Don’t Hit it with a Hammer!

By Doug Coleman


Many years ago I read the memoirs of a soldier stationed at Fort Worth. He talks about artillery practice and describes the rounds whistling over the Valley of Hunting Creek to land harmlessly in some farmer’s field in Franconia. He could not have known of Samuel and Thomas Pulman, ages 9 and 13, who became the first burials in Sharon Chapel’s graveyard when a shell they found near there went off in August 1861.

When the Yankees abandoned Fort Worth four years later, they left plenty of ordnance behind in the north powder magazine. When Colonel Herbert reclaimed his land, he sensibly incorporated the south magazine (or at least its stones) into his new house (the Yankees tore down the old one and incorporated the materials into the fort). Herbert blocked the stairwell of the north magazine with large chunks of concrete (likely from the 100 pounder emplacement near his new home), sealing the explosive ordnance up forever. Forever ended in the late ’70s when one of Pulte’s bulldozers broke through the magazine and exposed the shells, mostly 24 pounders and 4.5 inch Schenkls, if I recall correctly. The bomb squad from Fort Belvoir removed most of them without incident. Graybeards with metal detectors got the ones the bomb squad missed. Maybe.

Civil War ordnance continues to kill people. In February of 2008, Sam White of Chesterfield had a bad outcome with a 75 pound naval shell. He was an expert in disarming Civil War ordnance, having disarmed about 1600 over his career – he had another 18 lined up for decommission that afternoon.   The blast killed him, left a crater in his driveway and sent shrapnel into his house and others up to a mile away. Although this is speculation on my part, the navy used guncotton (a nitrocellulose explosive about five times more powerful than black powder) as a filler for some of its larger shells. The potassium nitrate in black powder deteriorates over time, such that it will no longer burn or will burn relatively slowly rather than exploding. Guncotton was always relatively unstable, which is why the armies did not use it – if not properly stabilized, it can go off spontaneously.

I also heard a story of a couple near Petersburg who found a couple of 100 pounders and thought they would make great andirons. They made a fire in the fireplace and went for a walk. When they came back, their house was a mess. I suspect that this story is apocryphal, as no one could possibly be that stupid and live to adulthood.

There are undoubtedly thousands of unexploded shells littering Virginia. Fortunately we are not like France, where shells left over from the First World War are filled with high explosives instead of black powder. Hundreds of Frenchmen have died since the war and each year the “iron harvest” keeps producing live ones. There were several battles within Washington’s suburbs – at Manassas, Chantilly, Vienna, and Fort Stevens. Around Washington, there were also plenty of forts and batteries whose target practice left duds in farmer’s fields. Those battlefields and farmer’s fields are now subdivisions.

If you do uncover an old cannonball or projectile for a rifled gun, it is good to treat it with respect. Notwithstanding that it is unlikely to go off, one should always assume the power is still fresh and ready to go bang. Solid shot is obviously not dangerous at all. Canister (lead or iron balls packed in sawdust in a tin can) is similarly harmless. A round ball with a circular copper fuse signifies that you are dealing with either case shot filled with lead balls and a small bursting charge or a shell filled with powder. Any elongated projectile should be presumed to have a bursting charge in it. If you call the police or bomb squad, you will likely never see your prize again, as their protocol favors carrying off the round to be destroyed with their own explosive charge in a safe place. Personally, I would call someone like Harry Ridgeway, a relic specialist in Winchester, and ask him to safe it for me. But that’s me – I’m old and don’t have a lot to lose. For an idea of what these projectiles look like, take a look at Mr. Ridgeway’s website, http://www.relicman.com/artillery/A1%20Relicman%20Sales%20Artillery1.html.

In the interim, don’t hit it with a hammer…

Illustrations from United States Army Center of Military History – Ballard, Ted, and Billy Arthur, Chancellorsville Staff Ride: Briefing Book. Washington, DC: United States Army Center of Military History, 2002. OCLC 50210531.

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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