The Appomattox River valley in central Virginia’s Piedmont has two relatively new — but very different — state parks that are forever linked by the battles fought at each during the days before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park marks the site where the last major battle between Federal and Confederate forces took place on April 6, 1865.
Six miles to the west, the crossing of the Appomattox River at High Bridge was the site of fighting both before and after Sailor’s Creek as each general tried to force the opposing army to one side of the river for a strategic advantage.
This spring, historians, re-enactors and politicians throughout Virginia will mark the Civil War’s 150th anniversary here. But these two state parks offer visitors multiple ways to become immersed in cultural and natural history in any season.
On April 2, 1865, When Federal soldiers broke through fortifications protecting Petersburg and its supply lines to the south, Lee moved the Army of Virginia westward toward Danville, VA, with the plan to then head south to consolidate with Gen. Joseph E. Johnson’s troops in North Carolina.
But the many creeks and the Appomattox River, swollen with spring rain, made the march slow and difficult. Supplies that should have met Lee’s troops at Amelia Court House 45 miles west of Petersburg had been misdirected — and the Confederate troops’ meager advantage was lost to a day spent scavenging the countryside for food to fuel their march. As Federal troops pressured it from the south and from behind, Lee’s army was forced into a series of daytime battles punctuated by nighttime marches.
These culminated along Big Sailor’s and Little Sailor’s creeks. The two join to form Sailor’s Creek, which flows into the Appomattox River.
On April 6, 1865, Confederate troops — who were hungry, tired and greatly outnumbered — held back Union regiments in three separate engagements, but not before 8,000 (or 25 percent) of their soldiers were killed, captured or had surrendered, including eight Confederate generals. Accounts of the battle say that Lee, upon viewing the confusion after the battle, said, “My God, has the army been dissolved?”
Today, the gentle landscape at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park drops toward Little Sailors Creek, where Union soldiers carrying their weapons above their heads waded in chest-high water toward lines of Confederate soldiers. A short trail across an open field and through the woods offers visitors vantage points for an understanding of the sequence of events.
“It’s hard to imagine the carnage,” said Lee Wilcox, chief ranger at Sailor’s Creek. On the hill above the creek, visitors can tour Hillsman House, the farmhouse that served as a hospital for troops of both sides. Surgical instruments and other artifacts are displayed throughout the small building, where floors are still visibly stained with blood. Casualties left behind after the Confederates fled west were stacked high for days until residents of the sparsely populated farm region were able to bury them in mass graves.
The park boasts a small but state-of-the-art visitor’s center, and hosts programs ranging from battlefield tours to nighttime astronomy programs. The skies are still very dark here in the center of rural “Southside” Virginia (the name of the region east of the Blue Ridge and south of the James River).
“The countryside around here has changed very little in 150 years,” said Chris Calkins, park manager at Sailor’s Creek Battlefield, and author of several books about Lee’s retreat along the Appomattox River valley. There’s work under way to rebuild the former landscape by planting stands of trees where they stood during the battle in what are now fields. Experts call the battlefield relatively “pristine,” which adds to its appeal.
While Sailor’s Creek Battlefield marks a pivotal day in the closing days of the Civil War, High Bridge Trail is a 31-mile linear park along the railbed of what was in the 1860s the South Side Rail Line. The 2,400-foot wooden bridge, for which High Bridge is named, was built in 1850 on concrete piers. It was one of the longest of its day and carried the rails over the Appomattox River.
The same day that Union and Confederate troops clashed at Sailor’s Creek, a small but fierce outpost of Confederate soldiers at High Bridge defeated Union forces attempting to wrest control of the crossing.
After the crippling battle at Sailor’s Creek, Lee ordered his troops to cross the Appomattox River at High Bridge — which was still under Confederate control — then to burn it and a lower parallel wagon bridge behind them.
Lee’s strategy was to put the river between his troops and Grant’s forces and get to Farmville where rations for his soldiers were to be delivered along the rail line from the west. But Federal troops were close enough to douse the flames on the wagon bridge and continue on toward Farmville, forcing the Army of Virginia to abandon their first real meal in days and press on farther west.
After the Union forces captured Appomattox Station, the last remaining rail depot that could have supplied the Confederate troops, Grant and Lee started an exchange of letters that led to Lee’s surrender on April 9.
The High Bridge was repaired in the following months, and a 150-foot high steel railroad bridge was built next to it in 1915. In 2006, the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, which no longer used the line, donated the railbed to the state — and in 2012, the rails-to-trail park officially opened.
The 12-foot-wide railbed today is a coarse gravel, multi-use trail, perfect for walking, bicycling, and in the winter, cross-country skiing.
The route is a gentle grade up from Burkeville through Farmville (home of Longwood University) to Pamplin City to the west, passing through small towns, open fields and woods. Two spur trails about 1.5 miles east of Farmville provide almost 3 miles of twists, turns and elevation change for mountain bikers.
The centerpiece is the bridge itself; wide, wooden and with rails high enough to make anyone on two feet — or two wheels — feel secure. The vistas change with the seasons, but even in the thick of summer’s growth, the river and its wide floodplain below can be easily seen.
Ranger programs take advantage of the dramatic setting for outings, including one in the spring to call out the barred owls that are common in the river valley. And High Bridge park takes advantage of the dark skies for astronomy programs.
“It’s just magical. We look down and see the fireflies below us and the stars above us,” said Craig Guthrie, chief ranger at the park.
There’s no getting around the fact that the bridge is the centerpiece of the park, but Guthrie said that visitors who come just to experience High Bridge may miss out if they don’t visit the whole trail.
“One of my favorite sections is between Rice and Burkeville,” Guthrie said. Here the railroad bed cuts through large stream valleys, traveling along hill faces that were a challenge to the technology of the times.
“And you never know what you’re going to see,” Guthrie said, listing a few species that have surprised him: quail, wild turkey, coyote and ravens.
There are multiple entry points along the route, many with parking lots, including several suitable for horse trailers, which are welcome on the trail.
Small towns along the way are waking up to the new business opportunities the trail is bringing back along the rail line, and one of the state park’s programs gives visitors a chance to experience the route by van.
From a Civil War perspective, historian Calkins said, ”You can’t tell the story of High Bridge without talking about Sailor’s Creek.” From a visitor’s perspective, these parks offer a welcome addition to the historic and natural landscapes preserved by Virginia state parks.
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on March 2, 2015.