Once again… the old Unexploded Civil War Shell problem

For those who are just getting caught up from the sesquicentennial, the Civil War ended 150 years ago… give or take a few weeks.  But that is not to say that we’ve heard the last of the Civil War.  In fact, we might still hear – if someone is unlucky, unwise, or both – explosions from the war.   And if that same someone is unlucky, unwise, and/or both, they might get the grim designation of being the last casualty of the Civil War.

Recall the story of Sam White, relic collector and one who disarmed shells.  From all sources, White was experienced at disarming shells and had done such for years.  But on February 18, 2008, White did something that triggered a shell (an XI-inch Dahlgren by some accounts I’ve seen).  Some have said White was “cutting corners” in his process.  I don’t know that for sure.  Regardless, a projectile designed to sink a ship went off.  White lost his life.   As I’ve said many times before, I hope that the legacy of Sam White is that people take the proper precautions and do not become lazy about safety with regard to live Civil War ammunition that is encountered.

And the story of Sam White needs to be recalled from time to time.  Particularly since stories of unexploded shells appear frequently enough.  On Saturday (May 23), a shell found on the Manassas Battlefield prompted an evacuation.  And yesterday, a bomb disposal team destroyed a James rifle projectile found on the Prairie Grove Battlefield.  So I don’t think this is a subject we can just relegate to the history books.

As I look over social media today, not naming names just yet, I see some rather disconcerting comments made.  Many are upset that a historical artifact was destroyed.  They have complained that the means and effort to disarm the shell were simple and could have been done with little risk.  That, I think, is a bad response.  While the loss of the historical artifact is bad, what is worse is that people are offering “advice” that will (not may, but WILL) lead to another accident.  It is as if Sam White’s accident is forgotten.

Let’s be perfectly clear here.  Black powder is an unstable compound.  That’s what gives it an explosive effect.  While black powder, like most munitions, has predictable traits, that does not diminish the danger. Black powder is sensitive to heat, flash, friction, or compression.  A lot of little things can set off black powder.  Recall some of those incidents on Morris Island with shells exploding prematurely due to “rasping” of the powder in the shell?  Yes, more than flame and hammers can set off black powder.

Same could be said for C4 explosives that the military uses today.  There were times in my Army days that I carried C4 or other explosives.  But I listened to my trainers and observed the precautions necessary.  I’ve carried black powder in my cartridge box and stored it with my reenacting kit. But I’ve always respected it.   And so we all should.

Something from the news story from Arkansas bears noting.  Jessee Cox, superintendent of the Prairie Grove Battlefield Park indicated that he had no chance to consult with other parks or other sources as to what should be done to preserve the shell… safely.  THAT, my friends, is where the problem is.  As Cox said, “There’s no 800 number to call and get those answers.”

There are plenty of people out there who could have provided those answers.  I go back to my military training in that the unexploded ordnance teams (UXO) are very knowledgeable on these matters.  There are programs in place to protect and preserve historic artifacts when found (i.e., that used by the team at Andrews Air Force Base).   Indeed, the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal units based out of Charleston and Norfolk did much to determine the best way to handle these historic artifacts and render them safe.   My point is there are specific guidelines and practices to be observed when disarming black powder-era ordnance.   No offense to the back-yard relic hunters out there, but we don’t need “now watch this” to turn into a disaster.  Expert advice should be offered to the authorities who confront these situations. Not hearsay.

Now I don’t fault the Bentonville Bomb Squad for doing their job here.  They were doing exactly what their training called them to do.  My beef is with the training.  There should be a protocol to consult when historic artifacts are encountered.  That protocol should include contact information to subject matter experts on black powder-era ordnance.  That would ensure safety in the first place – for the general public and the teams handling the items.  The disarming of the old ordnance requires types of equipment that may not be on hand.  So that protocol should also include how such equipment may be requisitioned, loaned, or otherwise acquired if needed.  In short, a solution to the problem… not just a “blow it in place” response.

But above all… those of us Civil War enthusiasts must stop downplaying the danger and risk involved.  These are weapons designed to kill and maim.  Those weapons didn’t lose that potential by simply sitting in the ground or on some shelf or on some monument (!) for several decades (scroll to the bottom on that link).  So those weapons should be respected for what they potentially still can… and sometimes will… do.

4 thoughts on “Once again… the old Unexploded Civil War Shell problem

  1. When Lawrence Christopher was injured by an exploding shell in Dalton, Georgia a few years back; the Fort Benning EOD was called in and they spent the next couple of days blowing up not only shells; but bolts that were solid and about as explosive as an anvil. Sometimes it really helps to consult with someone.

    • I’m not familiar with that case. But it sounds like the EOD team did exactly what their training would have them do. Again, my point is that the teams should have, if historical artifacts are in play, the protocol to contact a properly vetted expert in the subject instead of simply facing the “blow it in place” course of action. We see too much on the extremes – the “Watch this” guys who end up blowing themselves and others up… and the overly cautious “blow it in place” response. And we are not being served by some ameteurs about who are proclaiming that all is inert and can be handled with ease. “Experts” would be someone who works with EOD on a routine basis, as a day job, and knows how they behave. Not some guy with a drill and a sketchy notion of chemistry.

  2. I would of thought that park rangers at Pea Ridge N.P. would know who to called to handle unexploded Civil War ordnance. Maybe the Artillery School at Fort Sill OK.

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