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The South's Headless Hero-Terrorist

Being an account of Captain Maxwell's exploits with his deadly machine.


A Union sentinel on the wharf stopped the stranger to ask why he was there. The man said he was carrying out a request from the captain of the barge J. E. Kendrick, who had told him to bring a certain parcel aboard.

The sentry had some difficulty understanding the civilian's thick Scottish brogue. Exasperated, he waved him on toward the powder barge moored at the dock. He may have watched the man wave down one of the Kendrick's sailors and hand him the little box. Or he may have idly turned his gaze back to the river, to watch the sun dance on the water.

In one hour, the sky would rain ash and blood. Bones and bullets would sow the ground. And no one left alive would remember the Scot in the shabby clothes.

His name was John Maxwell. These are the remnants of his life: a gleaming sword and a threadbare, tartan cap. An age-stained stone on a little hill in Hollywood Cemetery, carved with two daffodils and three names. A leather-bound family Bible. A bit of brass clockwork. And a few photographs, including one of him as a young man, another in old age, and one in which blood drips from the stump of his neck.

Some think of Maxwell as a hero who did his best to save the Confederacy. Some might call him a terrorist who killed more innocents than soldiers. Most people have never heard of him. One thing is certain: In the last phase of the Civil War, when Southern hope was waning, he single-handedly carried out an extraordinary exploit in the heart of the Union command.

Today the site of the City Point dock is nothing but a quiet strip of grass on the river, on the north side of Hopewell. On a recent Monday, a few people fished while their dogs lay brooding in the shade. A stray cat streaked through the weeds.

City Point stayed this quiet for a long time. Native Americans lived here for centuries, leaving bits of pottery and stone tools behind. In 1635, the land on the point was granted to the Eppes family, who came from England to establish a plantation here. A port town grew up on the riverbank, and in the late 1830s the city was on the brink of prosperity. Hope was short-lived, however; the Norfolk to Petersburg railroad, constructed 20 years later, put City Point and its small neighboring ports out of business.

The little river town seemed destined to be forgotten. But for nine and a half months of the Civil War, City Point suddenly became one of the busiest ports in the world. Nestled neatly between the Confederate cities of Petersburg and Richmond, it caught the attention of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

At City Point, a deep channel ran right next to the bank allowing large, heavily laden ships coming up the James River to dock easily. A railroad line ran directly from City Point to Petersburg, where Grant had arrayed his forces to cut off Confederate supply lines. It was the perfect place for Grant to locate his new command headquarters and supply depot, says Jimmy Blankenship, City Point's historian-curator.

Blankenship, 49, is a bit of a rebel himself, a trait perhaps borne in the blood from his own distant Confederate ancestors. His silver-streaked ponytail hangs to his belt, and he chafes at wearing his official National Park Service straw hat. He begs forgiveness if he seems tired - the night before, he says, he took his son to a Judas Priest concert in Washington, D.C.

Blankenship started working for the park service in 1976 at Petersburg National Battlefield. He moved around for a while, then in 1984 returned to City Point, which is part of the battlefield park. His heart is here, he says, with the Point's great old magnolias circled by ospreys, the plantation's grapevines and fig trees that provide a sweet breakfast in late summer.

The Park Service runs a museum in the old Eppes plantation house, which stands on the bluff above the river. The house recently underwent a million-dollar renovation, and Blankenship is only beginning to put the museum exhibits back together.

City Point's lush serenity delights its visitors, but there's no denying that a supply depot lacks the romance of a battlefield. About 25,000 people use the park annually, and of them, 8,000 to 10,000 visit the plantation house.

Blankenship would tell visitors about Grant and Lincoln, the place's military history, and about the fateful day in August too. He didn't know much about John Maxwell, until about 15 years ago a lady named Alice Westmore Evans paid him a call.

"And she asked me, did I know anything about the explosion," Blankenship recalls. He said that he did — but he was about to learn much more. Capt. Maxwell was her grandfather, Evans told Blankenship. She'd known him when she was just a girl. And she had some very interesting things to show the historian: a disconcerting photograph and a small mechanical device.

In the summer of 1864, Grant's army was busy laying siege to Petersburg and Richmond, keeping the Confederates penned and severing their supply lines. Meanwhile, Grant's coded orders clicked and clacked across the country via a telegraph relay system. Below his perch on the hill lay the bustling wharf.

As many as 225 ships arrived here each day, carrying munitions, lumber and food for the Union army and its animals. Warehouses stored 3 million pounds of goods, including enough food to feed the men for 30 days and their animals for 20 days, in case of a Confederate attack on Union supply lines.

The Southerners, on the other hand, were tightening their belts, subsisting on rations that were far from adequate. A certain Confederate officer captured in March 1865 still fervently believed the South had a chance of winning the war, Blankenship recounts, "until this guy was taken behind Union lines. Once this officer saw City Point, what was sitting here, he knew the war was over. … If they had known what was sitting back here, they either would have gone for it, captured it, or they would have given up, probably."

Maxwell did neither.

Born in Paisley, Scotland, Maxwell came to Virginia as a young man, for reasons unknown to his family. "Probably one step ahead of the sheriff," says Alan Kinker, Maxwell's great-great-grandson and an employee of the state Department of Military Affairs.

An adventurous spirit, Maxwell enlisted in Wise's Virginia Artillery April 19, 1861 - nine days after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter. He later became a Confederate raider, joining a small band of soldiers who tried to capture Union ships. An account from the time calls him "a wiry little highlander" — a misnomer, since Paisley actually lies in the low country.

Maxwell was eventually captured and sentenced to be hanged, but was later freed in a prisoner-of-war exchange. He then went to work for a Confederate Secret Service division led by bomb expert Zebekiah McDaniel. In July 1864, when he was 31 years old, Maxwell embarked on a clandestine mission to destroy enemy vessels in Virginia waters.

According to Maxwell's own report, he left Richmond July 26, heading for the James River with a guide named R. K. Dillard. The pair arrived in Isle of Wight County Aug. 2, where they found out about the "immense supplies of stores being landed at City Point." The Union supply depot seemed the perfect place to execute Maxwell's plan, so he and Dillard struck out for the point.

They traveled by night, crawling on their knees to pass through the Union picket line undetected. The sun had not yet risen when they at last neared City Point on Aug. 9. Maxwell told his companion to wait for him and advanced the last half-mile alone, carrying his small box.

Maxwell surveyed the wharf from the overlooking bluff. He watched the captain of one of the three docked barges leave his craft and come ashore, and he seized the chance to set his machine in motion.

"Rejoining my companion," Maxwell wrote, "we retired to a safe distance to witness the effect of our effort. In about an hour the explosion occurred."

That morning, Union physician James Otis Moore had come to City Point to load a train car with medical supplies for the Third Division Hospital near Petersburg. He and a colleague had just boarded the last car on the train, after a few minutes of arguing. His friend, Dr. Merryweather, wanted to ride on top of the train. Moore didn't, saying it was too hot. The only open car contained a pile of cowhides that smelled none too fresh, but Moore persisted, and Merryweather reluctantly got in.

They were chatting about the similarity of the hide smell to that of the hospital dissecting room when they heard what Moore called "a terrific noise." They looked out the open door toward the river, which was about 60 yards away, and a cloud of cinders blew into their faces. The doctors flung themselves on the floor of the car, then when the noise subsided ran out to see what had happened.

"The first object which met our eyes, was a man lying flat on his back, dead, on the top of one of the cars," Moore wrote the next day in a letter to his wife. "We went a little further. … and there lay the lower half of the trunk & about half of the thighs of a man. We proceeded up the hill where our hospital used to be & all along the road we saw detached portions of the human body. A foot, hand, pieces of the scalp — large pieces of muscle & flesh lay scattered all around. ... We dressed some of the most hideous & ghastly wounds which falls to the lot of Surgeons to dress."

The explosion aboard the powder barge destroyed more than half of the 400-foot wharf and caused $2 million in damage. Debris flew half a mile in every direction. One account describes 11 barrels of pieces of human flesh collected after the explosion. The official tally counted 43 people who died instantly, including the depot's lemonade vendor, who was killed when a flying saddle hit him in the stomach. One hundred twenty-six more people were wounded.

"I really believe more people were killed in this thing than are known," Blankenship says. The majority of the victims were recently freed black dockworkers, whose names were likely never written in any muster rolls. The explosion also rained shells, balls and debris upon the hillside tent camp of the black workers and their families.

Debris also showered Grant's camp on the bluff, injuring some of his staff and killing one mounted courier. Grant, who had been sitting under a sycamore and reading the newspaper, was unharmed. Five minutes after the explosion, he wired a telegraph describing the event to Washington, D.C.

Most people assumed the explosion was the result of an accident, perhaps a dropped shell. But the real cause was the contents of Maxwell's package, the one he'd carried so far: a delicate little device nestled in 12 pounds of black powder.

Maxwell had taken the entrails of a clock — the windup mechanism and fine-toothed gears — and affixed two small cylinders. The one on the left held a spring, the one on the right a percussion cap. When the clockworks reached a preset time, this moved a lever, which released the spring, which smashed the percussion cap. He called it his "horological torpedo."

Evans, the woman who came to see Blankenship, gave the Park Service a model of the mechanism Maxwell constructed. Blankenship once allowed a detonation expert to examine it. "He said this would still be considered a class A detonator today," Blankenship says. "He said, 'It works.'"

The 12 pounds of powder in the box caught fire, then ignited the 80,000 pounds of powder loaded into the barge, which detonated in a thunderous, 30-second explosion. Black smoke was seen 30 miles downriver. Those who saw it thought Petersburg or Richmond was burning.

Maxwell, hiding a short distance away, saw and felt the explosion but escaped injury. He later collected some Union newspaper articles describing the carnage and enclosed them in his report to his commander. He expressed no regret for the effects of his deadly device, except to note that some accounts (now believed to be false) said "a party of ladies" had been killed.

"It is saddening to me to realize the fact that the terrible effects of war induce such consequences," Maxwell wrote, "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."

His mission accomplished, Maxwell helped a party of Confederates board and capture a Union ship and its crew in the James. Later attempts to raid Union vessels failed, and Maxwell soon found himself running from Union soldiers who landed at Smithfield to pursue the Confederate pirates. He then beat a retreat to Richmond.

The explosion at City Point, though horrific, utterly failed to jolt Grant's supply mechanism. "It didn't slow the Union down at all," Blankenship says.

The docks were rebuilt and in full operation in nine days. Two months later, a new wharf was built a short ways downriver, perpendicular to the shoreline. Although Union leaders still didn't know if the explosion had been sabotage or an accident, they imposed much tighter security on the docks. Anyone who didn't have an official pass — including, on one occasion, Lincoln's young son, Tad — was detained until his identity could be ascertained. The mood was much like today's in the aftermath of 9/11, Blankenship reflects.

Was Maxwell's act terrorism? Visitors to City Point often debate that point, Blankenship says. "Some people would say this is a terrorist act, but it's still a legitimate military target, you know? It's not the norm, it's not acceptable. But then again, with Sherman destroying what he did down south, that was not the norm as far as military fighting either."

By 1864, the Civil War had become a total war, Blankenship says. Union Gen. William T. Sherman laid waste to a broad swath of the Georgia and South Carolina countryside in the course of his "March to the Sea." Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan scorched the Shenandoah Valley so thoroughly that people said a crow would have to carry its own rations to fly across the valley.

Yet when a group of Confederates was caught plotting to burn down New York City, the Union hanged one as a terrorist, Blankenship says. "Well, it's fine for the Union to come down here and do it, but it's not fine for the Confederacy to go up there and do it, you know? But who wins the war?"

After Appomattox, the Union seized stacks of Confederate military documents. One was Maxwell's report on the events at City Point, which revealed the true cause of the explosion. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton immediately issued an order for his arrest and placed a bounty on his head. Some suspected the Confederate Secret Service had been involved in Lincoln's assassination.

"He knew if he'd been caught, they'd have hung him in a heartbeat as a spy," Blankenship says. But the gallows frightened Maxwell not at all, it seemed. Instead of lying low in Richmond, he went to New York. There he had a most unusual portrait taken.

Some weeks afterward, an envelope arrived at Stanton's office. Inside was a photograph of Capt. John Maxwell, nattily dressed in waistcoat, gold watch chain and tie, cradling his own severed head in his right arm. Blood trickles from the stump of his neck, staining his white collar. The message, according to great-great-grandson Alan Kinker: "Here's my head."

An inscription on a copy of the photograph, written when Maxwell was 80 years old, says it "was made from life + then decapitated + colored in order to answer the bloody demands and satisfy the morbid wishes of Secty Stanton and Genl Halleck who offered a reward for the arrest of said John Maxwell after the war. ... This photograph was taken in New York City by a photographer whose name I John Maxwell cannot in April 1912 recall, but he was a Southern Sympathizer."

The War Department, after receiving the photo, declared Maxwell officially dead, according a Richmond News-Leader article from June 21, 1940, when the headless photograph was rediscovered in a deceased judge's papers. Perhaps this was a joke in kind, or simply an example of mindless bureaucracy.

Maxwell became a blacksmith working in wrought iron and had a shop at 1006 E. Cary St. In 1865 Maxwell married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Cance, a Scottish woman who was also from Paisley. They had three children: John Stuart, who died in childhood, Wilbert (or Wilbur — people then weren't always too particular about spelling, says Janet Kinker, Alan's mother) and Janet, who was Janet Kinker's grandmother.

Lizzie died in 1898. Ten years later, Maxwell went to live in the Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers' Home, which was at Grove Avenue and the Boulevard. In 1916, at the age of 84, Maxwell contracted pneumonia. His daughter, Janet, had died in 1908, but her husband's new wife took the old man home to care for him.

Janet Kinker's mother, Alice (nicknamed Attie), Maxwell's granddaughter, was 16 years old at the time. She remembered little of her grandfather besides his Scottish accent and the mischievous sparkle in his eyes. "At the time, you know, when you're 14, 15, 16, right around in there, you're not all that interested in grandparents," Janet Kinker says, not unkindly. "So she said she wished she had listened more to his stories." Attie died last year, at the age of 103.

With help from Blankenship, the Kinkers — Janet and her sons, Dale, Alan and Wade — have pieced together the story of Maxwell's life from old newspaper clippings, firsthand accounts and history books. Some things have been lost, like the original headless photograph. But the Kinkers feel they know their saboteur ancestor better now.

"Pretty gutsy," Alan Kinker says. "To walk into probably the biggest Union depot in that region, just calmly walk in with a bomb under your arm, and look for a target of opportunity, and then figure a way to get it on board a ship. He's either very lucky or really good."

Maxwell's long life was to hold one great disappointment. He was proud of his horological torpedo, which he also called the "infernal machine." In 1872 he tried to patent it. When he failed to receive a response from the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office, he went to the White House to try to cut through the red tape. There he met with then-President Grant's executive secretary, Horace Porter.

"Horace Porter is very interested in this device," Blankenship says. "So Porter asked him how it worked, he asked him to give an example of how it was used. Maxwell made the mistake of bringing up the ordnance wharf explosion."

Porter had been Grant's aide-de-camp in 1864, and he well remembered what had happened at City Point that day. He would make sure the rebel never made a dime off his deadly invention. "The Patent Office to this date," Blankenship says, "has absolutely no record of John Maxwell's name." S

A scenic riverside park nestled in a historic neighborhood, City Point is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Day. To get there, take I-95 south to Route 10 east toward Hopewell. After crossing the Appomattox River bridge, turn left at the old Beacon theater, then follow the road as it turns right. At the end of the road, turn left on Cedar Lane and follow it to the City Point museum.

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