‘It Was Not War. It Was Simply Butchery.’ – Explosion Near Grant’s Headquarters

August 9, 1864 (Tuesday)

From Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant

“An event occurred in the forenoon of August 9 which looked for an instant as if the general-in-chief had returned to headquarters only to meet his death. He was sitting in front of his tent, surrounded by several staff officers. General Sharpe, the assistant provost-marshal general, had been telling him that he had a conviction that there were spies in the camp at City Point, and had proposed a plan for detecting and capturing them.

Wharf at City Point, 1864
Wharf at City Point, 1864

“He had just left the general when, at twenty minutes to twelve, a terrific explosion shook the earth, accompanied by a sound which vividly recalled the Petersburg mine, still fresh in the memory of every one present. Then there rained down upon the party a terrific shower of shells, bullets, boards, and fragments of timber. The general was surrounded by splinters and various kinds of ammunition, but fortunately was not touched by any of the missiles. Babcock of the staff was slightly wounded in the right hand by a bullet, one mounted orderly and several horses were instantly killed, and three orderlies were wounded.

“In a moment all was consternation. On rushing to the edge of the bluff, we found that the cause of the explosion was the blowing up of a boat loaded with ordnance stores which lay at the wharf at the foot of the hill. Much damage was done to the wharf, the boat was entirely destroyed, all the laborers employed on it were killed, and a number of men and horses near the landing were fatally injured. The total casualties were forty-three killed and forty wounded. The general was the only one of the party who remained unmoved; he did not even leave his seat to run to the bluff with the others to see what had happened.”

From the diary of Theodore Lyman, General Meade’s staff officer:

“‘Rosie’, Worth, Cavada and Cadwalader were in a tent at Grant’s Headq’rs when suddenly there was a great noise, adn a 12-pdr. shot came smash into the mess-chest! They rushed out – it was raining shot, shell, tembers and saddles (of which there had been a barge load near)! Two dragoons were killed near them. They saw just then a man running towards the explosion – the only one – it was Grant! and this shows his character well.”

The two stories of Grant’s actions are obviously not reconcilable, though the former seems more truthful than the latter, since Porter was there and Lyman was not.

Explosion at City Point  drawn by Alfred Waud
Explosion at City Point drawn by Alfred Waud

Five minutes after the explosion, General Grant wired Washington:

City Point, August 9,1864 — 11.45 a.m.

Five minutes ago an ordnance boat exploded, carrying lumber, grape, canister, and all kinds of shot over this point. Every part of the yard used as my headquarters is tilled with splinters and fragments of shell. I do not know yet what the casualties are beyond my own headquarters. Colonel Babrock is slightly wounded in hand and 1 mounted orderly is killed and 2 or 3 wounded and several horses killed. The damage at the wharf must be considerable both in life and property. As soon as the smoke clears away I will ascertain and telegraph you.

Lieutenant- General.

Soon after, a message came in from General Meade’s headquarters: “Was that explosion at City Point? What was it?”

The reply from City Point came: “A barge laden with ordnance stores was accidentally blown up just now while lying at the wharf. There has been considerable destruction of property and loss of life. No officers were killed. The shock was terrific, and of course unlooked for. It is probable we shall never know how the accident occurred. One of your office wagon horses was killed. We are clearing away the ruins at the river.”

Horace Porter continued his telling:

“No one could surmise the cause of the explosion, and the general [Grant] appointed me president of a board of officers to investigate the matter. We spent several days in taking the testimony of all the people who were in sight of the occurrence, and used every possible means to probe the matter; but as all the men aboard the boat had been killed, we could obtain no satisfactory evidence. It was attributed by most of those present to the careless handling of the ammunition by the laborers who were engaged in unloading it; but there was a suspicion in the minds of many of us that it was the work of some emissaries of the enemy sent into the lines.”

According to Lyman, “About 35, mostly negro lumpers, were killed, and 80 wounded.” The “negro lumpers” were the laborers which were supposed to have carelessly caused the explosion. But this was not true.

From the official report of John Maxwell:

Gabriel Rains, to whom Mr. Maxwell was writing.
Gabriel Rains, to whom Mr. Maxwell was writing.

“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.

“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.”

Horace Porter concludes the story:

“Seven years after the war, when I was serving with President Grant as secretary, a Virginian called to see me at the White House, to complain that the commissioner of patents was not treating him fairly in the matter of some patents he was endeavoring to procure. In the course of the conversation, in order to impress me with his skill as an inventor, he communicated the fact that he had once devised an infernal machine which had been used with some success during the war; and went on to say that it consisted of a small box filled with explosives, with a clockwork attachment which could be set so as to cause an explosion at any given time; that, to prove the effectiveness of it, he had passed into the Union lines in company with a companion, both dressed as laborers, and succeeded in reaching City Point, knowing this to be the base of supplies.

Explosion as depicted in Harper's Weekly
Explosion as depicted in Harper’s Weekly

“By mingling with the laborers who were engaged in unloading the ordnance stores, he and his companion succeeded in getting aboard the boat, placing their infernal machine among the ammunition, and setting the clockwork so that the explosion would occur in half an hour. This enabled them to get to a sufficient distance from the place not to be suspected. I told him that his efforts, from his standpoint, had been eminently successful.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p954-955; Part 2, p94-95; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; The title of this post is a quote from Franklin Brigham Fay, who wrote a memoir about service in the medical corps. []
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