Requiem for a Culture
Part 3: The Battle of Staunton River Bridge
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III (page 80 in the Vintage paperback edition)
The Roanoke River is a modest river at the bottom of a deep gorge where it flows out of Roanoke to the southeast. By the time it empties into Swan Bay and Albemarle Sound in coastal North Carolina, it is a broad expanse of slowly-moving water.
For a portion of its passage through Virginia, the Roanoke River inexplicably assumes a different name. According to Google Maps, it becomes the Staunton River where Cheese Creek joins the flow just below Altavista in Campbell County. It then resumes its former name where it widens out as it becomes the John H. Kerr Reservoir, a.k.a. Buggs Island Lake, between Charlotte and Halifax Counties. In reality, however, the two toponyms are not that clearly delineated — which name is used depends largely on local customs.
To make matters even more interesting, the name of the river, like that of the city of Staunton (which is nowhere near the river), is pronounced “Stanton” — one of many regional peculiarities of Virginia pronunciation.
In the middle of its term as the Staunton River, it is crossed by a railroad bridge that was strategically important to the Confederacy in the summer of 1864. At that time General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were entrenched in and around Petersburg, where they were besieged by the Union Army commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. The Confederates’ main supply route was a single railroad line that crossed the Staunton River from Charlotte County into Halifax County just south of Roanoke Station, nowadays called Randolph.
In late June General Grant ordered a raid on the railroad line. 5,000 cavalry troops led by Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August V. Kautz left the Petersburg area on June 22nd and proceeded west and south along the railroad, tearing up track and burning down stations. Their ultimate objective was to destroy the Staunton River Bridge.
Below is a map of the raid. It’s somewhat inaccurate in its details — for example, it puts Cumberland significantly to the south and west of its actual location. It also misspells “Nottoway”. Nevertheless, it’s a useful overall schematic diagram of events during the raid.
On June 23rd General Lee sent word to Captain Benjamin Farinholt, who commanded a battalion of reserves charged with defending the bridge, warning him that the Federals were about to come down hard on him, and ordering him to prevent the bridge from being destroyed. If the Union troops were able to get to the bridge even briefly, they would pour oil on its wooden structure and torch it.
Captain Farinholt’s situation was dire. He commanded a force of fewer than 300 soldiers, and had only six artillery pieces with which to confront the sixteen being fielded by the Northern cavalry.
That night he sent word out to the surrounding communities, asking for volunteers to help defend the bridge. Military-age men had already been siphoned off by conscription, so the captain was drawing on teenage boys and men over 45 to form hastily-assembled militias. In popular accounts written after the war they were referred to as the “Brigade of Old Men and Young Boys”.
The new arrivals were also augmented by 150 Confederate regulars from detachments stationed around the region. With the regulars added to the old men and boys, Captain Farinholt was able to deploy a force of 938 men — less than 20% of the size of the cavalry units bearing down on him.
The battle was joined on the afternoon of June 25th. As happened so many times during the Civil War, the South prevailed against a much larger Northern force. 42 Union soldiers (including several officers) were killed, 44 were wounded, and 30 were missing or captured, while Captain Farinholt’s men suffered 10 killed and 24 wounded.
The details of the battle make for inspiring reading. The excerpts below are from the Staunton River Battlefield website:
In June of 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were engaged in a desperate defense of the city of Petersburg, Virginia. Victory for Lee depended upon a steady flow of supplies from the west and south, via the South Side and Richmond & Danville railroads. Union General Ulysses S. Grant knew that if these supply lines could be destroyed, Lee would have to abandon Petersburg. To accomplish this, Grant planned a cavalry raid to tear up the tracks of both lines and destroy the Richmond & Danville railroad bridge over the Staunton River.
The raid began on June 22, and was led by Brigadier General James H. Wilson and Brigadier General August V. Kautz. They left Petersburg with over 5,000 cavalry troops and 16 pieces of artillery. As they moved west, the Union raiders were closely pursued by Confederate General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee and his cavalry. Although Lee’s troopers occasionally skirmished with the invaders, they were unable to stop their advance. During the first three days of their raid, Wilson’s cavalry tore up 60 miles of track and burned two trains and several railroad stations.
Just south of Roanoke Station (present-day Randolph) was a long, covered railroad bridge over the Staunton River, Wilson’s final objective. The bridge was defended by a battalion of 296 Confederate reserves under the leadership of Captain Benjamin Farinholt. On June 23rd, at 10 p.m., Captain Farinholt received word from General Robert E. Lee that a large detachment of enemy cavalry was moving in his direction to destroy the bridge and that he should “make every possible preparation immediately.”
Captain Benjamin Farinholt: “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.”
Though his numbers had been bolstered by volunteers, Farinholt was still badly outnumbered. He had only six pieces of artillery, four in the earthwork fort on the hill just east of the bridge, and two in a small fortification west of the bridge. Between these artillery positions and the river was a line of trenches, and across the bridge lay a semicircular line of hastily constructed but well-concealed rifle trenches. Captain James A. Hoyt with his two companies of regulars were 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 knew that his activities at the bridge were being watched by Union scouts who had arrived ahead of the main body of troops. To make them think that he was receiving reinforcements, Farinholt ordered an empty train to run back and forth between Clover Depot and the bridge, giving the appearance that fresh troops were arriving constantly.
As it turned out, the Union scouts were not the only ones fooled.
J. B. Faulkner: “…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.”
Mulberry Hill plantation was located on a commanding hill near the battlefield and the grounds of the house served as the Union headquarters and field hospital during the battle. It is said that Mrs. McPhail, the lady of the house, told the Federals that 10,000 Confederates lay in wait for them beyond the breastworks and that every train was bringing more.
Captain Benjamin Farinholt: “The enemy [Federals] appeared in my front about 3.45 p.m.… I opened up on them with a 3-inch rifled gun, but the shot, from some inexplicable defect in the gun, fell short of the mark. They were then within a mile of my main redoubt, and, taking possession of a very commanding hill, immediately opened with rifled Parrots and 12-pounder Napoleons …”
J.T. Easton, 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 of the small boys into outbursts of weeping.”
Having arrived north of the bridge, General Kautz’s cavalry troops were dismounted and formed up to cross the open fields toward the bridge. They were receiving heavy fire from the Confederate artillery 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.
Colonel Robert M. West: “I formed an assaulting party and directed it up the embankment, in the hope that by a quick move we might obtain possession of the main bridge sufficiently long enough to fire it. The men tried repeatedly to gain a foothold on the railroad, and to advance along the sides of the embankment, but could not.”
Having finally reached a shallow drainage ditch some 150 yards north of the bridge, the Union troops organized for what was to be the first of four separate charges, all of them repulsed by the badly outnumbered Confederate forces. When the Union forces left the drainage ditch for their first assault on the bridge, they were met by intense fire from Col. Coleman’s old men and young boys and the regulars who had been hidden from view in their shallow trenches around the bridge.
Captain James A. Hoyt: “…the fatal ditch was an obstruction which they never passed again. The second charge was repulsed with equal gallantry, showing a determined resistance on our side, but it required longer time and heavier firing to drive them back. Then followed a longer interval between the charges… the third time the effort was made… they were no nearer the capture of the bridge than when they first came in sight of it.
“The sun was going behind the hills, but as yet there was no sign that General W. H. F. Lee had reached the enemy’s rear. His appearance on the scene would mean relief for our little band… when the Federals gathered for the fourth charge there were misgivings as to the result. On they came, however, and they were met with a galling fire of musketry, which grew even more furious as their lines came nearer It was during this charge that 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: “…the place was found to be impregnable. Finding that the bridge could not be carried without severe loss, if at all, the enemy being again close upon our rear, the Staunton too deep for fording and unprovided 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…”
Capt. Benjamin Farinholt: “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 8 prisoners were captured… Of the dead left on the field I buried 42, among them several officers. My loss, 10 killed and 24 wounded.”
For the 492 local citizens that made up the “Old Men and Young Boys” Brigade, the fight was over, and an important supply line had been protected for General Robert E. Lee and his army in Petersburg. They had proudly answered the call to arms and, in the face of overwhelming odds, distinguished themselves on the field of battle. Over the years, the stories about their victory on that hot summer afternoon at the bridge have been retold countless times and have become an important part of the proud heritage of Southside Virginia.
Another account of the battle may be read here.
There are almost no photographic records from the Battle of Staunton River Bridge, so I’ve used a modern photo for the header of this post. It was taken at the bridge this past summer during the annual commemoration of the battle. The people standing on the bridge are from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, along with some of their children.
The area around the Staunton River Bridge is very rural — even more so than my neighborhood. There are no significant towns within ten miles, and the nearest city (Lynchburg) is about thirty miles away.
There are many residents of the area who are descended from the members of the Brigade of Old Men and Young Boys who carried the day on June 25th, 1864. I wasn’t at the event this past June, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the people in the photo had ancestors who fought that day. Perhaps someone who was a 13-year-old boy at the time, one of those who wept when the Union shots struck the roof of the bridge, but who carried on anyway, and was a credit to his family.
Just think what pride one of those little boys must feel, whose great-great-great grandfather was there that day and served so honorably. A family memory like that, passed down from father to son, generation after generation, is a difficult thing to erase. The Woke brigades that now rule our culture are doing their best to wipe out such historical memories, but I can tell you from my experience in the Sons of Confederate Veterans that they are not being entirely successful. Our camp just welcomed a 13-year-old cadet, who stood there proudly next to his father the night he was sworn in.
I’ll wrap up this installment with a little piece of memorabilia. The image below shows the album cover for an old mono LP that I listened to over and over again when I was a kid:
My father was a Yankee and my mother was a Rebel, so I had feet in both camps, and listened to the songs from both sides with avid interest. As a child, my overall sentiment was that it was a good thing that the North won, because it ended slavery, which was bad. But I had plenty of respect for the Confederates — after all, my great-great-grandfather had served, and I’d seen old photos of my mother sitting on his knee when she was a toddler, and he was over a hundred.
That album came out during the run-up to the Centennial of the war, which was surrounded by great hoopla. In those days it was perfectly respectable to honor the Confederates who served, which is why the songs of both sides were featured in equal numbers and with equal prominence.
It was even OK to be a Confederate sympathizer. Nowadays, I assume you would be expelled from school for such sentiments. At the very least.
In those days I was living in suburban Maryland, and I can tell you from personal experience that there were plenty of people who were sympathetic with the Rebels. The Confederate soldiers had won so many astounding victories against seemingly insurmountable odds — how could one not admire them?
And sympathy for the Confederacy in Maryland went all the way back to the Civil War, handed down from father to son just like memories are passed down here in the Old Dominion. I went to school with some collateral relatives of General Jubal Early, whose ancestors had lived across the Potomac from their more illustrious cousin. Their family relationship helped cement their sympathies, and they were hardly the only ones, but a blood relationship was not a prerequisite for such sympathies.
There’s something about the Confederate cause that strikes a chord in the hearts of people who cherish resistance to tyranny.