Sabotage! (August 9, 1864)

Alfred Waud depicted the explosion at City Point. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Alfred Waud depicted the explosion at City Point. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

In their letters of August 9, both Meade and Theodore Lyman mention the explosion at the docks of City Point, not far from Grant’s headquarters. The war had completely transformed this formerly sleepy town at the confluence of the Appomattox and the James Rivers, about seven miles from Petersburg. Swarms of laborers began building docks, wharves, and warehouses, plus a hospital that could handle 6,000 patients. On August 9, 1864, a Confederate agent snuck an explosive aboard one of the ammunition barges at City Point. The resulting explosion killed 43 and injured 126 but did no major damage to the Union war effort.

It’s possible that Stanton’s opinion of Meade dated back to a letter Grant had written from Spotsylvania in May. “General Meade has more than met my most sanguine expectations,” he had written to Stanton. “He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with.”

I am delighted to see your letter is written in such good spirits, and am truly rejoiced to hear I have so many and such warm friends. The attempt to implicate me in the recent fiasco was truly ridiculous; still, the public must in time be influenced by these repeated and constant attacks, however untrue and unjustifiable they may be. Have you ever thought that since the first week after Gettysburg, now more than a year, I have never been alluded to in public journals except to abuse and villify me? And why this is I have never been able to imagine.

I had a letter to-night from Cortlandt Parker, who has recently seen George Harding. He says Harding told him he had recently seen Stanton, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Grant, and that Stanton observed that Grant had a most exalted opinion of me, and told him, Stanton, that when he first came East he thought Sherman was the first soldier in the country, but now he believed I was his equal, if not superior. I send you this for what it is worth. I certainly think Grant has a queer way of showing his appreciation. Grant has not until recently seen Stanton, since we crossed the Rapidan, so could not have told him this; but Dana may have conveyed this information.

There was an awful explosion to-day at City Point of a powder and ammunition vessel. It is said sixty were killed and one hundred and fifty wounded.

I have been engaged for two days giving my testimony before the court of inquiry that is investigating the Petersburg disaster. It will take them a long time to get through, and I fancy active operations will interrupt their proceedings till such time that the witnesses will be scattered. Grant has not yet acted on my application to have Burnside relieved. The weather continues awfully hot, but the army is in good health.

Aftermath of the explosion (Library of Congress).

Aftermath of the explosion (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s entry is, a usual, much more descriptive and adds a fine note about Ulysses S. Grant.

In the forenoon, as we were sitting in camp, we heard a noise, like a quick, distant clap of thunder, but sharper. We concluded it must be an explosion, from the sound, and in a few minutes came a telegraph from Grant, at City Point, saying that an ordnance barge had blown up, with considerable loss of life. I think the number of killed will not exceed thirty-five; and, of the wounded, perhaps eighty; at first they thought there were many more. The greater part of the injured were negroes employed as wharf-laborers. To return to the explosion: Rosy, Worth, Cavada, and Cadwalader were at Grant’s Headquarters, and they said it perfectly rained shells, shot, bullets, pieces of timber, and saddles (of these latter there was a barge load near by). Two dragoons were killed, close to them, and a twelve-pounder solid shot went smash into a mess-chest in the tent. The only man who, at the first shock, ran towards the scene of terror was Lieutenant-General Grant, which shows his kind of character very well. We dined very pleasantly with Dalton. You should see his town of tents, with regular streets—accommodation easy for 8000 patients. Everything as neat as a pin. Steam-engine to pump water from the river; every patient of the 4000 on a cot; the best of food for all; and the most entire cleanliness. When Dalton heard the explosion, he jumped on his feet, and, true to his instincts, cried out: “Harness the ambulances!”

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 220. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 209-10. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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