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NP: August 9, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 24: Sabotage At City Point

Sabotage At City Point

(The following is the twenty-fourth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 siege of Petersburg.)


A hundred years ago today [August 9, 1864], about a half hour before noon, persons at or near City Point—and persons not so near—may have wondered whether something like the Crater explosion of recent memory was taking place.

Was the Confederacy returning the compliment of July 30 [1864]? In a sense that was true, although the event which produced noise like thunder, only sharper, and a great cloud of smoke was regarded at the time as accidental. But wonder must have crossed the minds of those officials who at the moment were investigating the causes of the Crater debacle.

This was the great ammunition barge explosion of August 9, 1864, possibly the most untoward event to occur in the great military city which had arisen at the ancient riverside village of City Point. A second ammunition barge also exploded, and a few nearby vessels sank. Material destruction included 180 feet of wharf and 600 feet of warehouses. The human toll was 43 killed and 126 wounded, comparable at least with that of a small and sharp engagement.

Shells, shots, bullets, pieces of timber, chains, links, and saddles, of which there happened to be a large supply close by, were scattered over City Point. Tents were pierced by fragments of flying debris. Buildings were jarred by the explosion.

Admirers of General U. S. Grant saw fit to note that, unlike some other people, he went running toward the scene of disaster rather than away from it.

That was about all there was to it. For a long time the explosion of the ammunition barge was attributed to carelessness or mishandling. Even in recent years it sometimes has been so described.

*     *     *

But John Maxwell, Confederate Secret Service agent, had another version: He had caused the explosion by use of what he called a horological torpedo. Undetected, he had made his way to City Point and the tangle of installations beside the river. In a matter-of-fact looking box which he carried were 12 pounds of powder and a machine which would detonate the charge at a given time.

Meeting a man coming off an ordnance barge, Scout Maxwell asked him to take the box on board. The unsuspecting man accommodated him. Then the Confederate visitor retired to a safe distance to await the explosion, which occurred half an hour later. There seems to be no good reason for doubting Maxwell’s story.

The episode was an event in the domestic annals of wartime City Point. Although it had no tactical importance, it reminds us of aspects of the hundred-year-old story which still are not known in full detail. Maxwell’s killing of 43 men with his time bomb might seem to be a cold and cruel act, but the same could be said of the blowing up of 278 Confederates a week and a half earlier.

In any case, sabotage was a factor of greater importance than often realized in what sometimes has been called the world’s first modern war.

Even now data are coming to light showing how some of the railroads of the Confederacy, in addition to the afflictions resulting from faulty government policy, damage from raids, and other woes, were subjected to a more subtle and effective kind of sabotage by Union sympathizers within their organizations.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:



  1. “Sabotage At City Point.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  August 9, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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