180 Civil War shells… destroyed in one large detonation

From the Saratogian News:

The Civil War shakes South Glens Falls: Military detonates unsafe antique cannonballs

South Glens Falls >> When explosions from a local quarry vibrated across the village Tuesday, residents in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties also heard the booms and felt the trembling. Neither thunderstorms nor earthquakes, the detonations proved to be the explosive demise of 180 Civil War-era cannonballs, detonated by the U.S. military and the state police to keep the public safe.

“These were eight-pound cannonballs, each with a hole drilled into it where black-powder residue could have remained,” said John Snyder, public affairs officer at the Watervliet Arsenal. The cannonballs had been stored there before their detonation.

Although earlier media reports said this cache of antique shot had washed up on the banks of the Hudson River in Watervliet – no mean feat for 180 eight-pound iron missiles – both Snyder and U.S. Army First Sgt. Kieran Dollard of Fort Drum said the cannonballs had long been kept in the arsenal.

“These artifacts belonged to the U.S. Army Center of Military History,” Snyder said. “The cannonballs had been stored in the Watervliet Arsenal Museum. When the army closed the museum in October 2013, all the artifacts were catalogued and moved. The removal was completed last week.”

Cannonballs aren’t generally thought of as dangerous detonating devices. But these missiles’ cavities would have been packed with a high-explosive bursting powder charge, used to destroy enemy wagons, breastworks or opposing artillery.

“The burster charges were missing, but we couldn’t certify the cannonballs as residue-free,” Dollard said. “The chance of any injury occurring outweighed any historical value.”

The 725th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit, to which Dollard belongs, joined the New York State Police in transporting and detonating the cannonballs in a Ferry Boulevard quarry in South Glens Falls. He said this was the safest, closest location.

The New York State Police Bomb Disposal Unit assisted with planning and escorting military personnel throughout the operation, said Darcy Wells, spokesperson for the state police. She said the 911 centers in Saratoga and Warren counties had been notified, so residents would know there wasn’t any danger from the explosions.

(Original story here)

I could quibble, with justification, to point out these were not cannonballs.  Technically speaking cannonballs are solid shot.  These were shells or empty case shot.  But for the general public, raised on Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner, I guess “cannonball” will do. With the rough weight given, I suspect these were 12-pounder caliber.

The historian in me regrets these could not be cleared and saved for display.  But, I would say that one class of wartime artifacts we are not lacking would be artillery shells –  Particularly 12-pounders.  Watervliet Arsenal played an important role during the Civil War.  But that was somewhat overshadowed in later decades when the arsenal became the “big gun shop” producing weapons up to 16-inch caliber.  Unfortunately, last fall the arsenal museum closed due to security reasons.

What this does underscore is that lingering danger from weapons that have remained silent for 150 years.  Civil War ordnance was designed to kill or maim.  That capability still remains.  Unless properly cleared by professionals, any ordnance must be treated with extreme caution.  You do not want to be the last casualty of the Civil War.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

8 thoughts on “180 Civil War shells… destroyed in one large detonation

  1. Destroying our history is a crime. These relics could have been easily and safely saved and preserved. Idiots

  2. I understand safety concerns & danger involved with explosive ordnance just recovered, but to destroy ordnance that has been rendered safe by experts of the past is beyond me…where’s the common sense in this????? Where does it end??? Are pictures of explosive ordnance next????

    1. The trouble was, these shells had not been “rendered safe by experts.” Rather they were just placed in storage without any records to say one way or the other.

  3. Look, I understand your sentiment and reaction to the destruction of antique ordnance like this. But we have to ask, how many 12-pdr shells do we need to retain in order to reinforce the history? Similar question might be posed with respect to the destruction of aircraft after WW II….. Watch this – http://www.criticalpast.com/video/65675050695_aircraft-parts_parts-piled-up_bulldozer-moves-over_lined-up-on-field

    Yes, I’d like to see a couple dozen B-17s or B-24s salvaged out of that lot. But was that practical? Do we need to cordon off some area as our “military history storage pen” to retain thousands of obsolete weapons awaiting some need? And who is going to maintain all of it to historical standards? Otherwise, we’d end up with a pile of scrap metal… which is what those 180 shells are now.

  4. Gunpowder is a fast burning mixture that can remain potent for hundreds of years. It is fairly harmless if touched off in a pile on its own, but if confined in a bomb or musket is extremely dangerous. Civil War munitions are fairly common in museums or excavated: there was simply no reason to have this stuff lying around. What I would like to know is whether anyone thought to film the detonations, though!

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