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Staunton River Bridge State park is a 300-acre Civil War historic site where a ragtag group of 700 old Confederate men and young boys beat the odds and held off an assault by 5,000 Union cavalry on a bridge of strategic importance to Gen. Lee’s army, then under siege in Petersburg.
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On a milder-than-usual day in early August, my family, on a road trip home from Kings Dominion, ventured off the beaten path to Staunton River Bridge State Park in Randolph, Virginia.
It would be my family’s first visit to a Civil War Battlefield.
We parked the car at the post office parking lot at Roanoke Station.
We walked an old railroad track (now a sandy path), a distance of 1.2 miles. Through signs along the way, we learned this was the same path in1864 the Union soldiers took.
I imagined that day on June 25, 1864, was far hotter than the day of our visit. That day, 492 lives of young boys and old men from Southside Virginia would be forever changed.
Around this time, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his army were trying to defend the city of Petersburg, Virginia. He desperately needed the victory or the steady flow of supplies from the south and west via railroads would halt.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant understood the devastation it would cause the Confederacy and plotted a cavalry raid to destroy the railroad tracks and destroy the Richmond and Danville railroad bridge over the Staunton River.
It began on June 22 when Brigadier General James H. Wilson and Brigadier General August V. Kautz left Petersburg with more than 5,000 cavalry troops and 16 pieces of artillery.
As the Union moved west, Confederate General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee pursued, occasionally skirmishing with the invaders, and unable to stop the Union’s advance. Within three days, the Union tore up 60 miles of railroad track and burned two trains and several railroad stations.
South of Roanoke Station (where we parked) was a long-covered railroad bridge over the Staunton River.
It was the bridge the Union had set its sights on destroying.
296 Confederate reserves, under the leadership of Captain Benjamin Fairnholt, were prepared to defend the bridge.
Late in the evening of June 23, Farinholt received word from General Lee that a detachment of the Union cavalry was on its way to destroy the bridge urging Farinholt to “make every possible preparation immediately”.
“By the trains at 12 o’clock that night, on the 23rd, I sent off orderlies with circulars, urging the citizens of Halifax, Charlotte, and Mecklenburg to assemble for the defense of the bridge, and ordering all local companies to report immediately… On Saturday morning, the 25th, about 10 o’clock I had received, citizens and soldiers inclusive, 642 re-enforcement. Of these about 150 were regulars, organized from different commands, my whole command numbered 938 men.”
Despite the volunteers, the Confederacy was severely outnumbered and only had six artillery pieces (four in the earthwork fort on the hill east of the bridge; two in a small fortification west of the bridge).
Between the artillery positions, a line of trenches, and across the bridge, a semicircular line of hastily constructed, well-concealed rifle trenches.
Captain James A. Hoyt with his two companies of regulars on the east side of the bridge and Colonel Henry Eaton Coleman’s “Old Men and Young Boys” were on the west side.
Scouts and pickets were posted north of the bridge near Roanoke Station.
Captain Farinholt, knowing the bridge was being watched by Union Scouts, created a ruse.
He ordered an empty train to run back and forth between Clover Depot and the bridge, giving the appearance of fresh troops constantly arriving.
It was a brilliant plot; the Union scouts were not the only ones fooled:
“. . . I happened to be one of Farinholt’s scouts that day. We were stationed on the same side of the river with Wilson’s forces on a high hill that overlooked the entire field. When we saw the [train] cars roll in and saw the men apparently disembarking, we felt sure that our men were being reinforced by every train.” –J. B. Faulkner
One of the most powerful words I read on our walk to the bridge was those of J.T. Easton of the 17th Mississippi Regiment:
“…They opened up with their field guns. The shells striking the thin roof of the bridge made a fearful racket, scaring some the small boys into outbursts of weeping.”
The bridge that exists today is not the original bridge. The original bridge was 600 feet long and covered.
Today, the only thing that remains of the bridge is the support pillars.
You can see part of one in this picture.
The Union arrived north of the bridge, dismounted, and formed to cross the open fields toward the bridge.
Heavy fire was coming from the Confederacy on the other side of the river.
Colonel Samuel R Spear’s 1st D.C. and 11th Pa. approached along the east side of the railroad and Colonel Robert M. West’s 5th Pa. and 3rd N.Y. along the west side. They hoped to quickly gain possession of the main bridge long enough to set fire to it.
They would make four separate charges from a shallow drainage ditch about 150 yards north of the bridge.
On the first charge, as soon as they left the drainage ditch, the “Old men and Young Boys” greeted them with intense fire from their hiding place in the shallow trenches around the bridge.
The second charge was met with more intense fire.
A longer interval between the third charge, more intense fire and the Union was no nearer the capture of the bridge than when they first arrived.
On the fourth charge, there were misgivings by the union, but they still charged, meeting a galling fire of musketry, growing more furious and their lines came near.
During the fourth charge, Lee and his division struck the rear guard of the Federals, and they were given an opportunity of fighting in opposite directions.
General James H. Wilson reported:
“…the place was found to be impregnable. Finding that the bridge could not be carried without severe loss, if at all, the enemy began again close upon our rear, the Staunton too deep for fording and unproided with bridges or ferries, I determined to push no further south, but to endeavor to reach the army by returning toward Petersburg…The march was therefore begun about midnight…”
Confederate Captain Benjamin Farinholt reported:
“At daylight, I advanced my line of skirmishers half a mile and discovered that the enemy had left quite a number of their dead on the field. In this advance, eight prisoners were captured…Of the dead left on the field, I buried 42, among them several officers. My loss, 10 killed and 24 wounded.”
On that long day, 492 “Old Men and Young Boys,” all local citizens, protected the important supply line. They answered the call to arms and faced overwhelming odds. It’s a story of victory that has been told repeatedly through generations.
Here are more pictures from our day:
This is the earthworks fort. It is surrounded on all sides by trenches. The sun is shining on the trenches in the above picture. The stone is a marker.
Trenches in the earthworks fort.