Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The American Civil War Claims Another Victim…

with 3 comments

It’s been 143 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, for all practical purposes ending the American Civil War…and one more victim has just been claimed. The longest lived veteran in history? No. Sam White, an amateur Civil War buff and artifact restorer, was restoring a 34 kilogram (about 75 lbs) naval cannonball in his driveway, as he did all the time. Sometimes with his wife and son watching. He was under the impression that the shell had been disarmed, and despite his experience, this time he was tragically wrong. Using a grinder to remove rust from the shell, the heat and sparks ignited the explosives inside. Shrapnel struck other houses as far as 400m (400 yards) away, but Sam was the only one killed. The news isn’t exactly saying the exact nature of his injuries, but it is a good bet that the doomed Mr White was dead before he even knew something had gone wrong. Grinding cannonballs in his driveway, as a hobby? Yikes.

About 15 million cannonballs, mortar shells, and artillery shells were fired during the American Civil War. By modern standards that’s relatively modest numbers, there were single battles in World War One where millions of artillery shells were used. Maybe one in five was a dud, so thousands of unexploded shells and cannonballs still litter Civil War battlegrounds. And at least some of them are still dangerous today. In this case the shell was a naval cannonball, likely fired out of a Parrott Rifle like the one pictured above. This meant it would have been waterproofed more seriously than a land artillery shell, thus contributing to its longevity.

I’ve written about the “iron harvest” before. People are still regularly killed and maimed in Europe by old munitions. In the USA though it’s usually munitions people brought home from 20th century wars and kept as souvenirs that do the killing. Not always though. In 2006 another civil war buff was badly injured by an exploding Parrott Rifle shell. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported it as the “latest casualty in the civil war.” Still smarting over the demise of the CSA are we?

Still, the bad luck of the late Mr White amazes me. A shell fired in a war that ended generations before his birth lay in the ground for over a century. During Mr Smith’s entire life, his fate was laying quietly buried, waiting to be dug it up and carried to his driveway. Did it cross the minds of the men that fired that shell that long ago day that it wouldn’t find its mark for 140 years? I suppose some sort of Sci-Fi time travel story could be wrung out of this, what if this artillery shell was deliberately aimed at Mr White from the past somehow?

Moving right along, most likely Mr White knew what he was doing and his death is a tragic accident. Some of the other incidents in the USA in recent years defy credulity. A few random stories: First, if someone brings an old shell to show-and-tell at school, don’t pass it around. 12 students were injured when the old bazooka shell they were passing was dropped and subsequently exploded. Second, if one finds an artillery shell laying in a yard while playing croquet, for God’s sake don’t hit it with a croquet mallet to see if it’s live. It was, eight children died. And lastly, if one finds a shell in the woods, don’t assume it’s safe and bring it home to use as a paperweight. And especially don’t to use said paperweight to squash a bug on your desk. Yes, the bug was thoroughly squashed. The man doing the squashing had his hand blown off though. People, people, people!

To review, if one finds old artillery shells or cannonballs laying around, don’t assume they are safe, don’t pick them up, don’t hit them with anything, and never use them to squash bugs. I know they don’t cover useful stuff like this in the standardized testing nightmare America’s school children now get in lieu of an education, so this information is provided as a public service.

(The above image of a Parrott Rifle on the deck of the USS Wabash is public domain under US copyright law. Click here to see a full size version.)

Written by unitedcats

May 5, 2008 at 8:28 am

Posted in History, War

3 Responses

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  1. Excellent example of how your writing style and subject matter risks serious publication. Good luck with it and thank you for an interesting read.


    May 5, 2008 at 9:06 am

  2. […] Darkworld blogs about Sam White’s death, also discussed by Fred Ray here at […]

  3. Well written. Someone needed to say it. In my area three teenage boys were injured about 25 years ago when they found an old shell near a navy bombing range and thought it would be fun to throw (over and over again) against the concrete. Not sure what they expected to happen but you can probably guess. Things like this just prove that whole Darwinian thing, although in this case they lived and have since gone on to breed a new generation of stupid children.


    May 22, 2008 at 1:30 pm

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