The City Point Explosion

August 9, 1864 – An explosion aboard an ammunition ship nearly killed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters on the James River.

City Point was situated on the south side of the James in Virginia. It served as the main supply depot for the Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James, as well as headquarters for Grant, the overall Federal commander. On the morning of the 9th, Grant returned to City Point from Washington. That same morning, John Maxwell and R.K. Dillard of the Confederate Torpedo Corps slipped through the Federal lines. According to Maxwell’s report:

“We reached there before daybreak on the 9th of August last, with a small amount of provisions, having traveled mostly by night and crawled upon our knees to pass the east picket-line. Requesting my companion to remain behind about half a mile I approached cautiously the wharf, with my machine and powder covered by a small box. Finding the captain had come ashore from a barge then at the wharf, I seized the occasion to hurry forward with my box. Being halted by one of the wharf sentinels I succeeded in passing him by representing that the captain had ordered me to convey the box on board. Hailing a man from the barge I put the machine in motion and gave it in his charge. He carried it aboard. The magazine contained about 12 pounds of powder.”

The wooden candle box that Maxwell handed the Federal worker contained a “horological torpedo,” or a time-bomb. The box and device were placed on a ship holding 20,000 artillery projectiles.

Grant was sitting in front of his tent while George Sharpe, his head of espionage, explained his plans to capture suspected Confederate spies within the army. According to Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff:

“He had just left the general when, at 20 minutes to 12, a terrific explosion shook the earth, accompanied by a sound which vividly recalled the Petersburg mine, still fresh in the memory of every one present. Then there rained down upon the party a terrific shower of shells, bullets, boards, and fragments of timber. The general was surrounded by splinters and various kinds of ammunition, but fortunately was not touched by any of the missiles.”

The City Point explosion | Image Credit:

The gunpowder ignited the projectiles and caused destruction within a quarter-mile radius. The blast killed 43 men, including one of Grant’s orderlies, and wounded 126. Grant reported the explosion to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“Five minutes ago an ordnance boat exploded, carrying lumber, grape, canister, and all kinds of shot over this point. Every part of the yard used as my headquarters is filled with splinters and fragments of shell. I do not know yet what the casualties are beyond my own headquarters. Colonel (Orville) Babcock is slightly wounded in hand and 1 mounted orderly is killed and 2 or 3 wounded and several horses killed. The damage at the wharf must be considerable both in life and property. As soon as the smoke clears away I will ascertain and telegraph you.”

Porter recalled:

“Much damage was done to the wharf, the boat was entirely destroyed, all the laborers employed on it were killed, and a number of men and horses near the landing were fatally injured… The general was the only one of the party who remained unmoved; he did not even leave his seat to run to the bluff with the others to see what had happened.”

A message soon came from the headquarters of Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, “Was that explosion at City Point? What was it?” The response:

“A barge laden with ordnance stores was accidentally blown up just now while lying at the wharf. There has been considerable destruction of property and loss of life. No officers were killed. The shock was terrific, and of course unlooked for. It is probable we shall never know how the accident occurred. One of your office wagon horses was killed. We are clearing away the ruins at the river.”

Maxwell reported:

“I may be permitted, captain, here to remark that in the enemy’s statement a party of ladies, it seems, were killed by this explosion. It is saddening to me to realize the fact that the terrible effects of war induce such consequence; but when I remember the ordeal to which our own women have been subjected, and the barbarities of the enemy’s crusade against us and them, my feelings are relieved by the reflection that while this catastrophe was not intended by us, it amounts only, in the providence of God, to just retaliation.”

Porter wrote:

“No one could surmise the cause of the explosion, and the general (Grant) appointed me president of a board of officers to investigate the matter. We spent several days in taking the testimony of all the people who were in sight of the occurrence, and used every possible means to probe the matter; but as all the men aboard the boat had been killed, we could obtain no satisfactory evidence. It was attributed by most of those present to the careless handling of the ammunition by the laborers who were engaged in unloading it; but there was a suspicion in the minds of many of us that it was the work of some emissaries of the enemy sent into the lines.”

Only after the war was it revealed that Confederate saboteurs had planted a bomb.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11382-403; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 483; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553-54; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 382-83; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 81-82; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 141-42

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