- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

A list of famous Civil War battles often includes Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam and Manassas; it never includes the battle at the Boisseau farm.

In terms of significance, however, few individual battles in the war had more immediate and sweeping consequences than the April 2, 1865, fight southwest of Petersburg, Va. In fact, following on the heels of a Confederate disaster at Five Forks, the dramatic Union charge at Boisseau farm led directly to the fall of Richmond and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The “battle” of Petersburg was actually a 10-month siege between June 1864 and April 1865 that consisted of hundreds of smaller and larger clashes between Federal and Confederate soldiers. Some historians have calculated that as many as 80,000 casualties occurred during the siege operations.

Some individual battles during the siege made national headlines: the Crater, Fort Stedman and Chaffin’s Farm. The greater part of the common soldier’s time during the siege, however, was spent digging earthworks and keeping his head down to avoid sharpshooters.

The landscape along the siege lines between Richmond and Petersburg was stripped of trees, the soil was dug up and piled into revetments and earthworks, and then the dirt was shoveled up again to repair damage done after almost daily artillery exchanges. An elaborate network of zigzagging trenches and dugout shelters evolved over time. Homes and farms along the siege line were incorporated into the network.

One such farm was the Boisseau plantation, located in Dinwiddie County southwest of Petersburg. Its highlight was Tudor Hall, an elegant Georgian and Federal two-story house built in 1812.

The Boisseau farm had prospered before the war. For many years, hogsheads of tobacco were rolled down the nearby Boydton Plank Road to the busy warehouses in Petersburg, where inspectors graded, bought and sold tobacco. The war, however, visited hard times on owner Joseph Boisseau’s family, and by mid-1864, the success of the prewar years was a fleeting memory.

In August, when Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces cut the Weldon Railroad south of Tudor Hall and Lee’s Confederates were forced to extend the Petersburg siege lines farther west to Hatcher’s Run to protect vulnerable wagon routes and the remaining rail lines, Confederate trenches were constructed directly through and around the Boisseau farm.

The situation was not conducive to family life. In early October, the Boisseaus moved out and the Rebels moved in. In a county where the vote to secede had been 804-to-1 in favor and where Joseph Boisseau had served actively in the pro-Confederate civil defense force, he had little choice but to turn over everything he had that could aid the war effort. This included allowing Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan to set up his brigade headquarters in Tudor Hall.

McGowan had steadily moved up in the ranks during the war and was noted for his bravery under fire. Born in South Carolina to Irish immigrants, he had been variously a successful lawyer, soldier and member of the South Carolina House of Representatives before the war. He kept the men of his brigade busy, assigning teams of 200 to 300 a day to work on the entrenchments and artillery revetments.

According to one aide, these Confederate earthworks simply could not be taken. “They could scarcely be stormed, on account of the ditch and the brush abatis in front.” In places, the combination of a ditch in front and the earthwork behind created a 15- to 20-foot differential in height, or practically a sheer wall.

McGowan’s men worked constantly to add new obstructions and strengthen the works The weakness was not in the works; the problem was that there was as much as 20 feet between each soldier in Lee’s stretched and thinned ranks.

When McGowan wasn’t busy with administrative duties, he played whist and recited Shakespeare. His men enjoyed a relatively quiet stretch of roughly five months while the drama of the siege was played out on other parts of the 40-mile line, such as the Crater, Fort Harrison and other areas that were often out of earshot and sometimes out of mind.

In February 1865, the men passed a resolution vowing to continue the war no matter what happened, and McGowan followed with a stirring speech. Little did they know that their impregnable works soon would be the stage for a dramatic, siege-lifting, war-ending assault.

Across from McGowan, Union Gens. Horatio G. Wright (VI Corps) and John G. Parke (IX Corps) were busy in late March. In conjunction with Grant’s spring offensive, they massed troops, supplies and ammunition in preparation for an all-out assault on the section of the Confederate line in front of them.

On March 25, many of the advanced Rebel rifle pits were captured and held — an ominous sign had the Confederates paid more attention. Near the end of March, McGowan’s brigade was shifted west and participated in Gen. George Pickett’s ill-starred Five Forks’ movements.

A few of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s depleted regiments filled the earthworks at Boisseau farm, but the line was substantially thinned by the shift. The 37th North Carolina covered the section closest to Tudor Hall with just two cannon, and the men spaced up to 10 paces apart. Sometimes, the next man in line was out of immediate eyesight.

Following the Rebel disaster at Five Forks on April 1, Grant ordered an immediate attack on the siege lines in the Boisseau farm sector. Gen. George Meade directed Wright and Parke to assault the enemy at 4 the next morning following a massive artillery barrage.

Thousands of men who normally were within easy line of sight of the Confederates hunkered down silently that dark night, threatened with gag and buck if they so much as sneezed. The Union soldiers could hear their Rebel counterparts several hundred yards away on sentinel duty, discussing news of the war and rumors of battles. Still, this sector of the front had been quiet for so long that they remained relatively unsuspecting.

In the middle of the night, an artillery barrage of epic proportions erupted and left no doubt about what was coming. What little Confederate artillery responded was quickly overwhelmed. After more than three hours of “softening up,” the cannon went silent, and the Union soldiers rose silently, bayonets attached, but without percussion caps on their rifles, which meant that they could not fire and would be forced to climb over the earthworks before loading.

The thin and demoralized Rebels still remaining — probably many fewer than 3,000 along this stretch of line — shot sporadically, fighting tenaciously in small pockets (including around Tudor Hall itself) but gradually were forced to fall back toward Petersburg when the deluge of Union soldiers inevitably crawled over and through their works.

The significance of this successful attack, inevitable or not, was that it represented the first real piercing of Lee’s Petersburg line. Grant had been attempting unsuccessfully for almost a year to penetrate Lee’s defenses. He had resorted to repeated attempts to outflank Lee, which, though stretching Rebel resources, hadn’t broken the opposing army. Even the men who breached the wall in the early morning twilight little suspected the tremendous impact of their actions.

The consequences, however, were rapid and profound. The entire 40-mile Confederate siege line began to unravel from Boisseau farm northward. Lee could not bring any reserves to fill the gap. Within hours, the Union flag would be flying over the Capitol in Richmond, and within a few days, the war itself would all but end with Lee’s surrender.

History, however, seems to have forgotten where the 10-month siege was broken and where Confederate hopes were dashed permanently. The surviving earthworks where the breakthrough occurred are protected and can be visited at Pamplin Park in Petersburg (www.pamplinpark.org).

Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College and writes about the Civil War. His books include the Civil War novel “Gray.” He can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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