“Inexperienced persons” and unexploded shells lead to casualties in wartime Charleston

The physical effects of the Christmas Day bombardment on Charleston were not completely contained by fighting fires.  In the aftermath, as there always is, unexploded ordnance remained a problem.   And those mis-firing shells proved to be deadly “hidden gifts” for Charlestonians to deal with.  Reporting on December 28, the Charleston Courier lead:

Shocking Accidents by the Explosion of Shells. –

On Sunday [December 27] two accidents of a calamitous nature occurred from the attempts of inexperienced persons to draw the charge from unexploded shells.  Mr. Francis Gillis, a very worthy man, foreman of the South Carolina Rail Road Blacksmiths Shops, residing in Nassau street, in attempting to remove the powder from an eight inch shell, with a piece of wire, ignited the fulminating substance, when the shell exploded with a dreadful effect, taking off his left leg and left arm, crushing his thigh and severely wounding him in the head.  He lingered in great agony until evening, when he expired.

Based on census records, Gillis was a 40-year-old immigrant from France, and as the article states, he was employed as a blacksmith.   He was survived by his wife Louisa, herself of German birth.

Gillis owned a wood house at 53 Nassau Street at the time. And it is important to note, that residence was well north of Calhoun Street, and thus far away from the “targeted zone” described by Major Henry Bryan.  A fact that suggests Gillis had moved the shell before attempting the work.

And that begs the next question – why was he working on the shell?  Well, as it was reported he attempted to remove the powder charge, perhaps Gillis was preparing the shell for some display.  At the same time, him being employed as a blacksmith, perhaps he was simply salvaging iron for re-use.  Regardless, the manner of handling should immediately cause modern EOD specialists to start speaking of cautionary tales.  A wire, scraping against interior metal surfaces, was likely to create a spark.  One has to wonder why Gillis was not flushing the shell with water.  Unless he was also attempting to preserve the powder for some other purpose.

The Courier continued with discussion of the other incident occurring that day:

About one o’clock Sunday afternoon another shell exploded from a similar cause.  Two men, one named Johnson and another, name unknown, were at work upon the shell with a coal chisel and hammer.  A policeman, who was standing near by, warned them of their danger, to whom, however, they paid no attention.  The policeman had not gone far before a loud report was heard, and the shrieks of the men calling for assistance.  Johnson’s right leg was taken completely off, besides sustaining several other injuries.  His companion had his right leg and arm both badly shattered.

A carriage was procured and the two unfortunate men conveyed to a hospital. Their condition is represented as very critical.  Considering the frequency of these accidents it is surprising that more caution is not observed.

Without more identifications, it is impossible to trace just who these two men were.  Though readers are at liberties to speculate on the nature of men who would take after a live shell with a hammer and chisel.

The Charleston Mercury, also reporting on December 28, gave the location as “at the corner of Church street and St. Michael’s Alley.”   That location was right in the middle of the targeted area, and actually laying between areas where fires were reported.  So the unidentified individuals were likely attempting a direct “on the field” recovery of the shell.

The Courier concluded with instructions for anyone encountering unexploded shells:

By order of the Commanding General, any person having in their possession an unexploded shell may have the charge drawn by sending it to the Arsenal.  We trust we shall not have to chronicle any more of these distressing occurrences.

In short, the Confederate authorities offered “de-militarizing” services.  And the wording is interesting.  Authorities were not seizing or otherwise taking possession of Federal shells found in Charleston.  They were simply offering (see the use of the verb – “may have”) to render the shell inert.  We know from descriptions of hotels, train stations, and other public places, that shells and other curios from the fighting were placed on prominent display.  These, of course, were framed in patriotic manners to serve warning to visitors while also urging contributions to the war effort.  Something Confederate authorities would not wish to stop.  And, by offering up the service, Confederate authorities also allowed those at the arsenal to gather and report items of technical nature about the Federal shells.

(Charleston Daily Courier, Monday, December 28, 1863, page 1 column 3; Charleston Mercury, Monday, December 28, 1863, page 2 column 1)


One thought on ““Inexperienced persons” and unexploded shells lead to casualties in wartime Charleston

  1. And not just in Charleston:

    The tragic episode involved Russell Briggs, a grief-stricken father, who had come from Philadelphia for the dedication of the cemetery and to retrieve the remains of his son–Cpl. George E. Briggs of the Seventy-Second Pennsylvania who had died at a field hospital on July 18th.Briggs was staying at the Powers home. On the battlefield he had found a shell and had decided to unload it. He managed to remove the cap and then began striking the shell on a stone in a crude attempt to remove the powder. Allen Frazer noticed what was going on and approached Briggs to warn him that hitting the shell was a “very dangerous thing to do.
    At that instant the shell exploded.

    “I heard a terrible explosion,” Albertus McCreary recalled.” There I saw a young school-mate lying on his back with his bowels blown away. He looked at me for a second, and then closed his eyes in death. Near him was a man almost torn to pieces, his hands hanging in shreds.”

    Briggs barely survived his wounds. Doctors amputated his hands and a leg. Allen Frazer was buried the next day at the Evergreen Cemetery. Incidents like this occurred too frequently. Years later, residents who were youths at the time recalled several deaths caused by unexploded ordnance. Hugh M. Ziegler recollected that he and some other boys “wandered over the battlefield and several of them were killed by tampering with shells that(had)failed to explode.” Ziegler was 10 yrs. old at the time of the battle. He recalled, “There were several farmers and their teams killed by plow point coming into contact with unexploded shells.”

    “When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg”: The Tragic Aftermath of the Bloodiest Battle of the Civil War pg:244

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