11 March 1864

The Great Sheffield Flood kills 238 people in Sheffield, England.

Between 1859 and 1864, work continued on the dam, and by late February 1864, only a few finishing touches were required to complete the embankment. The reservoir was now almost full – the water level being just a few feet below the overflow weir. On Friday the 11th. March 1864, at around 5.30 p.m., a local workman, William Horsefield, whose place of employment was close to the dam, was crossing the embankment on his way home after finishing work. The weather was quite stormy, as it had been for most of the day, so he crossed a little way down the embankment slope to avoid the heavy winds, and the spray that was being whipped over the top of the dam. A little way along, he noticed a crack running across the embankment. The ‘crack’ was only wide enough to enter one’s fingers, but it was of such a length to cause him some alarm. He immediately scurried off to inform some of his work colleagues – who were not yet quite out of sight; and ultimately, the Waterworks’ chief engineer, John Gunson, was sent for. Gunson, who lived next door to the Waterworks’ offices in Division Street, near Sheffield centre, some eight miles away, collected one of his contractors, John Craven, who lived nearby, and the two mounted the gig that was to carry them through the abysmal weather to the Dale Dyke reservoir.

It was around 10 p.m. when they eventually arrived at the dam. After an initial inspection, Gunson concluded that the crevice was merely a surface crack – probably brought about by frost damage, or slight settlement of the new embankment; but to be on the safe side he decided to lower the water in the reservoir until such time as a more extensive investigation could be carried out. He discovered that the navvies had already opened the drain valves in an attempt to achieve this, but it was evident that this method would take several days to lower the water to a ‘safe’ level, so he instructed them to place some gunpowder, and blow a hole in the side of the by-wash, thus quickly draining off a large amount of water. Several attempts with the gunpowder were made, but the rain and persistent spray thrown up by the increasing winds prevented its ignition. The time reached 11.30 p.m. and water was being liberally blown over the top of the dam. Gunson made his way back across the embankment to inspect the crack once more – it did not appear to have worsened, but as he glanced up to the top of the dam he was shocked to see ‘water running over like a white sheet in the darkness’. He later declared that it went ‘right under my feet and dropped down the crack’. He edged his way down to the valve house, located near the bottom of the embankment, to see if he could get some idea of the quantity of water passing over, which initially was ‘no great current’. As he arrived, one of his colleagues, suspecting something was seriously wrong, called down to him to ‘get out of the way’. Gunson looked up to see a breach appearing in the top of the dam. Feeling a sudden, violent, vibrating of the ground beneath his feet, he quickly scampered up the side of the embankment, luckily just in time, as a few seconds later there was a total collapse of a large section of the dam, unleashing a colossal mountain of water which thundered down the valley and on to the unsuspecting population below. For two hundred and fifty people who lived in Sheffield and the hamlets in the valley below the dam, this was to be their last night on Earth. Six hundred and fifty million gallons of water roared down the Loxley valley and into Sheffield, wreaking death and destruction on a horrific scale.

‘Individual experiences were infinitely tragic, pathetic, and sometimes bizarre. The first to drown was a two-day-old baby boy, the oldest a woman of eighty-seven. Whole families were wiped out; one desperate man, trapped upstairs in a terrace house, battered his way through five party walls to safety collecting thirty-four other people as he went; a would be suicide, locked in a cell, decided, as the flood poured in, that he no longer wished to die; one poor old man drowned alongside his sleeping companion – a donkey; a husband put his wife and five children on a bed on which they floated until the water went down.’

15 June 1864

The Second Battle of Petersburg begins during the American Civil War.

During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia collide for the last time as the first wave of Union troops attacks Petersburg, a vital Southern rail center 23 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The two massive armies would not become disentangled until April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered and his men went home.

In June 1864, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, Grant marched his army around the Army of Northern Virginia, crossed the James River unopposed, and advanced his forces to Petersburg. Knowing that the fall of Petersburg would mean the fall of Richmond, Lee raced to reinforce the city’s defenses. The mass of Grant’s army arrived first. On June 15, the first day of the Battle of Petersburg, some 10,000 Union troops under General William F. Smith moved against the Confederate defenders of Petersburg, made up of only a few thousand armed old men and boys commanded by General P.G.T. Beauregard. However, the Confederates had the advantage of formidable physical defenses, and they held off the overly cautious Union assault. The next day, more Federal troops arrived, but Beauregard was reinforced by Lee, and the Confederate line remained unbroken during several Union attacks occurring over the next two days.

By June 18, Grant had nearly 100,000 at his disposal at Petersburg, but the 20,000 Confederate defenders held on as Lee hurried the rest of his Army of Northern Virginia into the entrenchments. Knowing that further attacks would be futile, but satisfied to have bottled up the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant’s army dug trenches and began a prolonged siege of Petersburg.

Finally, on April 2, 1865, with his defense line overextended and his troops starving, Lee’s right flank suffered a major defeat against Union cavalry under General Phillip Sheridan, and Grant ordered a general attack on all fronts. The Army of Northern Virginia retreated under heavy fire; the Confederate government fled Richmond on Lee’s recommendation; and Petersburg, and then Richmond, fell to the Union. Less than a week later, Grant’s massive army headed off the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Station, and Lee was forced to surrender, effectively ending the Civil War.

30 November 1864

In the Battle of Franklin, the Confederate Army of Tennessee suffers heavy losses in an attack on the Union Army of the Ohio.

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The Battle of Franklin was fought on November 30, 1864, in Franklin, Tennessee, as part of the Franklin–Nashville Campaign of the American Civil War. It was one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate States Army. Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee conducted numerous frontal assaults against fortified positions occupied by the Union forces under Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield and was unable to break through or to prevent Schofield from a planned, orderly withdrawal to Nashville.

The Confederate assault of six infantry divisions containing eighteen brigades with 100 regiments numbering almost 20,000 men, sometimes called the “Pickett’s Charge of the West”, resulted in devastating losses to the men and the leadership of the Army of Tennessee—fourteen Confederate generals (six killed, seven wounded, and one captured) and 55 regimental commanders were casualties. After its defeat against Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas in the subsequent Battle of Nashville, the Army of Tennessee retreated with barely half the men with which it had begun the short offensive, and was effectively destroyed as a fighting force for the remainder of the war.

The 1864 Battle of Franklin was the second military action in the vicinity; a battle in 1863 was a minor action associated with a reconnaissance in force by Confederate cavalry leader Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn on April 10.

29 September 1864

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The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm takes place during the American Civil War

The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights, also known as Laurel Hill and combats at Forts Harrison, Johnson, and Gilmer, was fought in Virginia on September 29–30, 1864, as part of the Siege of Petersburg in the American Civil War. From the very beginning of the war, Confederate engineers and slave laborers constructed permanent defenses around Richmond. By 1864, they had created a system anchored south of the capital on the James River at Chaffin’s Farm, a large open area at Chaffin’s Bluff, both named for a local landowner. This outer line was supported by an intermediate and inner system of fortifications much closer to the capital. In July and August 1864, these lines were tested by Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in offensives designed to attack simultaneously north and south of the James. The fighting around Chaffin’s Farm cost the nation nearly 5,000 casualties.