Playing with Live Ammunition Again?

Seems like every year someone works hard to be the answer for that trivia question, “who was the last casualty of the American Civil War?”

This story ran on Friday across the news wires:

Artillery Shells Found Inside Petersburg Home

PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) – Two potentially live civil war artillery shells are found at a home in Petersburg. The shells were discovered as part of an investigation into the illegal collection of Civil War artifacts.  …..

Investigators say the man who lives in the home, used a metal detector to search the grounds of the Petersburg National Battlefield. They say he collected Civil War artifacts from the battlefield, which is illegal.

“It does involve illegal relic hunting within the boundaries of the Petersburg National Battlefield and we’re in the final stages of the investigation,”said Chief Ranger Kevin Taylor.

When investigators showed up to execute a search warrant they made an alarming discovery.

“They are mortar rounds which are filled with black powder and pieces attached to the front,” said Taylor……

An article from a different news source identified one of the projectiles as a Schenkl shell with percussion fuse.  Both articles cite Ranger Kevin Taylor, but mortars didn’t fire Schenkl shells.  So it is unclear if there were several types of projectiles found, or if the news sources have crossed up some wires.  Regardless the projectiles are dangerous for anyone to handle.

Recall that three years ago a man in Chesterfield, Virginia lost his life while handling a Civil War era shell.  These devices were designed to kill and maim.  Black powder does not have a shelf life. Time underground does not negate the danger.  Especially in the case of percussion fuses!

And in addition to putting his life, and the lives of his neighbors, at risk, the man in this recent episode at Petersburg may have located the items on National Park ground.

I know many friends and readers who are relic hunters and do metal detecting.  I’ve always felt lukewarm about that hobby. In one regard the artifacts do need to see the light of day.  I know of several relic hunters who have added to the body of knowledge by sharing their finds with details of the locations.  But at the same time, I also agree that often the “digs” disturb the integrity of the site and thereby can destroy valuable circumstantial and contextual awareness of the site.  Not to mention the potential for disturbing human remains.  The debate between archeology and relic hunting has lead to many flame wars on other forums.  I’m not saying anything new here. Nor do I want to start pointing fingers at any side in the debate.

What I would say is that regardless if a shell is located by a professional archeologist working for the NPS or by a metal-detector wielding relic hunter, those who run across artillery projectiles should assume the worst and treat the item with respect. Better to call upon the experts to help deal with the projectile safely.  Of course, that all assumes one is not breaking the law by looking for relics on NPS grounds to begin with!

I’ve worked around enough explosive ordnance disposal experts in my life to know deactivating shells is not something done in a garage without blast protection. The experts have the tools and the know how to analyze the danger, deactivate the shells, and, in many cases, safely preserve them.  (We really should hear more stories as happened last year in Maryland.)

Better to do it safely and securely, to preserve life and the artifact, than end up as the “last casualty of the Civil War” one-hundred and fifty years after the fighting stopped.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Playing with Live Ammunition Again?

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