For the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, who continued to man the siege lines south of Petersburg, no particularly arduous duty was required of them during the beginning of August 1864. It seems their only complaint was that the country behind their lines had, in many places, already been stripped of most of its produce and livestock by the cavalry. As for those places that still remained untouched, Asst. Surgeon Levi Jewett wrote, “If any plundering was done it was by stragglers or deserters, but occasionally a wandering pig or an innocent calf or an unsuspecting lamb or a simple-minded goose found its way into the soldiers’ camp kettles.”
The 9th of August was hot with temperatures in the upper nineties, and for military personnel and civilians alike at the massive wharf at City Point, the day would be remembered as the hottest ever. Two Confederate saboteurs, named John Maxwell and R. K. Dillard, slipped past the Union picket line around City Point. Maxwell had invented a time bomb, then called a horological torpedo, and he was eager to test it on Union vessels tied up at the wharf.
The day started like any other. Soldiers and sailors frequented bath houses and barber shops along the waterfront. Sutlers (traveling merchants) plied the warehouses, filling their wagons with goods for resale to the men at the front. Here and there, civilians boarded one or another of the steamers bound downriver. Quartermaster clerks sweated in stuffy offices. Hundreds of black laborers formed a human chain and joyfully tossed artillery shells from boat to railroad car. Another train, filled with passengers and cargo, waited alongside the dock waiting to depart.
At about 10:00 a.m., amid the hustle and bustle of the extremely busy port, no one gave the solitary man carrying a wooden box under his arm a second look. Maxwell paused to set the timer and then approached a fully loaded ammunition barge, the J. E. Kendrick. A guard challenged him. Maxwell said the box belonged to the captain and one of the barge’s crewmen was summoned to carry the box on board.
A huge explosion ripped through the City Point wharf area shortly before noon. The Kendrick was completely destroyed as was a second barge next to it. Fire engulfed a large warehouse nearby. Artillery shells, musket balls, bodies and body parts, and all sorts of debris were blown high and rained down over a wide area. Several officers were injured at Gen. Grant’s headquarters, but he was unhurt.
The official death toll was 43, with 126 injured. But no one knows how many black dockworkers were killed. They carried no identification. They punched no time clock. No register was kept of who was working on that fatal day, and no burials were recorded.
Maxwell and Dillard escaped without difficulty. After the war Maxwell applied for a patent for his timed exploding device that had been proven quite effective and deadly.