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OR XLII P1 #375: Report of John Maxwell, Secret Service, CSA, Explosion at City Point, August 9, 1864

No. 375. Report of John Maxwell, Secret Service, Confederate States, of explosion at City Point.1

RICHMOND, December 16, 1864.

CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report that in obedience to your order, and with the means and equipment furnished me by you, I left this city 26th of July last, for the line of the James River, to operate with the Horological torpedo against the enemy’s vessels navigating that river. I had with me Mr. R. K. Dillard, who was well acquainted with the localities, and whose services I engaged for the expedition. On arriving in Isle of Wight County, on the 2nd of August, we learned of immense supplies of stores being landed at City Point, and for the purpose, by stratagem, of introducing our machine upon the vessels there discharging stores, started for that point. We reached there before daybreak on the 9th of August last, with a small amount of provisions, having traveled mostly by night and crawled upon our knees to pass the east picket-line. Requesting my companion to remain behind about half a mile I approached cautiously the wharf, with my machine and powder covered by a small box. Finding the captain had come

ashore from a barge then at the wharf, I seized the occasion to hurry forward with my box. Being halted by one of the wharf sentinels I succeeded in passing him by representing that the captain had ordered me to convey the box on board. Hailing a man from the barge I put the machine in motion and gave it in his charge. He carried it aboard. The magazine contained about twelve pounds of powder. Rejoining my companion, we retired to a safe distance to witness the effect of our effort. In about an hour the explosion occurred. Its effect was communicated to another barge beyond the one operated upon and also to a large wharf building containing their stores (enemy’s), which was totally destroyed. The scene was terrific, and the effect deafened my companion to an extent from which he has not recovered. My own person was severely shocked, but I am thankful to Providence that we have both escaped without lasting injury. We obtained and refer you to the inclosed slips* from the enemy’s newspapers, which afford their testimony of the terrible effects of this blow. The enemy estimates the loss of life at 58 killed and 126 wounded, but we have reason to believe it greatly exceeded that. The pecuniary damage we heard estimated at $4,000,000, but, of course, we can give you no account of the extent of it exactly.

I may be permitted, captain, here to remark that in the enemy’s statement a party of ladies, it seems, were killed by this explosion. It is saddening to me to realize the fact that the terrible effects of war induce such consequence; but when I remember the ordeal to which our own women have been subjected, and the barbarities of the enemy’s crusade against us and them, my feelings are relieved by the reflection that while this catastrophe was not intended by us, it amounts only, in the providence of God, to just retaliation.

This being accomplished, we returned to the objects of our original expedition. We learned that a vessel (the Jane Duffield) was in Warwick River, and with the assistance of Acting Master W. H. Hinds, of the C. S. Navy, joined a volunteer party to capture her. She was boarded on the 17th of September last, and taken without resistance. We did not destroy her, because of the effect it might have had on the neighboring citizens and our own further operations. At the instance of the captain she was bonded, he offering as a hostage, in the nature of security to the bond, one of his crew, who is now held as a prisoner of war on this condition in this city.

In the meanwhile we operated on the James as the weather and moon co-operated, but without other success than the fear with which the enemy advanced, and the consequent retarding of his movements on the river. We neared success on several occasions. Finding our plan of operations discovered by the enemy, and our persons made known and pursued by troops landed from their boats at Smithfield, we deemed it best to suspend operations in that quarter and return to report to you officially our labors. Your orders were to remain in the enemy’s lines as long as we could do so; but I trust this conduct will meet your approval. The material unused has been safely concealed.

I have thus, captain, presented you in detail the operations conducted under your orders and the auspices of your company, and await further orders.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Captain Z. MCDANIEL.


* Not found.


[First indorsement.]

DECEMBER 17, 1864.

Respectfully forwarded to Brigadier-General Rains.

Captain Company A, Secret Service.

[Second indorsement.]


Respectfully forwarded, with remark that John Maxwell and R. K. Dillard were sent by Captain McDaniel into the enemy’s lines by my authority for some such purpose, and the supposition was strong, as soon as the tremendous explosion occurred at City Point on the 9th of August last, that it was done through their agency, but of course no report could be made until the parties returned, which they did on Wednesday last, and gave an account of their proceedings. This succinct narrative is but an epitome of their operations, which necessarily implies secrecy for the advantage of this kind of service as well as their own preservation. John Maxwell is a bold operator and well calculated for such exploits, and also his coadjutor, R. K. Dillard.

Brigadier-General, Superintendent.


  1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 1 (Serial Number 87), pages 954-956
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