For Memorial Day, I decided to make a day road trip to check out a few Civil War sites not too far afield. So I got up at my usual time, grabbed a quick breakfast, and hit the road!
Nottoway Falls Park
My first stop was definitely off-the-beaten-path. Not a Civil War site, but somewhere I really wanted to check out: perhaps the only natural waterfall in the Virginia Piedmont region! It’s a series of cascades along the Nottoway River, near the town of Victoria in Lunenburg County. Despite its remote location, I imagine this spot gets plenty busy on hot weekends–but being early on a holiday Monday, I had it all to myself.
The dam here was built by the Virginian Railway Company in the 1920s, creating the 60-acre Nottaway Falls Lake. Downstream of the dam are a series of cascades over exposed rock, and pools–pretty neat! Definitely planning to come back here to explore some more, and bring my drone for some video.
High Bridge Trail State Park
Next up: High Bridge Trail State Park. This is a linear rail-to-trail park, stretching 31.2 miles between the towns of Pamplin and Burkeville. Its centerpiece and namesake is High Bridge, a former railroad bridge spanning the Appomattox River in the Farmville area of the park (Prince Edward County).
The original bridge here was built in the 1850s, carrying the Southside Railroad between Lynchburg and Petersburg. Soaring 125 feet above the Appomattox, and spanning 2,500 feet across 21 brick piers, its architect C.O. Sanford reported, “There have been higher bridges not so long, and longer bridges not so high, but taking the length and height together, this is, perhaps the largest bridge in the world.”
On April 6-7 of 1865, the bridge and surroundings became the site of the Battle of High Bridge. Union forces hoped to destroy the bridge to slow the Confederates’ retreat, while the Confederates hoped to cross the bridge and destroy it, thereby gaining time to regroup and resupply. Ultimately, the Confederates were able to cross, but their attempt to sabotage the bridge was rushed and foiled by the Union forces, who saved the bridge for their own use to continue pursuit. This ended up being a tactical win for the Union, likely shortening the war by several days.
Repaired after the war, the original bridge remained in service until 1914, when it was rebuilt as a steel structure. The original 1850s brick piers were left standing, however, and remain today. The 1914 bridge carried rail traffic until 2005, when the stretch was abandoned. Donated to the state in 2006, the line and bridge reopened as High Bridge Trail State Park in 2012.
The walk on the bridge is a lovely one, especially where it crosses the Appomattox far below.
A spur off the main trail leads to Camp Paradise. This was the site of a garrison of Confederate artillerymen–Creole soldiers from Louisiana, tasked with defending High Bridge from Union raiders and saboteurs. The local residents apparently treated the men so well that they named the place Paradise. After the battle of High Bridge, the men joined the Confederate retreat.
Like any state park, this is a good one for spotting critters, especially in the warmer months! A trail from Camp Paradise leads into the woods and down to the base of the bridge at the Appomattox River. I’d say that was a more engaging hike than going over the bridge itself!
Appomattox Court House National Historic Park
It’s a common nugget of American history that the Civil War ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. I don’t know about you, but I always assumed that meant an actual courthouse building. But no, Appomattox Court House was actually a small village at the time, and the seat of Appomattox County.
Originally called Clover Hill (named for a tavern built there in 1819), the village became the seat of Appomattox County when chartered in 1845, eventually changing its name to Appomattox Court House.
Authorized in 1935 with the intention of restoring the village to its 1865 appearance, the Second World War interrupted work. The park finally opened to the public in 1949, dedicated as “a memorial to the termination of the American Civil War.” The village today contains the Clover Hill Tavern, the Old Appomattox Courthouse, the county jailhouse, the McLean House (site of the actual surrender), and a number of other buildings.
Markers indicate specific spots, like the site of the last artillery shot fired by the Army of Northern Virginia, and the spot where Grant and Lee met on the morning of April 10, 1865 (the day after the surrender).
In this field, surrendered Confederate artillery was parked.
The park covers over 1,300 acres and includes a number of trails–I hiked the Stage Road Trail to the Ferguson Wildlife Trail, and again saw lots of serene spots and wildlife.
Above is the County Jail building. Downstairs here is where a makeshift printing operation was set up (below), to print the many thousands of parole papers for the surrendered Confederate troops to return home.
Above is the McLean House, arguably the single most important site of the American Civil War: The place where it finally ended. It was here on the afternoon of April 9, 1865 that Generals Lee and Grant met to finalize the terms of the South’s surrender, and bring an official end to the fighting.
The house itself has an interesting history! Originally built as a tavern in 1848, after the war its owner defaulted and it was sold at auction in 1869. In 1893 it was dismantled, with the notion of rebuilding it for display at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and then as a Civil War museum in Washington, D.C. Neither of those plans came to fruition, so in 1948 the structure was rebuilt in its original location as part of the new National Park.
The house is open for tours, but on my visit capacity was still somewhat limited so I didn’t want to take up a spot. Next time!
Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park
Not far from High Bridge is Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park, which is a driving tour of spots involved in the eponymous battle. The name makes it sound like a naval affair, but that appears to be a corruption of the name of the creek, variously also spelled as Saylor’s or Sayler’s.
Effectively the final major engagement of the war, the battle was really three separate but nearly simultaneous actions that took place on April 6, 1865, during Lee’s retreat from Richmond and Petersburg. Pursued by Grant’s Union forces, the remnants of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were trying to reach Appomattox Station for desperately-needed supplies. It was here that the Union forces caught up with the Confederates, resulting in skirmishes around the bridges crossing Sailor’s Creek.
The battle ended with the capture of no fewer than 8 Confederate Generals, and the surrender of nearly 8,000 Confederate troops. Upon hearing the news, Robert E. Lee is said to have exclaimed, “My God! Has the army dissolved?” From this point the writing was on the wall that the end of the war was imminent, and surrender unavoidable. Union General Sheridan wrote to Grant, “If the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender.” This was relayed to President Lincoln, who replied: “Let the thing be pressed.” A few days later came Appomattox Court House and the surrender.
And that was my Memorial Day road trip, on a beautiful May day in the Virginia Piedmont. I hope you enjoyed riding along!