Friday, August 14, 2020

'Human gore': A catastrophic explosion at Bachelor's Creek

Accidental explosions, such as this one at Fort Sumter and the one at Bachelor's Creek, N.C., 
on May 26, 1864, occurred throughout the Civil War.  
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Shortly before one of the most horrific tragedies of the Civil War, Federal soldiers eagerly gathered  at the Bachelor's Creek station for the arrival of a military train from New Bern. In addition to much-needed supplies for Camp Claassen, base for the 132nd New York, the train delivered mail and newspapers -- welcome news for the soldiers stuck in the backwaters of North Carolina.

The 4 p.m. train on May 26, 1864, also carried a deadly cargo: four crude mines. The "monstrous" torpedoes, built with large barrels packed with 250 pounds of black powder, were destined to join nine others already deployed in the nearby Neuse River as a deterrent to Confederate warships.

132nd New York Colonel Peter Claassen
requested coffins from New Bern
after the explosion.
While soldiers clustered near the train platform, the barrels were haphazardly removed from a boxcar. After the first three were rolled out, disaster struck. A block of wood apparently struck the cap on the last mine, triggering a massive explosion that set off the other three. "Like the crush of a thousand pieces of artillery fired simultaneously," a newspaper described the sound of the blast.

Heard at least eight miles away, the explosion caused death and destruction on a massive scale. At least 40 soldiers and perhaps as many as 25 contrabands -- runaway slaves -- were killed. A large signal tower and a 20 x 80-foot commissary building made of logs were obliterated.
"The air was instantly filled with the torn and mangled remains of human bodies," recalled a 132nd New York soldier in a letter to the Niagara County (N.Y.) Intelligencer. "... Most of the victims were blown into fragments and for a distance of hundreds of yards human gore and remains were everywhere visable."

"The disaster," the New York Times reported, "was one of the the most appalling and heartrending that has happened in this country in a series of years."

Moments after the blast, soldiers frantically tried to aid the wounded, but many of the unfortunates were beyond hope. In the commissary building, a man who was bending over a barrel of rice had grains embedded in his face. He later died.

Heads, bodies and limbs reportedly were scattered as far as a quarter-mile. David Jones, a commissary sergeant in the 132nd New York, was identified by a distinctive ring on his detached arm. Three soldiers from Company B of the 132nd New York, the hardest hit regiment, appeared on a casualty list in the New York Herald as missing, "probably blown in pieces."

"An approximate idea may be conceived of the difficulty in identifying individuals when I state that three hard bread boxes were filled with fragments of flesh picked up on the spot," wrote Herald correspondent George Hart, "and the locomotive attached to the train was thickly covered with fragments of shattered humanity." All that remained from the four men handling the torpedoes, a witness claimed, was a small piece found 150 yards from the explosion.

The grave of torpedo explosion victim
Michael Brisco of the 132nd New York
at New Bern (N.C.) National Cemetery.
(Find A Grave)
Near the commissary building when the torpedoes exploded, a 132nd New York soldier was thrown about fifty feet, landing on all fours, but he miraculously escaped without serious injury. Using the pen name "Hiawatha," he described the grim aftermath for the Buffalo Courier. 

"The train of last night brought up coffins and our men have been digging graves all night," he wrote. "Some eighteen bodies, more or less mangled, but recognizable, are now being buried. The condition of the dead ranged from a half mangled mass, to a perfect jelly."

Continued "Hiawatha," who only suffered temporary deafness:
"The body of one man was thrown some two hundred yards, and on its way it passed a tree, taking a branch some three inches in diameter with it. The body fell some thirty feet beyond the tree. Another poor fellow was hurled about one hundred yards, and, the last fifty of his progress, the body grazed the ground carrying away in its passage a half rotten stump. Feet, hands and other fragments of bodies were thrown in all directions, but mostly towards the Sutler's shop three hundred yards distant. Taking it all and all, it was indeed a terrible scene of ruin, destruction and woe."
Civilian Hezekiah Davis, “an old citizen of that neighborhood,” was killed, and Frank Gould, a 10- or 11-year-old from New Bern, suffered a severely injured leg. "Doctor," the boy pleaded, "I can stand any amount of pain, but don't take off my leg." The limb was saved. But Gould's friend, Sergeant William Ennever of the 158nd New York, was mortally wounded. A woman who lived roughly a half-mile from the blast sought the aid of a military surgeon for her injured arm, struck by a piece of wood thrown in the explosion.

Some were simply lucky to be alive. As Adjutant Joseph Palmer of the 158th New York neared the locomotive astride his horse, the animal "showed great uneasiness, being restive and apparently terrified." A few seconds before the blast, the horse bounded away, perhaps saving his rider's life. Thomas Stewart of the 158th New York was blown into the air, but he somehow survived with only a few bruises. Another soldier drawing whiskey from a barrel was thrown headlong into the spirits and lived to tell about it.

Spotted weeping after the catastrophe, Colonel Peter Claassen of the 132nd New York telegraphed New Bern requesting medical aid and coffins. Horribly mangled soldiers were cared for at a hospital in the garrison town, but many of them didn't survive.

The gravestone at New Bern (N.C.) 
National Cemetery for Stephen Sanford,
killed in the explosion.
(Find A Grave)
"This sad accident, entailing such fearful consequences, has cast a gloom over the soldiers of the outposts which will require a long time for them fully to overcome," the Herald wrote.

But the enemy didn't feel the Federals' pain.

The State Journal of Goldsboro, N.C., a Confederate newspaper, reported "great consternation" in New Bern, adding, "Such a scene of wild confusion is said to have existed in the good old town as has never been exceeded, except in the vicinity of the explosion." In a final, evil dig at the Yankees, the newspaper concluded, "We regret that the whole infernal race was not within easy range of the torpedoes."

In the days immediately following the tragedy, commanding officers wrote to loved ones of the victims. Captain John W. Fenton of the 132nd New York advised Private Michael Brisco's widow to hire "some honest lawyer or claim agent" to help her secure a pension. (See letter and full transcript below.)

"My regiment mourns a loss of 39 killed & about 25 wounded," Fenton continued. "I have lost out of my company 6 men killed. Yourself and little family have my sincerest & warmest sympathies for the sad affliction to you."

On June 8, Captain George H. Swords of the 132nd New York wrote Sergeant Stephen E. Sanford's father that it would be "impossible" for him to retreive his son's remains "as it would be contrary to orders." Come in the winter instead, he advised, but get a permit from the commanding officer in New Bern. (See letter and full transcript below.)

Perhaps to take the sting out of that news, the officer also sent to Mr. Sanford a memento of his son: a lock of hair cut off by a friend after Stephen's death.
Camp Claassen, 132d N.Y.Vols.
Out Posts, Bachelors Creek, N.C.
May 27th, 1864

Mrs. Brisco,

It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your husband, Michael Brisco, formerly of my Company, who was instantly killed last evening by the premature explosion of a "Torpedo" at the time he was in the discharge of his duty. His remains have been interred in the Regimental Grave Yard; his papers will all be made out so that you can obtain his back bounty due him & also his back pay. They will be forwarded to Washington and by your making application to the Adjutant General you can get the money. You are also entitled to a pension. Place the matter in the hands of some honest lawyer or claim agent and ...
... you will have no difficulty. My regiment mourns a loss of 39 killed & about 25 wounded. I have lost out of my company 6 men killed. Yourself and little family have my sincerest & warmest sympathies for the sad affliction to you.

I am respectfully, 

John W. Fenton
Capt, 132d N.Y. Infty Vols.

P.S. His bounty due him is $75 U.S. Bounty and four months & 26 days pay. Your husband's effects will be sold & the proceeds placed to your credit on the pay rolls. Any little memento he may have I will send to you.

Head Quarters C Company, 132d N.Y. Inftry.
Out Posts of N.C., Bachelors Creek near 
New Berne, N.C., June 8, 1864
Mr. Stephen Sanford, 


Your communication of 3d instant was received this afternoon. Your son's effects were forwarded June 1, 1864 per Adams Express Co. directed as follows viz.: "Mrs. Cordelia E. Champion, No. 163, York St, New Haven, Conn.

It will be impossible to send your son's remains home as it would be contrary to orders. In the winter it may be done by obtaining a permit from the Commanding Officer at New Berne. Enclosed you may find a lock of his hair which was cut off at the time of his death by one of his friends.

I wrote several days ago to Mrs. Champion and stated all the particulars of your son's death with  instructions what course to pursue in every particular.

Respectfully Your Obt. Servt.
Geo. H. Swords Jr.
Captain Commanding

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-- Buffalo Courier, June 4, 1864.
-- Michael Brisco and Stephen Sanford pension records, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via
-- New York Herald, June 2, 8, 1864.
-- New York Times, June 2, 1864.
-- Niagara County (N.Y.) Intelligencer, June 1864.
-- North Carolina Times, New Berne, N.C., June 4, 1864.
-- The State Journal, Goldboro, N.C., June 3, 1864.


  1. Thanks John , never knew of this tragedy

  2. What a sad and gruesome affair! There were many ways soldiers died in the Civil War. Even when far removed from combat, death could be but a heartbeat away. As always, the stories of those whose survival was a fluke are particularly intriguing. Did the adjutant’s horse that spooked and bounded away sense something or was it mere coincidence that saved both horse and rider? Who knows? Great story well told, John. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  3. reminds me of the Port Chicago Incident which happened out here in the San Francisco Bay Area during WWII