Watching the Shot - a painting by Winslow Homer

Historical Clues: Description of the Battle

Watching the Shot

Description of the Battle

As Lee’s army got nearer to the south side of High Bridge on April 6th, 1200 Confederate troops were sent ahead to secure the two bridges. Anticipating the Confederate armies move, a Union Cavalry unit was sent to the High Bridge area to take control and burn the railroad bridge and wooden wagon bridge in an effort to prevent Lee’s army from crossing the river. The Union cavalry under Colonel Francis Washburn reached the bridge before the main Confederate force, chased away some rebel guards, and secured the south end of the bridge. As Washburn’s troop set about firing the bridges they heard fighting not far away and abandoned their fire setting to mount and charge toward the sound of battle. Within one-half mile they found the beginnings of a battle and hastily charged the front line of Confederates and successfully ended on the backside of the rebel line. Unfortunately for Washburn and his men they were unaware that another Confederate division of cavalry was just behind the line they had just broken through and were quickly sandwiched between the two enemy forces. All of Washburn’s men were captured, wounded, or like Washburn killed within minutes. The remaining cavalry forces at the bridges fought to keep the bridges for the Union. They were ultimately killed, captured or surrendered. The Confederate army now had access to the north side of the Appomattox River via the two bridges and a clear path to supplies in Farmville.

The rebel army crossed the river using both the wooden wagon bridge and the High Bridge. President Grant in his memoirs records the results of the first day’s battle for the wagon bridge. Lee himself pushed on and crossed the wagon road bridge near the High Bridge, and attempted to destroy it (5.4).  The Confederates left a rear guard behind at the bridges to do the same thing the Union had planned to do earlier that day; burn the bridges. This time it was to slow the pursuit of Grant’s army.

Early morning on April 7th, while the Confederate rear guard was attempting to fire the High Bridge and wooden wagon bridge, the Union army arrived on the scene. The division of Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow charged the rebel rear guard and burning structures and saved a large section of the railroad bridge, preventing major damage. The lower wooden wagon bridge was also saved sustaining only minor surface damage. General Barlow’s quick thinking and bravery allowed Union troops to cross over the Appomattox River to the north side and thereby continue close pursuit of their enemy (5.5).

The relentless Union pursuit of Lee's weary Confederates forced them to resume their retreat before re-provisioning themselves at Farmville. Not being able to stop for food, rest and munitions, General Lee had no alternative other than surrendering his tired and hungry CSA army to the Union and Lt. General Grant two days later at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9th, 1865. Barlow’s notable historic action of saving a small wooden wagon bridge had suddenly become a major factor in bringing a rapid end to the Civil War.

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