SOPO Editor’s Note: For some reason, this article was printed in two consecutive weekly issues of the Sunday Mercury, once on August 14, 1864 and once in this issue, the August 21, 1864 edition. I have chosen to leave both up. Consult this version because I found out why Colonel Gates was in charge at City Point, and not Provost Marshall Marsena Patrick.
One Hundred and Seventieth Regiment, N[ew]. Y[ork]. V[olunteers].
[Special Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.]
CAMP 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 new 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 Point, hunting up some contrabands to take charge of a portion of our culinary department, and he had not been more than fairly seated with Brig. Van Rensselaer, commanding the Twentieth New York Militia [aka 80th New York], 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.1
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 G.] Gates, commandant of the post, and Brig. [Major Walter A.?] Van Rensselaer, commanding Twentieth New York [Militia, aka 80th New York], having now arrived, everything went on like clock-work; 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.2 We proceeded from here to the camp and houses in the village, and found 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, pane] 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.3 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.4
The [170th New York] regiment 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.5
Yours, etc. A. O. P.6
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.
If you are interested in helping us transcribe newspaper articles like the one above, please CONTACT US.
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the famous August 9, 1864 Explosion at City Point, where an ordnance barge blew up and caused massive destruction in its vicinity, obliterating another barge as well as a building on shore. Interestingly, this was no accident. Confederate saboteur John Maxwell managed to sneak a “horological torpedo,” a time bomb, on board the vessel, where it eventually detonated with spectacular effect, as this eyewitness account so effectively demonstrates. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This is an interesting statement. Gates was officially the commander of the 80th New York, or 20th Militia, in the Official Records at the end of July as well as the end of August 1864. The 80th New York was part of the Provost Guard, which was stationed at City Point during this time. On August 9 at least, it seems Gates was temporarily in charge of the portions of the Provost Guard at City Point, during which time Van Rensselaer, probably Major Walter A. Rensselaer, was in charge of the regiment itself. The Provost Guard as a whole was commanded by Brigadier General Marsena Patrick. After consulting Inside Lincoln’s Army¸ the published version of Patrick’s Diary, page 412, it seems Patrick had for a long time been settled in a camp 1 ½ miles west of the Birchett House, which itself was about 2 miles south of City Point. See this map for its exact location. Patrick was not present at City Point at the time of the explosion, and good thing too, because his offices there were covered in debris after the event! ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: As I mentioned earlier, this was no accident! ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I have searched all of my usual reference works as well as online and I can find no evidence of a steam tug named “Chilli,” “Chili,” or “Chile” anywhere. If you know which vessel this is, please CONTACT US. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 170th New York was part of “Corcoran’s Irish Legion,” a second Irish Brigade of sorts which was originally the Fourth Brigade, Second Division, Second Corps, AotP when they arrived at the front in May 1864, but was made the Second Brigade on June 26, 1864 after consolidations. They had indeed suffered severely during the Overland Campaign. This brigade had been in backwaters of the war and serving in Washington, D. C. from formation in late 1862 through early 1864. ↩
- “One Hundred and Seventieth Regiment, N. Y. V.” Sunday Mercury (New York, New York). August 21, 1864, p. 7 col. 2 ↩