South Side Railroad during the Civil War


The South Side Railroad, completed in 1854, was one of the most important supply routes in southern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). With tracks laid east to west across the state, the railroad began at City Point in Hopewell on the James River and extended westward through Petersburg, Burkeville, Farmville, Appomattox Station, and finally Lynchburg, in western Virginia, for a total of about 132 miles. The South Side Railroad was imperative to the Confederate army for the transport of food, military supplies, and troops throughout the war. Behind the lines of battle, the South Side line saw little damage for the first few years of the war; as the conflict moved south in 1864 and 1865, however, the railroad incurred heavy damage from both the Confederate and Union army as each sought to cut the supply lines of the other.

Confederate Rail Lines

During the Union army’s siege of Petersburg (June 15, 1864–April 2, 1865), the City Point portion of the railroad was of vital importance to Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Controlling the rail system gave Grant the dual benefit of quickly moving and supplying his own army to the south and east of Petersburg while simultaneously refusing the entrenched Confederates food, supplies, and reinforcements. On April 1, 1865, the Union general Philip H. Sheridan defeated Confederate forces under George E. Pickett in the Battle of Five Forks, forcing General Robert E. Lee to abandon efforts to save Petersburg and the Confederate capital at Richmond. Faced with starvation and devoid of fresh troops, Lee maneuvered his Army of Northern Virginia west toward Lynchburg. Grant, in close pursuit, followed just below Lee’s bedraggled army, utilizing the route of the South Side Railroad. This tactic prevented the Confederate army from turning south and allowed Grant to intercept food supplies destined for the Confederate troops in the town of Burkeville, about sixty miles west of Petersburg.

Unable to turn south and forced into a series of long night marches, Lee’s forces continued west, hoping to resupply in Farmville. Exhausted and starving, large gaps began to appear in the retreating Confederate column. Detachments of Grant’s army caught up to the rear-most section of Lee’s army on April 6, 1865, at Sailor’s Creek. Lee lost nearly a quarter of his army in the ensuing engagements causing him to remark, “My God, has the army been dissolved?”

South Side Railroad Ticket

The next morning, retreating survivors crossed the South Side Railroad’s High Bridge. An impressive, 2,400-foot-long structure, the bridge was built with almost four million tons of brick and twenty-one piers to span the Appomattox River valley at a height of 160 feet. As Lee’s remnant army crossed into Farmville, they attempted to burn it as they went, thereby severely limiting Grant’s pursuit. Union forces, however, were able to extinguish the fire before it destroyed the bridge and continued their chase along the route of the South Side Railroad. Unable to feed or reinforce his exhausted army, Lee was forced to surrender on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House.

  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War; A Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Power, J. Tracy. Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Smith, Derek. Lee’s Last Stand: Sailor’s Creek, Virginia, 1865. Shippensburg, Penn.: White Mane Publishing Company, 2004.
APA Citation:
Feeney, William. South Side Railroad during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/south-side-railroad-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Feeney, William. "South Side Railroad during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 16 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2022, May 17
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.