This devastating bombing was courtesy of Confederate Secret Service

A Confederate saboteur conducted a bombing at City Point, Virginia that completely destroyed two barges and a warehouse.
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Captured Confederate ordnance at city point
Captured Confederate ordnance, including torpedos and artillery shells. The Confederate high command had initial reservations about using naval and land mines, but it eventually embraced the technology as a way to offset the tremendous manpower and equipment advantages of Union forces.

The City Point bombing took place in August of 1864, when the momentum of the Civil War ran in favor of the North, but the Confederacy had real victories too. Robert E. Lee won at Cold Harbour in June 1864. And Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early got within five miles of Washington D.C. in an assault in July. And Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s June attempt to take Petersburg, Virginia on his way to Richmond failed.

The assault on Petersburg turned into a protracted siege, and Grant set up his headquarters in City Point, Virginia. At City Point, the Confederacy achieved one of the most successful sabotage efforts of the war when a spy smuggled a bomb into a shipment and blew up the supply base.

The Siege of Petersburg

Petersburg, Virginia, sits south of the city of Richmond. Grant planned to take the city quickly and then strike into the Confederate capital. Unfortunately, his initial assault failed to take the city and so he settled into a siege that ended up lasting almost 10 months. The Confederates used Petersburg as a major supply base.

The Union, meanwhile, turned their camp in City Point into a massive supply base. Both sides supplied hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the area, making long-distance logistics vital. On the Union side, this was done in large part via barges.

The two sides fought a series of skirmishes and pitched battles. They dug trenches for over 30 miles and then fought over them. The two sides suffered over 70,000 casualties in the 9.5 months.

Both sides also struck out at the other’s supply lines. Since the Confederacy was running short of supplies and money, Grant knew that Lee was vulnerable to shortages. Lee, meanwhile, knew that Grant was deep in Confederate territory and so would struggle to supply himself if his lines were strained.

Eventually, Lee ran out of supplies first, forcing him to retreat in March 1865 despite many tactical victories in the campaign. This led to Lee’s eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

The Confederate Secret Service attack on City Point

But long before Lee’s retreat in March 1865, a Confederate saboteur landed a stunning and clandestine blow on Union supply.

Capt. John Maxwell of the Confederate Secret Service received orders to carry a time bomb into City Point and use it to destroy shipping in or around the Union headquarters. According to his report, he met a local named R. K. Dillard and the two men traveled through the night of August 9, 1864, to get past Union pickets. To hide their approach, they crawled on their knees.

Maxwell learned that a barge captain had gone ashore, and he boldly ran up to the wharf. When he was stopped, he told the wharf sentinel that the captain had ordered him to deliver a box to the barge. He hailed a worker on the barge, handed him the box, and then left.

Yes, Maxwell got a crew member to deliver the bomb onto the barge. And he could not have picked a better barge.

Maxwell’s bomb consisted of a timer, an initiator, and 12 pounds of black powder. It was hefty, but not enough to really damage more than a single boat. But the barge he got it onto was an ammo barge with about 250 pounds of explosives. And it was near another, similarly loaded ammo barge. Both of the barges were near a warehouse filled with shot and powder.

headquarters City Point bombing
General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point. (Credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

He described the result like this:

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.

John Maxwell, as quoted in “Confederate Sabotage at City Point”

Grant, in his headquarters, felt and heard the explosion. He rushed outside to witness cannonballs, horse saddles, and more falling from the sky. At 11:45 a.m., he sent this to Maj. Gen. Halleck:

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 filled with splinters and fragments of shell. I do not know yet what the casualties are beyond my own headquarters. Colonel Babcock 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. —Grant

Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as quoted in Petersburg Project

A subordinate wrote after the war that the explosion was the closest to death that Grant came during the war.

Despite the extensive damage, the Union got the warehouse rebuilt and the wharf back into operation in just 9 days. For the duration of the war, the Union thought the explosion was the result of a terrible ammo-handling accident. But they discovered drawings and Capt. Maxwell’s report to his superior and learned the truth.

At least 43 soldiers, workers, and civilians lost their lives in the explosion, and final estimates put the damage at approximately $2 million.