Battles And Campaigns - 1864

    Explosion At City Point  "A 'Horological Torpedo'"  August 9, 1864

City Point was a quiet Virginia hamlet until the last 10 months of the Civil War, when it became headquarters for Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Starting in June 1864, City Point, located at the junction of the James and Appomattox Rivers, was transformed into one of the world's busiest seaports. Huge wharves and warehouses were built to service the more than 200 vessels that daily arrived from the North, and a railroad was repaired and extended to carry materiel to the Union army at Petersburg.

Shortly after noon on August 9, 1864, City Point erupted in a tremendous explosion that destroyed over $2 million worth of property, killing or wounding more than 300 people. It barely missed injuring Grant, who at the time was sitting outside his headquarters tent on a high bluff above the depot. "Every part of the yard used as my headquarters is filled with splinters and fragments of shell", Grant reported to Washington. A member of his staff related the effects of the explosion: "Such a rain of shot, shell, bullets, pieces of wood, iron bars and bolts, chains and missiles of every kind was never before witnessed." An ordnance officer surveyed the damage to his depot: "From the top of the bluff there lay before me a staggering scene, a mass of overthrown buildings, their timbers tangled into almost impenetrable heaps. In the water were wrecked and sunken barges."

It soon became apparent that an ammunition barge- loaded with 20,000 to 30,000 artillery rounds and more than 75,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition- had exploded. It was only after the war, however, that Confederate archives revealed the cause of the explosion. Captain John Maxwell, a Rebel saboteur, had penetrated the Union lines at City Point and had placed a "horological torpedo"- a time bomb made of a candle box packed with 12 pounds of gunpowder, a percussion cap, and a clockwork mechanism- upon the barge. Maxwell was "terribly shocked by the explosion" himself, but made it back to Confederate lines.

Fascinating Fact:  A canal boat packed with saddles was directly beside the ammunition barge. An observer reported that "the explosion sent those old cavalry saddles flying in every direction like so many big-winged bats."


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