After the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, Gen. Grant pursued to cut off Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, before they could link up with Gen, Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee.
While Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan with his Cavalry Corps pursued Lee's Army towards Amelia. Gen. Grant marched along with Gen. Edward Otho Cresap Ord of the Army of the James, 24th Corps in order to seize the South Side Rail Road junction at Burkeville Depot.
Gen. Edward Otho Cresap Ord
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They halted near Nottoway Court House the afternoon of April 5th, here Gen. Grant gave orders directing Gen. Ord to move ahead and hold the railroad junction at Burkeville. Gen. Grant also gave orders for Gen , Ord, to send a detachment to destroy the South Side Rail Road bridge crossing known as High Bridge near Farmville.
It was a desperate attempt to cut off Gen. Robert E. Lee's army of Northern Virginia. To be lead by Col. Francis Washburn & 80 men of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, along with Infantry support of approximately 700 men from the Independent Division of the 24th Corps, being the 123rd Ohio Regt. and 54th Pennsylvania Regt.. At 4:am April 6, 1865 the detachment left the lines of the Army of the James near Burkeville to seize and destroy the High Bridge.
Col. Washburn suggested an attack from the rear nearest the bridge might secure a position to take the closest fortification. This plan agreed upon they headed towards Farmville to find a way.
Gen. Robert E. Lee unaware of the union detachment marched with Mahones Division Longstreets Corps from Sailors Creek there were no reports of the burning detachment until arriving at Rice.
Gen Robert E. Lee
Confederate Corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, with his divisions, was the first Confederate command of the retreating column to reach Rice Depot. Gen. Longstreet formed a defensive line along the ridge crossing the Rice road near Pisgah Baptist Church. As Gen. Ord and the 24th Corps, Army of the James was also then approaching from Burkeville,
Longstreet's command, had just missed confronting the Union detachment which had not long passed ahead of them through Rice and succeeded in getting out of sight of Longstreet's column.
When Gen. Longstreet, ascertained the news of the Union Bridge Burners heading for High Bridge he sent for all the available cavalry to rally and pursue the enemy. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser soon arrived with his division, followed closely by Col. Thomas T. Munford with Fitz Lee's Division, went after them with Longstreet's orders to stop the Bridge Burners if it took the last man to do it.
Gen. Thomas L. Rosser
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Gen. Rosser's command was leading the van of the Confederate pursuit, as they approached the heights of James Watsons plantation of Chatham. The Laurel Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Gen. James Dearing, and the Valley Brigade under Gen. John McCausland, dismounted and began skirmishing with the Infantry regiments of the 123rd Ohio and 54th Pennsylvania.
Gen. James Dearing
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Col. Munford arrived shortly after with Col. Reuben Boston leading Paynes brigade, they went forward dismounting in the road. Col. Munford with the Old Brigade went left into line. Col. Boston was shot in the head, leading his men into the battle.
Col. Thomas T. Munford
Image Courtesy of
Virginia Military Institute Archives
Gen. Read and the infantry were positioned along a fence, when Col. Washburn arrived. They met briefly determined to break through the Confederate line. Col. Washburn formed his command in column of march and passing the right flank charged headlong into the lines of Lees cavaliers. Wielding their Spencer carbines, sabers and pistols they fought desperately to break the Confederate line. Eighty men rode into the battle lines facing of over 2,000 Confederate troopers.
Nearly simultaneously Gen. James Dearing lead the Laurel Brigade, in a charge into the Union Lines. In the confusion of battle Gen. Dearing is believed to have confronted Gen. Read,firing their pistols at each other, witnesses state that Gen. Dearing shot Gen. Read from his horse. Shortly thereafter Gen. Dearing himself fell being mortally wounded shot through the lungs.
Maj. James Thompson of the Stuart Horse Artillery,Seeing Gen. Dearing's fall, took Gen. Rosser's saber and charged into the fray. He was last seen alive fighting into the smoke of battle among the union lines. His body was later found with his horse grazing by his side where he fell, by his close friend Captain Henry Carter Lee, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee's brother.
The Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry fought to the bitter end, Col. Washburn rallied his men for a second charge. In which he was mortally wounded, shot through the mouth. The Confederate cavalry had broken the Union ranks into disarray, as the battle dwindled to individual fights nearing an end the Union soldiers surrendered. The third and last charge by the Fourth Mass Cavalry was led by Captain William T. Hodges.
Captain William T. Hodges met his fate in duello with Maj. James Breathed of the Stuart Horse Artillery. The two men charged into each other as they collided, Capt Hodges struck so hard with his saber that he knocked Maj. Breathed from his horse, before Capt. Hodges could strike him again he was shot in the chest. He fell from his horse and landed on top of Maj. Breathed. Maj. Breathed rolled him off got back on his horse and rode back in to the fray. The majority of Union soldiers remaining alive surrendered. The Confederates confiscated the spoils of victory from their prisoners, any food or valuables they needed or could use. Adding insult to injury, they were marched through the river and back to Rice where they could see their comrades in the distance.
The Union prisoners were marched with the Army of Northern Virginia over the next three days some managed their escape to Union lines. Most however were detained until they were properly exchanged and paroled in the surrender proceeding's at Appomattox.
Most of the Confederate Cavalry however would not surrender at that time. They succeeded in breaking through the Union lines to Lynchburg and points beyond. Holding out until the futility of resistance compelled them to seek their surrender paroles from the Federal authorities. Many never accepted surrender, their patriotism remains an integral part of Southern culture to this day.
Bradshaw, Herbert C. “History of Prince Edward County, Virginia”; Richmond: The Dietz Press, Inc., 1955.
Bridges, David P. “Fighting with Jeb Stuart, Major James Breathed and the Confederate Horse Artillery”; Breathed, Bridges & Best. 2006; Pages 279-313
Calkins, Chris “Thirty-Six Hours Before Appomattox”; Chapter III, Pages 33 – 41, Farmville Herald 1980.
Calkins, Chris “The Appomattox Campaign”; Chapter V, Pages: 97-105
Crowninshield, Maj. Benjamin W., First Massachusetts Cav. ;“A History Of The First Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers”; Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1891, Pages: 270-282
Eanes, Greg “The Battles of Sailor’s Creek”; Chapter Four, Pages: 26-39
Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant;, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885–86. Page 59
Lucas, Michael C. "The Battle of High Bridge", High Bridge Battlefield Museum Archives 1998, 2001, 2005, 2011