APRIL 7, 1865
The Battles Of High Bridge and Cumberland Church
Editor’ note: In this authoritative historical work, so many names are mentioned that Pillar to Post has taken the liberty of outlining the names in red for the south and blue for the North. We understand true Civil War buffs don’t need this assistance, but for the rest of us it is valuble.
GUEST BLOG, PART TWO--By Chris Calkins, Civil War Trust via Militaryhistory.about.com--Farmville was a tobacco town of some 1,500 inhabitants in 1865, serving the Confederacy in numerous ways during its’ four years of existence. Nestled on the south bank of the Appomattox River, a wagon works was located here as was a Confederate General Hospital, boasting 1200 beds. Built principally for sick soldiers rather than battle casualties, with fighting now coming to the area for the first time in the war, it would soon be put to use by both sides.
BREAKING NEWS ON APPOMATTOX
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The South Side Railroad, in coming into Farmville from the east, followed a somewhat curious pathway. From Rice’s Station, about six miles away, the line crossed to the north bank of the river over High Bridge, then curved to the southwest, recrossing the Appomattox into the town. From that point west, it stayed south of the river to Lynchburg.
The main reason for this seemingly out of the way route is that Farmville itself is in low bottom with a steep high grade to the east. Locomotives leaving the town and heading in that direction needed a gradual rise to do so, and this was only provided by this circuitous route. Consequently, there were two railroad bridges over the generally unfordable Appomattox in the vicinity of Farmville along with two wagon bridges that adjoined them.
Lee figured that if he could get his men across then burn all four bridges behind them, the pursuing Federal forces would be stalled for some time while they waited for their pontoon bridges to arrive. In the meantime, he could use the respite to gain some distance between the armies. There was only one problem with this idea, and that was pointed out by one of his subordinates, General E.P. Alexander. Since the army was now heading west to Appomattox Station, by following the road north of the river, it was about 38 miles to that point. If they had stayed south and followed generally the rail line, it was only about 30. In other words, the shorter distance would be left open to the enemy.
As Sheridan’s cavalry (Crook’s Division) poured into Farmville from the eastern heights, the last of Lee’s troops crossed the covered wagon and railroads bridges, both of which were put to the torch.
Confederate artillery peppered the blue troopers in the town from Cumberland Heights on the north side of the river, while the infantry would march forward to the sound of gunfire up ahead. What could it be? The enemy couldn't have crossed the Appomattox at High Bridge to the northeast could they? Lee soon found his orders had not been completely carried out and his worst fears were now realized.
Although somewhat delayed, the High Bridge had been fired successfully with a section of it being destroyed, but the lower wagon bridge, fired too late, was quickly extinguished by Federal skirmishers allowing the following II Corps to cross. To take care of this unanticipated threat, General Mahone brought his forces to the high ground around Cumberland Church and began entrenching in a defensive position, covering the route of retreat Lee’s column would take.
Cumberland Church is located about five miles northwest of High Bridge and four north of Farmville. Describe as a “rural Virginia church, painted, but without a steeple and rudely finished,” the Confederates dug in with their breastworks laid out in somewhat of a fish-hook shaped line, facing toward the north and east. About 2 p. m., lead elements of Humphreys’ Corps arrived on the scene although with only two of the three divisions (First and Third). The Second Division, under General Francis Barlow, had followed Gordon’s column down the railroad toward Farmville before breaking off the moment just north of the river. In the skirmishing that took place along the way, General Thomas Smyth would be mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet and he would become the last Federal general officer killed in the Virginia fighting.
General Nelson Miles’ First Division initially came in contact with Mahone’s Division, which was supported by artillery from Colonel William T. Poague’s command. A quick rush on Poague’s position by Federal skirmishers allowed them to capture a few of these guns, although they were quickly retaken by Southern infantry support troops.
After realizing the large force in his front, Humphreys set about maneuvering his divisions into place with Miles facing to the south, and General Regis de Trobriand to the west. Seeing that the Confederate defensive position was protecting Lee’s wagon train and his route of withdrawal, it was determined that Miles would make an attack on Mahone’s left flank and attempt to turn it. Humphreys also felt that the VI Corps, which should now be in Farmville, would have crossed the river and be attacking Lee in his rear.
Hearing firing in that direction, Miles sent one brigade, Colonel George Scott’s, charging across a rolling terrain broken by numerous ravines, which managed to get around and in rear of Mahone’s flank. Mahone quickly brought up reinforcements, probably from General “Tige” Anderson’s Brigade, who cut them off and scattered the group. One Union regiment, the 5th New Hampshire, lost not only its colors but 57 men captured in the action. Nightfall brought an end to the fighting.
Back in Farmville, the town was alive with Federal troops, but few were across on the north side of the river. In fact, only one division of cavalry, General Crook’s, was actually able to ford the river and menace Lee’s troops that afternoon. Riding into the retreating Southern wagon train about 4 p. m., the leading brigade under General J. Irwin Gregg made an attack on it. Nearby Southern horsemen would counter, and send the blue troopers scurrying back to Farmville, minus their commander, General Gregg, who was captured. It was this fighting that Humphreys probably heard and thought was the VI Corps assaulting Lee’s rear. Until a pontoon bridge could be built at Farmville, the Federals had to cross either the wreckage of the burnt bridges or ford as best as possible. General Ord’s Army of the James lent their pontoon bridge to the VI Corps, while they themselves stayed south of the river in the town.
The situation then, on the night of April 7th, was this. Grant would have one corps, the II, on the north side of the river with Lee; the VI would soon be over.
In Farmville were Ord’s troops composed of the XXIV Corps and a division of the XXV Corps. Crook’s Division would return to Farmville then ride westward to Prospect Station on the railroad. The rest of the Sheridan’s cavalry was about seven miles to the southwest near Buffalo River. The V Corps, General Charles Griffin’s, were six miles south of Farmville at Prince Edward Court House.
By early the next morning, they and Sheridan would reach the South Side Railroad at Prospect Station, to be joined by Ord and Crook. This entire command would then follow the shorter route to Appomattox Station. Depending upon which point they camped at on the night of the 7th, the men would have to march between 30 and 38 miles to get in front of Lee’s army. The 8th of April was going to be the day that could finally put an end to the campaign.
With nightfall ending the fighting at Cumberland Church, Lee realized that once again he must ask his men to make a night march to elude the Federals. Under the cover of darkness, his two columns continued their march toward Curdsville, New Store, Appomattox Court House, then Appomattox Station. Before leaving the area, the commanding general would receive a note through the lines from General Grant, now in his Farmville headquarters. In it Grant brought up the possibility of surrender for the Confederate army. Looking it over, Lee handed it to General Longstreet, who read it and replied, “not yet.”
More bloodshed was yet to come.
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