High Bridge and Civil War Memory

Copyright NG71

Copyright Flickr User NG71

The 150th anniversary remembrances of the American Civil War are winding down this month.  For the last five years, the United States and it’s citizens, in a myriad of ways, have commemorated the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 people and ended the institutionalized enslavement of African-Americans in the United States once and for all.  The 150th anniversary commemorations particularly relevant to myself as I spent a good deal of that time working on the documentary Dixie, which explores the sociological history of the Confederacy’s anthem and the ways in which the Civil War continues to shape the lives of Americans.  People often think of the political and social changes wrought by the Civil War, but the most dramatic change was to the landscape of the South.  Today we look at a bit of that landscape, a bit of the antebellum landscape that remains 150 years later: High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia.

High Bridge was originally part of a Southside Railroad line between Petersburg and Lynchburg.  The bridge crosses over the Appomattox River.  The 20 piers of the structure included nearly four million bricks.  The bridge was completed in 1852, just nine years before the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1865, as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated westward after abandoning Richmond, Lee knew lines of pursuit needed to be cut if his army was to survive.  High bridge was capture by Union forces on April 6.  Confederate forced managed to take the bridge and capture 800 Union prisoners.  The following day, Union reinforcements launched a counterattack and dislodged Confederate forces from the bridge.  Confederate troops set fire to the bridge as they retreated, but were unable to destroy it.  The intact bridge kept the Union Army in close pursuit of Lee, who turned his forces towards Appomattox Court House, where he would surrender on April 9.

High Bridge’s strategic value to the Union kept it from being destroyed, but much of the South was not so lucky.  Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond were all severely damaged.  The devastation of the landscape remained a physical reality for generations of southerners.  Southern rail lines were heated by Union troops and then twisted into loops resembling bowties.  These so-called “Sherman’s neckties” could still be seen in the south decades later.

The Southside Railroad was rebuilt by former Confederate general William Mahone after the war, part of a what became the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad.  The bridge became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982.  The Norfolk Southern donated the bridge and rail land to the State of Virginia, which became High Bridge Trail State Park in 2008.  The renovated bridge, with the walking and bike path pictured above, opened on the 147th anniversary of the battle: April 6, 2012.  The state park should ensure that this once lost piece of Civil War history will be preserved for years to come.  A bit of the past shaping the future.

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