The City Point Explosion
Saturday, July 30, 1864, Federal forces besieging Petersburg, Virginia,
completed tunneling under Confederates lines, blew a giant hole in the lines,
stunned their enemy in the area, and then sit and waited before attacking. The
net result was a lot of dead soldiers, and a new phrase "snatching defeat from
the jaws of victory," created by Abraham Lincoln.
by Bruce L. Brager
The Petersburg front did not stay quiet for long after the disastrous Federal
failure at the Crater. One particularly loud incident occurred just over a week
later, at City Point, Virginia, ten miles northeast of Petersburg. The noise no
longer echoes today, but it in an incident with chilling current day relevance.
The small village of City Point, Virginia, was located where the Appomattox
River joined the James River. In 1838, a rail line was constructed connecting
Petersburg and City Point. Though Petersburg was on the Appomattox River, the
James was far more navigable. City Point, with regular steamboat service to New
York City, became a port of entry for goods being shipped to Petersburg. Most
of this commerce ended with the start of the American Civil War, and the
increasingly effective Federal blockade – particularly of the James River, with
the Federals never losing control of Fort Monroe, at the base of the river.
What was left of City Point's commerce ended on May 5, 1864.
On May 5th, the same day that the Army of the Potomac entered the Wilderness,
Benjamin Butler's Army of the James landed at Bermuda Hundred. Some black
troops were detached and sent to occupy City Point. On June 15th, General Grant
arrived and made City Point his headquarters. A small village became the 1864
equivalent of the Pentagon.
By August 1864, City Point was not just Grant's headquarters but was also the
central supply depot and distribution point for supplies for the campaign
against Petersburg and Richmond. Sending supplies by ship was more efficient
than by land. The sea was also safer, with the near total Federal control of
the coastal waters. Land routes ran into danger from Confederate guerillas. The
quiet village had become a very busy port and supply distribution center for
two armies. And these armies needed huge amounts of supplies. For example, each
day army animals alone required 600 tons of grain and oats.
City Point would not have been mistaken for a civilian port. Two lines of
defensive positions protected the docks and supplies from an attack by land.
Several ironclad gunboats were anchored in the James River north of City Point
with their guns pointing upriver, towards Richmond. As might be expected in a
large military port, one soldier complained of heavy pilfering of supplies;
another complained of the lice. But a third remembered hearing black troops in
the area, at religious services, singing "their quaint but soulful
The army quartermaster and other supply departments had remembered something
about sieges. The attacker, as well as the defender, has supply problems.
Federal storage facilities at City Point always kept on hand 20 days supply for
forage for the animals and a 30-day supply of rations for the soldiers. The
Federals also constructed a railroad, starting at the City Point docks, below a
bluff from most of the village, and running in back of the Federal trenches at
Petersburg, to carry supplies directly to the armies at the front.
City Point was the center of a major war effort. It was one thing more. City
Point was a very tempting target. On July 26, 1864, John Maxwell, a Confederate
secret agent, set out from Richmond. This was before the explosion of the Mine
and the Battle of the Crater, so Maxwell's efforts were not in retaliation for
Another agent accompanied Maxwell; a man named R. R. Dillard. Maxwell carried
what he called a "horological torpedo." This was a time bomb he had invented,
and was under orders to use against Federal vessels on the James. The agents'
roundabout route brought them to Norfolk, about 50 miles southeast of City
Point. At Norfolk, they learned about the massive amounts of Federal supplies
at City Point. They decided to go to City Point and blow up one of the Federal
August 9th was a Tuesday. The day was also going to be exceedingly hot,
noticeable even during a very hot and dry summer. One Federal soldier noted the
temperature at 98 degrees, and this was at 6:30 in the morning. Perhaps the
heat helped Maxwell and Dillard as they slipped through Federal lines. Everyone
would be sweating, not just nervous enemy agents. They passed undetected
through the Federal picket line at City Point. Dillard hid at the outskirts of
the port, while Maxwell went on with his torpedo – actually a large box, though
probably not otherwise noticeable, containing somewhere between 12 and 15
pounds of explosives.
After arriving in the dock area, Maxwell noticed the captain of one supply
barge leave his vessel on an errand. Maxwell headed towards the vessel. He told
a sentry, who stopped him, that the captain had ordered him to put the box on
board. There is no indication that the sentry thought of the elementary
security move to ask Maxwell the name of the captain, or that the sentry even
knew the name of the captain.
Maxwell activated the bomb, and gave it to a man from the barge to put on
board. Maxwell and Dillard found a place to hide, in view of the barge but far
enough away to be safe from the resultant explosion. Maxwell had chosen well.
The supply barge, the J.E. Kendrick, was loaded with ammunition.
A doctor, James Otis Moore, assigned to a field hospital, was visiting City
Point to pick up medical supplies. Moore noticed the extensive activity at the
port, as did other observers that morning. Moore, and a companion, boarded the
next train headed back to the front. After some debate over whether they should
sit inside in the heat, or get some relief by riding on top of the car – the
train clearly did not move very fast – Moore declared he was not moving. Both
stayed inside. Other passengers sat on the roof.
Morris Schaff, a Federal staff officer, has been in his office near the wharf
when an old friend came to visit. They decided to walk the 100 yards to Grant's
headquarters to visit an officer with a well-stocked liquor cabinet. They found
and joined in a card game. A female passenger, waiting for departure to Fort
Monroe, decided it was too hot to stay inside. She headed up toward the open
Ulysses S. Grant had just returned to City Point from a trip north. He was
working outside in the morning heat, and heard a report on alleged Rebel
infiltration of City Point. The Union officer, from the Provost Marshall's
Office handling counterintelligence, promised to catch the infiltrators.
About twenty minutes before noon, a Federal hospital attendant, half a mile
away but headed towards the wharf, had a woman on a white horse catch his
The time bomb then exploded. The J.E. Kendrick was totally vaporized. Another
nearby barge blew up, as did a building on the wharf. A newsman at City Point
literally felt the blast, reporting a sound like that of a cannon going off
close to his ear. A soldier in the trenches, ten miles away, thought it sounded
like a thunderclap – on a bright, clear day. Another soldier saw a huge column
Dr. Moore and his friend were looking in the direction of the explosion. Their
eyes were filed with cinders from the blast before they could "hit the deck."
Moore and his companion, another doctor, emerged from the car to a horrible
landscape of wreckage, bodies, and body parts. They immediately began to give
medical aide where they could. The next day Moore wrote his wife that his
decision to stay inside the car probably saved his life.
A news reporter on the top of a railroad car was buffeted by the explosion, but
curiously not knocked off the car. Another observer noticed what today we would
call the shrapnel effect of the blast – weapons, bullets, wood, and other scrap
shot through the air with tremendous, and deadly, force. This observer, who had
taken shelter under his wagon, devoted most of his attention to avoiding the
hoofs of the panicked horse.
The woman passenger, seeking comfort on deck, arrived just a few seconds after
the explosion to watch bodies and equipment flying through the air. And then a
man's severed head fell at her feet. She picked it up by the hair and placed in
a nearby bucket of water. The woman later reported that a big bakery had been
totally destroyed. All that remained was a chimney, with an anchor and chain
perched on top.
Schaff's card game came to an abrupt halt. A cannonball ripped into the tent,
and smashed a trunk in the middle of the group of officers. They all left
quickly, though at least Schaff returned to take a look at what had happened.
Schaff saw "a staggering scene, a mass of overthrown buildings, their timbers
tangled into almost impenetrable heaps."
Grant's aide Horace Porter recalled an explosion, with a sound,
"which vividly recalled the Petersburg mine. . . 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."
Aides remarked that Grant's composure did not change at all, that he seemed the
only one unaffected by the explosion. Later estimates were that two million
(1864) dollars worth of supplies and property had been destroyed in the
explosion. At least 43 people were killed, though the number was probably
higher. There was no way of counting the number of black laborers,
unregistered, vaporized by the force of the blast. 126 people were wounded.
Soon after the explosion, a court of inquiry ruled the explosion to have been
an accident. However, security was tightened. The ordinance depot was rebuilt
far away from the main wharf. The explosion, in a manner reminiscent of the
mine explosion less than two weeks earlier, had little long-term impact on
After the war, sometime after Grant's 1868 election as President of the United
States, John Maxwell went to see Grant's aide Orville Babcock. Babcock had been
on Grant's staff during the Civil War, including at City Point, and come with
him to the White House. Maxwell complained to Babcock about the treatment he
was getting from the patent office. Trying to convince Babcock of his skill as
an inventor, Maxwell told him of the horological torpedo he had invented, and
how it worked that day at City Point. Babcock described this incident, writing
that, "I told him that his efforts, from his standpoint, had been eminently
successful." There is no indication as to whether Maxwell got help with the
Article adapted from:
Philadelphia: Chelsea House, Publishers, 2003.
Show Footnotes and
. Quoted Noah Andrew Trudeau, The Last Citadel, Boston: Little,
Brown and Company, page 134.
. Quoted Trudeau, page 139.
. General Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant , New York: Da Capo
Press, 1988, reprint of edition published New York: Century , 1897, page 273.
. Quoted, Porter, page 275.
Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 08/04/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.