secondary wagon trestle once Gordon and Mahone’s men reached the river’s west bank.
At 7 a.m. on April 7, Talcott’s men ignited the wooden spans of High Bridge. The railroad trestle easily took to flame; however, the lower wagon bridge—waterlogged from recent river flooding—was slower to ignite. As the Southern saboteurs struggled to destroy the secondary trestle, they were confronted by Union skirmishers from Humpherys’ II Corps. Talcott organized a fierce defense, but was eventually driven back following the arrival of Union artillery.
When the main body of the Union II Corps arrived on scene, the fourth span of High Bridge was already ablaze. Brigadier General Francis Barlow—commander of Humphreys’ Second Division—ordered Colonel Livermore’s engineer regiment to charge the bridge and prevent further damage. While Livermore’s men struggled to extinguish the flames, Barlow led Colonel I.W. Starbird’s First Brigade across the lower wagon trestle against pestering enemy fire from the ridge above. Though Starbird fell severely wounded in the assault, Barlow’s men managed to seize the northern bridgehead, allowing the II Corps safe passage across the Appomattox River.
Barlow continued his pursuit of Mahone and Gordon once Humphreys’ entire II Corps had crossed the river. He encountered the rebel rear guard on the outskirts of Farmville and struck their lines. At the front of Barlow’s attack was General Thomas Alfred Smyth, a four-year veteran of the war. While assessing the field, Smyth was struck in the face by a Confederate sharpshooter’s bullet, which paralyzed him instantly. He was taken to a nearby hospital in Nottoway County where he died two days later, making him the last Union general killed during the Civil War.
The failure to destroy High Bridge facilitated increased Federal pressure on the Confederates at Farmville. Before Lee could adequately reprovision his army, he moved his supply trains 25 miles west to Appomattox Station as Union forces rapidly accumulated outside the town. Lee fled Farmville in desperation, holding onto Appomattox as the Confederacy’s last hope for escape, but the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia was all but sealed.
The High Bridge Trail
High Bridge reopened to railway traffic in September 1865 and remained operable for nearly fifty years thereafter. In 1914, the Norfolk and Western (N&W) Railway completely reconstructed High Bridge with steel stands adjacent to its original brick columns. In 2005, the trestle’s railway corridor was abandoned by Norfolk Southern due to impractical operating costs. Thirty-one miles of track, including High Bridge, were subsequently donated to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, who converted the defunct railbed into today’s historic recreational trail. After nearly $11 million of restoration work, High Bridge Trail State Park opened at full length to the public on April 6, 2012—the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Sailor’s Creek.
My High Bridge expedition began at the trail’s western terminus near Pamplin (Mile 20.5 W). Within the first sixteen miles, the trail passes through the unincorporated towns of Elam, Prospect, and Tuggle—bygone communities of the Southside Railroad’s heyday. Much of this section of park is rather rural with very few landmarks to see; however, its barrenness harkens back to the appearance of Virginia’s countryside during the railroad’s inaugural years.
I entered the Farmville city limits after crossing the 3rd Street trestle. Near Mile 4.5 W stands Farmville’s Historic Train Station, which accommodated passenger rail service from 1903 until the late 1970s. It functions today as a private event hall. The trail intersects Main Street a quarter-mile away from the station. Here, visitors can explore the vibrant storefronts of downtown Farmville before continuing along to the park’s main attraction a mere four miles away.
High Bridge seems almost endless upon approach—its spans vanishing into the horizon. The trestle towers high above the Appomattox River, providing spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding valley. On the righthand side, observant onlookers can view the bridge’s original brick-and-mortar supports piercing through the wooded canopy below. At nearly a half-mile in length, High Bridge takes about three minutes bike across, making for one exhilarating ride.
On the opposite end of the bridge stands a remarkably well-preserved Confederate redoubt called Camp Paradise. This garrison, along with three other earthen forts, were constructed in June 1864 to protect High Bridge from Yankee attack. The Donaldsonville Artillery—a French-speaking unit from Louisiana—occupied this particular fortification. The fortresses were collectively named “Camp Paradise” due to the unusually pampered lifestyles these men enjoyed. Log cabins were transported from across the river, serving as soldiers’ barracks, while local families frequently provided the troops with homecooked meals. Interestingly enough, primary documents detail the presence of nearly fifty “black Confederates” living within the camp. However, most of these men were not engaged in military activities—though some blacks were used as replacements for enlisted soldiers on furlough. Rather, they were conscripted laborers with the Confederate Engineering Department responsible for maintenance work around the fortifications.
Across from the earthworks is the Camp Paradise Trail, which leads underneath High Bridge’s towering trestles—a truly monolithic sight to behold. At Mile 3.5 E, the High Bridge Trail intersects the town of Rice. While passing through, I took a detour onto Route 600 and followed it five miles to Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park. I stopped inside the Visitor Center and browsed around its museum chronicling Lee’s Retreat. Each Sailor’s Creek conflict is described in great detail, complimented by several harrowing personal accounts and numerous artifacts found across the battlefield. Following my Visitor Center experience, I biked back to High Bridge State Park in the interest of time; however, I returned later that afternoon to explore Sailor Creek’s eleven-mile driving tour, which passes by several key landmarks around the park, including Hillsman House and Lockett’s Farm.
The High Bridge Trail continues another seven miles east of Rice, ultimately terminating in anticlimactic fashion amidst the isolated backcountry of Southside Virginia. It took about five hours to bike the trail from end-to-end—including my diversion to Sailor’s Creek—and an additional three hours to return to Pamplin. In total, I traveled approximately 73 miles in eight hours.
High Bridge Trail State Park is a respectable example of rails-to-trails conservancy, notwithstanding its drawbacks. Essentially all of the park’s attractions are concentrated between Farmville and Rice, making this eight-mile stretch of trail extremely high-trafficked. Conversely, the peripheral areas of the park are desolate—their lengthy, lackluster landscapes effecting a monotonous and rather uninteresting journey. If I were to rate the High Bridge Trail solely on its Farmville-Rice section, this would easily score 9/10. However, when considering the state park’s entire 31-mile corridor, my official rating is fairly lower. Trail Rating: 6.5/10
More of Southside Virginia's history can be explored by reading the following publications:
Eanes, Greg. Sailor's Creek: The Black Day of the Army. United States: Eanes Group, LLC, 2015.
Flippen, Bob. High Bridge: The Story of Building the Norfolk and Western Viaduct Near Farmville, Virginia: the End of Our Fifteen Months' Labor. United States: Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park, 2014.
Smith, Derek. Lee's Last Stand: Sailor's Creek, Virginia, 1865. United States: White Mane Books, 2002.