Workers find Civil War-era shell in Charleston


December 31, 2002, 12:54 PM
Workers find Civil War-era shell in Charleston

Bomb squad destroys ordnance discovered near Adgers Wharf

Of The Post and Courier Staff

The Charleston police bomb squad rushed to Longitude Lane near Adgers Wharf after construction workers reported Monday morning finding a Civil War-era artillery shell that appeared to be live.

Workers actually unearthed the round Friday while tearing up a cobblestone driveway along the narrow lane in downtown Charleston, but they didn't know what it was, said Sgt. Karl Smith, bomb squad commander. They called police Monday after a Civil War re-enactor recognized the corroded shell and told them to clear away, he said.

The re-enactor, Fred Holsclaw of Charleston, said a worker he knew asked him to take a look at the odd object. He knew right away it was old ordnance. And since it was relatively intact, there was a good chance it was still active.

"I took one look at it and said 'You better get the hell out of here. That's still live.' "

The round was a Parrott shell, named for its inventor, New Hampshire native Robert P. Parrott, who also designed the rifled cannon that fired it. About 8 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, the round was cone-shaped like a bullet and filled with gunpowder. Parrott rifles were used by both sides during the war and came in a variety of sizes - from relatively small 3-inch shells like the one found on Longitude Lane to 8- and 10-inch monsters.

In fact, the "Swamp Angel" gun that terrorized the city Aug. 21-22, 1863, was an 8-inch Parrott mounted on a platform in the marsh behind Morris Island. Building this unique "marsh battery" was the only way the Union gunners could get within range of the peninsula, but the gun fired only 36 rounds into the city before it exploded, injuring its crew.

The origin of the shell remains a mystery. Holsclaw said he suspects the round simply failed to explode when it landed. Then again, it's smaller than the long-range ordnance that was fired into the city by the Union, and it was found in a part of the city that was home to several Confederate artillery batteries. Could it have been left behind when the city's defenders were evacuated?

Smith said the round was a somewhat unusual find. The bomb squad is typically called in to handle about 20 unexploded Civil War rounds each year in the Charleston area. But most are larger shells or cannonballs, he said.

The round probably didn't carry enough explosive punch to seriously damage surrounding properties along the historic street, Smith said. The real danger is that Parrott shells can fragment and spray shrapnel when they explode, he said.

Though more than 100 years old, the powder was probably "just as active today as it was the day it was first fired," Smith said.

As a precaution, police cordoned off the area around the rusted shell, which looked more like an old tree stump than an artillery round. People gathered on nearby street corners, craning their necks to see what the commotion was about.

Kay Wheeler, who lives on Longitude Lane near the Battery, said she wasn't scared at all to have a live artillery shell near her home. She grabbed her camera and started snapping pictures.

"It's exciting," she said. "I think it's wonderful how history keeps revealing itself. That's the beauty of living in Charleston. I just love it."

Smith and Officer Micah Horton placed the shell in a large plastic tub filled with light granules commonly used to dry oil. As other officers kept the crowd back, the pair gingerly walked down the lane and took the shell to a large, insulated drum designed for transporting explosives.

Police hoped to disable the device and save it for posterity. But after transporting it to the Naval Weapons Station, they found that corrosion on the shell made it impossible to determine what type of fusing system it contained. They opted to destroy the shell rather than put an officer at risk trying to disarm it, Smith said.

"The historical value was definitely outweighed by the safety issues," he said.

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4v50 Gary
December 31, 2002, 01:02 PM
Imagine what they would find if they did an underwater dig at the site of Morris Island? During the 56 day siege of Battery Wagner, thousands of rounds were fired into it while the sappers dug their way forward.

El Tejon
December 31, 2002, 01:37 PM
Exciting to find a live arty shell near your home? What, she can't sell her house so she needs the insurance check?:rolleyes:

Exciting? How about "terrifying"? At least it underscores the importance of taking the fight to the enemy.

Mike Irwin
December 31, 2002, 01:45 PM
Not at all an uncommon thing.

In Europe every spring farmers unearth ordnance from as far back as the Franco-Prussian War. Most simply move it to designated spots for collection.

December 31, 2002, 02:54 PM
People who live in the Holy City are not right in the head. It may be the 21st century where you live but in the Holy City it is still mid-19th century. Get hit with a confederate atry round???? No problemo, it was an historic round.

Strange, strange people.

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