THURSDAY, APRIL 6, 1865
The Union force racing to burn High Bridge consists of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry, the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 123rd Ohio Infantry. The cavalry comprise 79 soldiers on horseback, who can fight either in the saddle or as dismounted foot soldiers. The two infantry regiments comprise almost 800 fighters who can wage war only on foot.
If the entire Union force were cavalry, the fearless General Rosser and his men would never catch them. A fast-walking soldier, even one on a mission of the utmost military importance, is obviously no match for a cavalry horse.
Colonel Francis Washburn of the Fourth Massachusetts knows this, which is why he orders his cavalry to gallop ahead of the foot soldiers. His men will burn the bridge while the infantry covers the rear.
High Bridge is an engineering marvel, considered by some to be the finest bridge in the world. The architects of the Brooklyn Bridge will steal liberally from its design. And yet High Bridge is situated not in one of the world’s great cities but in a quiet, wooded corner of Virginia. Made of stone and felled trees, it stretches a half mile, from the bluff outside Farmville marking the southern shore of the Appomattox River floodplain to the Prince Edward Court House bluff at the opposite end. Twenty 125-foot-tall brick columns support the wooden superstructure. That two great armies, at the most pivotal point in their histories, have descended upon High Bridge at the same time is one of those random acts of fate that so often decide a war.
As Colonel Washburn and his men ride within three miles of High Bridge, they are joined by Union general Theodore Read, who has undertaken a daring mission to warn Washburn that the Confederates are hot on his trail, and that a small force of rebels who have been at High Bridge for months are dug in around the span. Read has full authority to cancel Washburn’s mission if he thinks it too risky.
Washburn and Read hold a council of war at a hilltop plantation known as Chatham, roughly halfway between Rice’s Station and High Bridge. They can see the bridge in the distance, and the two earthen forts defending it. There are just a few dozen Confederates dug in at the bridge, but they have a clear field of fire. A direct frontal assault would leave Washburn’s men badly battered.
Another concern is that the ground between the Chatham plateau and High Bridge is a swampy morass of small creeks, sand, and hills, taking away any advantage of speed—and adding the very real potential of getting caught in a kill zone. Nevertheless, General Read orders Washburn to proceed to the bridge. Read will stay behind, with the infantry, to cover the cavalry’s rear. This is a gamble, and both of these brave officers know it—a gamble with their own lives and those of their men.
It is also a gamble that could end the war by sundown.
Washburn leads his cavalry toward High Bridge. He has a reputation for recklessness and impatient courage and shares the commonly held Union belief that the rebels are too demoralized to fight back. He will burn the bridge at any cost.
Washburn’s cavalry ride for an hour, taking in the countryside as they prepare for battle. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, they are ambushed by rebel cavalry. It is a scene out of Lexington and Concord, as Confederate sharpshooters take aim. Again and again, and without warning, rebel cavalry charge. Washburn, fearing nothing, gives chase. But it’s a clever trap, the rebels drawing the bluecoats in as they link up with the other Confederate force defending the bridge. Suddenly, Confederate artillery rains down on Washburn and his men, putting an instant halt to the Union pursuit. These cannonballs are the slap in the face that Washburn needs, making him realize that the rebels are hardly too demoralized to fight back. He also knows this: Colonel Francis Washburn of the Fourth Massachusetts is right now the one man in America who can end the Civil War this very day. He will go down in history. All he has to do is burn High Bridge.
Washburn is within a quarter mile of the bridge, his force largely intact. But then comes the crackle of gunfire from behind him. Three years of combat experience tells Washburn that he is in deep trouble; Confederate cavalrymen have found his infantry. High Bridge must wait.
The Fourth Massachusetts has been in the saddle since four A.M. It is now almost noon. The men are exhausted, as are their horses. The soldiers gallop their weary animals back across the floodplain, over the Sandy River and on up to the Chatham plateau. Men and horses are breathless from the race and the midday heat, the riders’ blue uniforms and gloved hands bathed in sweat. Their stomachs rumble from lack of food, and their lips are chapped from thirst. They expect only a minor battle, because the main Confederate force is still miles away. But that expectation turns out to be brutally wrong.
Some 1,200 Confederate horsemen wait to attack Washburn’s cavalry and infantry, which together number just slightly more than 800. Rebel horses and riders hold in a long line, awaiting the inevitable order to charge forth and crush the tiny Union force.
Colonel Washburn remains cool, surveying what could be a hopeless situation. Infantry is no match against the speed and agility of cavalry. His infantry lie on their bellies and peer across at Confederate cavalry. They have had no time to dig trenches or build fortifications, so hugging the ground is their only defense. Washburn is cut off from the rest of Grant’s army, with no hope of rescue. How can 79 Union riders possibly hold off 1,200 Confederate horsemen?
Washburn decides that his only hope is to be bold—a quality this Harvard man possesses in abundance.
After conferring with General Read, Washburn orders his cavalry to assemble. They are now on the brow of the hill, just out of rifle range, in columns of four. Washburn addresses the ranks. He barks out his plan, then reminds the infantry to get their butts up off the ground and follow right behind the Union riders to punch a hole through the rebel lines.
On Washburn’s command, the Fourth Massachusetts trot their mounts forward. While the Confederates purchased their own horses or brought them from home, the Union horses are government-issue. Each trooper has ridden mile upon mile with the same horse, in the same saddle. As they arrive at this fateful moment, animal and rider alike know each other’s moods and movements—the nudge of a knee, the gathering of the haunch muscles, the forward lean to intimate danger or the need for speed—so that they work as one.
Passing the infantry’s far right flank, Washburn’s cavalry wheels left. The colonel’s accent is Brahmin and his tone is fearless. The precision of his cavalry is something that Washburn takes for granted, for they have practiced time and again on the parade ground. And the show of force stuns the enemy. The Confederates see what is coming, even if they don’t believe it.
Counting Read and Washburn, there are now 80 Union horsemen. Outnumbered by more than fifteen to one, they shut out all thoughts of this being the last battle of their young lives. They ride hard. Their fate comes down to one simple word: “Charge!”
Washburn screams the command. Spurs dig into horses. Sabers clank as they are withdrawn from their sheaths. Some men fire their Spencer carbines as they gallop within rifle range, clutching the gun in their right hand and the reins in their left. Others wield pistols. Still others prefer the killing blade of a cavalry sword. The audacity of their charge and succeed-at-all-costs desperation ignites panic in the rebel army. The battlefield splits in two as Washburn’s men punch through the first wave of the rebel line. The Union charge at Chatham, for a brief instant, is a triumph.
But, stunningly, after the cavalry charges, Washburn’s infantry does not move. Not a muscle. Even as the Confederate defenses crumble, and as Washburn organizes his men for the secondary attack that will smash an escape route through the rebel lines, the foot soldiers are still on their bellies, sealing their own doom.
General Rosser senses exactly what’s happening. He doesn’t waste a second. The Texan yells for his Confederate cavalry to prepare for a counterattack.
The Confederate general James Dearing, just twenty-four years old, leads the way. Both sides race toward each other at top speed before pulling back on the reins in the center of the plain. The fight becomes a brutal test of courage and horsemanship. Men and horses wheel about the battlefield, fighting hand to hand, saddle to saddle. Each man wages his own individual battle with a ferocity only a lifeand-death situation can bring. Bullets pierce eyes. Screams and curses fill the air. The grassy plain runs blood-red.
A rifle is too unwieldy in such tight quarters, so men use the butt end rather than the barrel. Pistols and sabers are even more lethal. “I have been many a day in hot fights,” the unflappable Rosser will marvel later, “but I never saw anything approaching that at High Bridge.”
Rosser’s gaze drifts over to the amazing sight of his enemy. Washburn, in the thick of the action, is a frenzied dervish, slaying everything in his path. Men fall and die all around as Washburn rides tall in the saddle, his saber slashing at any man who steps forward to challenge him.
Suddenly, the young Confederate general Dearing shoots the Union general Theodore Read, at point-blank pistol range. Read falls from his saddle to the ground. Seeing this, Colonel Washburn takes his revenge. He engages Dearing in an intense saber duel, brought to a sudden end when a Union soldier fires two bullets into Dearing’s chest. His sword falls to the ground, as does he.
Washburn is still sitting tall in the saddle—but not for long. As he turns his head, he is shot through the mouth at point-blank range. The bullet lodges in his lungs. His jaw hangs slack as blood pours from the hole in his face, down onto his sweaty, dusty blue uniform.
The force of the gunshot does not kill Washburn, nor even render him unconscious. It is, however, strong enough to knock him out of the saddle for the first time all day. As the colonel falls, a Confederate flails at his toppling body with a thirty-four-inch saber, burying the blade deep in Washburn’s skull. Incredibly, one day later, as a burial detail cleans the battlefield, Washburn will be found alive.
There are many, many casualties.
The Confederates lose 100 men.
The Union loses everyone.
Every single one of the 847 Union soldiers sent to burn High Bridge is either captured or killed. Those who try to fight their way out are slaughtered, one by one. The failure of the Union infantry to obey Washburn’s orders to attack sealed their fate.
Rosser leads his weary men back toward Rice’s Station, content in the knowledge that he has single-handedly saved the Confederacy.
Lee will now have his escape. Or at least it appears that way.