Author Archives: Craig Swain

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.

Now is the time for a Culpeper Battlefields Park – Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, and others

Back in the 1990s, I would often transit Northern Georgia on weekends.  During those trips, I would make every effort to seek out the battlefields of 1863 and 1864.  At that time, the only waymarks one could work from were a handful of state and WPA markers located along the I-75 corridor.  So one had to “work” to get any feel for the battlefields and the flow of the major campaigns that played out across those hills and streams.  One example is this marker on the Resaca battlefield:

(Photo courtesy HMDB and David Seibert.)

Located on US 41, the marker references action that took place almost, not quite, a mile ( a MILE!) west of the reader… on the other side of Camp Creek AND on the other side of I-75. At that time in the 1990s, the location referenced was simply inaccessible to all but the most persistent visitor – willing to wait for one of the rare on-site activities or coordinate with a landowner for access.

Fast forward to 2015.  If you pick up the latest copy of Blue & Gray Magazine, you’ll see a teaser line on the cover – “New Georgia Battlefield Park!”  Under David Roth’s response is the announcement that the Resaca Battlefield Park, which had faced several “roadblocks” last fall, is soon to open.  This is long in coming.  The Friends of Resaca Battlefield started the effort in 1994.  With the help of Civil War Trust and others, there are some 1,100 acres of the battlefield preserved.  Soon, we will be able to just drive over to Camp Creek and SEE the area which that marker… a mile to the east… speaks of.  (Sorta makes the marker obsolete, doesn’t it?)

We like to hear those sort of success stories.  Preservation coming to full maturity, where visitors are able to walk the field, appreciate the primary resource that the terrain is, and thus gain better understanding of the events.

With the success (and hopeful of the tentative July grand opening) at Resaca, let me turn your attention to a location here in Virginia that I’ve written about often – the battlefields and sites of Culpeper County.  Starting in the 1990s, tracks of land around Brandy Station were purchased by preservation organizations. Likewise, the Friends of Cedar Mountain, and others, have brought substantial tracts of that battlefield into the “preserved” category.  Counting those two battlefields and Kelly’s Ford, the Civil War Trust tallies over 3000 acres preserved in Culpeper County.  Though much of that acreage is in preservation easement, a sizable amount is owned by the Trust or other preservation organizations.  And beyond those three, there are a substantial number of sites where activity occurred during the war – minor battles, skirmishes, troop movements, and… yes, I mentioned it the other day… encampments.

However, there is no central point of orientation in Culpeper County for visitors.  Furthermore, the preservation organizations which currently hold title to some of those lands are charged with the maintenance and upkeep – a detraction from other preservation efforts.  But the biggest problem I see is the lack of a “center of mass” which the local community views as “the battlefield” … and from which better recognition of the historical resource would emanate.

It is no big secret that many of us have advocated for a proper battlefield park to cover Brandy Station.  The acquisition of Fleetwood Hill in 2013 served to bring those ideas to a center of mass.  Now I hear there are efforts afoot to create a state park in Culpeper County which would encompass these Civil War sites.  Such would go a long way to accomplish the goals set forward in the 1980s – made in the face of hideous development projects.  This is not to say there are not “roadblocks,” but I am confident there will be a Culpeper Battlefields State Park in our future.  Let’s hope so.

Virginians, join me in calling upon our elected representatives to make this so!

Sherman’s March, May 24, 1865: The Grand Review and the end of the Great March

At 9 a.m., 150 years ago this morning, a signal gun and triggered the procession of Major-General William T. Sherman’s command on their Grand Review in front of cheering crowds in Washington D.C.

Sherman and Major-General Oliver O. Howard lead the procession with their staffs.  Behind them came Major-General John Logan and the Fifteenth Corps.

Behind them, Major-General Frank Blair and the Seventeenth Corps.

After the Right Wing passed, Major-General Henry Slocum lead the Left Wing on review:

The Twentieth Corps, led by Major-General Joseph Mower, came next in the line.

As I like to mention, the Twentieth Corps had its roots in the east – formed of the Army of the Potomac’s Eleventh and Twelfth Corps.  As such it provided the link between the Armies of the Tennessee and the Potomac.

The next formation in the review also offered a link – however to an army not present on parade that day. Major-General (a brevet that was soon to be disallowed) Jefferson C. Davis led the Fourteenth Corps.   And, you should know that the Fourteenth Corps had its roots as the Army of the Cumberland.

I’ve always felt their presence was somewhat representative of that “other” great Federal army of the western theater.

You may want to click over to Seven Score and Ten, Civil War Daily Gazette, and General Sherman’s Blog for more on the Grand Review’s second day.

For the photos above, I’ve relied upon the Library of Congress captions to identify the units.  As we well know, those captions have their errors.  So please take the identification with a grain of salt.  If the captions are correct, the troops of the Twentieth Corps received a good bit of attention from the photographers:

Remarkable that all four of the corps which conducted the Great March were photographed on this day 150 years ago.  We have scant few photographs from the Great March (Altanta to Savannah to Columbia to Goldsboro to Raleigh to Washington).  Aside from a number of photos taken at Fort McAllister in December 1864, the majority of the photos of the Great March come on the last day of the movement.

And just as the Great March’s conclusion was captured in photos, the veterans cemented the memory of the Grand Review in their minds and … even 150 years later … in the public’s mind.  This shaped our impression of the event to the point it becomes the “victory parade” after which similar festivities are modeled to celebrate the end of more recent wars.  Keeping with that notion, allow me to close with the somewhat definitive “lore” of the Great March by George W. Nichols:

On the 24th of May, Sherman’s Army passed in review before the President of the United States in Washington.  It was the last act in the rapid and wonderful Drama of the four gallant corps. With banners proudly flying, ranks in close and magnificent array, under the eye of their beloved Chief, and amid the thundering plaudits of countless thousands of enthusiastic spectators, the noble army of seventy thousand veterans paid their marching salute to the President of the Nation they had helped to preserve in its integrity – and then broke ranks, and set their faces toward Home.  This was the farewell of Sherman’s Army! So, too, ends the Story of the Great March.

(Citation from George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1865, page 322.)