Editor’s Note: This letter to the Sunday Mercury appears here due to Bill Styple’s fantastic book Writing and Fighting the Civil War, which is where I first learned about these amazing soldier letters. You can purchase a copy of Writing and Fighting the Civil War at Belle Grove Publishing.
One Hundred and Seventieth Regiment, N. Y. V.
[Special Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.]
NEAR PETERSBURG, VA., August 10. 
Fearful Explosion at City Point—Dreadful Loss of Life—Consternation of the Negroes—Daring of the Irish Legion, Etc.
Since my last, nothing of special interest has occurred in this Department to interfere with the equanimity of the Second Corps, or, in fact, with the Army of the Potomac, further than now and then some brisk exchanges of musketry on the part of the pickets in front of Petersburg. Yesterday [August 9, 1864], however, the writer was at City Point1, hunting up some contrabands to take charge of a position of our culinary department, and he has not been more than fairly seated with Brig. [Gen.] Van Renseelaer, commanding the Twentieth New York Militia [aka 80th New York Infantry]2 enjoying a beautiful glass, or should I say ten, of ice-water, than one of the most fearful reports of, as it appeared, of shell, grape, canister, and musketry that ever vied with the elements in their hissing sounds, took place, dealing death and destruction in every direction. The greatest consternation that ever affected white or black men spread far and near; negroes, male and female, rushed in every direction; white men—the majority of them veterans of many hard-fought battles—stood aghast; officers, who commanded many a fierce charge, and whose scars betokened many a hard struggle with the enemy, stood almost petrified. In fact, so sudden and so terrific was the explosion, that description is impossible.3
Quiet being partly restored, we emerged from our canvas shelter to learn the cause. We were not more than two hundred yards from where the explosion took place, and on casting our eyes around, we found the ground literally covered with shot and shell, and near where we stood, we picked about twenty as beautiful specimens of man-annihilators as Jeff Davis can boast of. Thank Providence! none of them came in contact with our craniums. From here we proceeded down to the scene of the catastrophe, and what was our astonishment to find houses, docks, boats, tents, in a state of perfect wreck! dead and dying strewn among the ruins; bodies torn to pieces; an arm here, a head there, a leg and other portions of the human frame mangled to pieces, at some places a distance of two hundred yards; muskets and rifles bent into every imaginable shape; ordnance-stores, including almost everything in the vocabulary, lying helter-skelter; and ammunition, of all sorts and sizes, covering the ground as far as the eye could reach. Detachments from the different regiments stationed there soon arrived on the ground, and immediately set to work removing the ruins about the barge which had exploded, and quiet reigned once more. Body after body was extricated—some dead, others dying, mangled in the most fearful manner, and the groans of the poor fellows who had any life left were pitiable in the extreme.
Colonel [Theodore] Gates [of the 80th New York aka 20th New York Militia], commandant of the post, and Brig. Van Rensselaer, commanding the Twentieth New York [Militia]4, having now arrived, everything went on like clockwork; and, indeed, too much praise cannot be bestowed on both these gentlemen for the manner in which they exerted themselves to restore order and relieve the wounded. We proceeded from here to the camp and houses in the village, and about every tent more or less perforated, and the interior of the houses divested of their plaster—some of them not having a solitary pain [sic] of glass left—yet, strange to say, very few were hurt; although from the appearance of the ground, it was very evident that there was ample cause for considerable mortality. After an hour or so, we visited the scene of the explosion again, and found that some twenty dead bodies, principally colored men, had already been extricated from the ruins, besides several who were fearfully wounded—many so badly, that amputation had to be resorted to. It was impossible to learn the exact amount of mortality or damage done, but, on a rough guess, we should think that one hundred covers the number of killed and wounded. The damage done to Government-property cannot be much less than half a million of dollars. All sorts of rumors are afloat as to the cause of the explosion, but are merely surmises. There is very little doubt but what it was purely accidental.5 So far as we were enabled to learn, a large barge was lying alongside of the wharf, loaded with ordnance and ordnance-stores, and was being unloaded, when suddenly an explosion took place, resulting in what I have already stated. It is very probable, and I do not see anything more likely, than as the barge was being unloaded at the time, some colored man, who was ignorant of what he was handling, dropped a percussion-shell, which immediately exploded, and hence the fearful catastrophe that followed. It is, nevertheless a matter which requires thorough investigation; for, if proper care was taken, no such accident could have happened. I forgot to mention that the steamtug (fire-boat) Chilli was on hand immediately after the occurrence, and got eight streams of water playing on the ruins, which was the cause of preventing any further disaster, for another barge lay quite near the scene, also loaded with ammunition.
The regiment [170th New York] is in the best of health and spirits, encamped in a wood near Petersburg, waiting orders. We are expecting some active work again in a few days. Do advise Uncle Sam to allow us an opportunity to recruit. A regiment that has fought so manfully, and lost over two-thirds of its number in this campaign, and that has never been beaten, should have its ranks filled up.
Yours, etc. A. O. P.6
- SOPO Editor’s Note: City Point, for those of you who do not know, was Ulysses S. Grant’s command and supply center for the Federal armies operating against Richmond and Petersburg. Situated on the James River, it was an ideal point for ocean going ships to drop off supplies, while river going vessels and the special US Military Railroad distributed those supplies to the front. The small village turned into a bustling city of sorts for the duration of the Siege of Petersburg, with all manner of men, animals, and machines coming and going at all hours of the day. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I’m not sure how this command arrangement worked. The 80th New York Infantry had been the 20th New York Militia. The 80th New York was serving at City Point at this time as part of the Provost Guard of the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Theodore Gates appears as the steady commander of the 80th New York from July-October 1864, and may have been there earlier as well. I’m not sure if Brig. Gen. Van Rensselaer was the commander of the 20th Militia back home in New York and was just visiting, or if the 20th New York Militia even existed separately from the 80th New York in the field at this time. See the letter writer’s reference below to Gates commanding “the post,” by which he presumably means City Point, and Van Rensselaer commanding the 80th New York. More research is needed. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: In one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” moments, this explosion was no accident. Confederate Secret Service Agents had deposited an early version of a time bomb disguised as a lump of coal on one of the barges unloading near City Point. The resulting explosion caused mass chaos, so ably described by the author of this letter. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: As I mentioned earlier, the Official Records show a different setup. Gates shows up repeatedly as the commander of his 80th New York aka 20th New York Militia. Van Rensselaer does not appear in the portions of the Official Records I have looked over so far. More research is needed. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Surprisingly, as mentioned earlier, it was not accidental. See the report in the Official Records of John Maxwell, a Confederate Secret Service Agent, who managed to plant a bomb on the barge that exploded. ↩
- “One Hundred and Seventieth Regiment, N. Y. V..” Sunday Mercury (New York, New York). August 14, 1864, p. 7 col. 2 ↩