Never Trust a Yankee Cannonball!

Discussion in 'General Military Arms & History Forum' started by Pistolenschutze, May 2, 2008.

  1. Virginia Man Killed In Civil War Cannonball Blast

    Friday, May 02, 2008


    CHESTER, Va. — Like many boys in the South, Sam White got hooked on the Civil War early, digging up rusting bullets and military buttons in the battle-scarred earth of his hometown.

    As an adult, he crisscrossed the Virginia countryside in search of wartime relics — weapons, battle flags, even artillery shells buried in the red clay. He sometimes put on diving gear to feel for treasures hidden in the black muck of river bottoms.

    But in February, White's hobby cost him his life: A cannonball he was restoring exploded, killing him in his driveway.

    More than 140 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, the cannonball was still powerful enough to send a chunk of shrapnel through the front porch of a house a quarter-mile from White's home in this leafy Richmond suburb.

    White's death shook the close-knit fraternity of relic collectors and raised concerns about the dangers of other Civil War munitions that lay buried beneath old battlefields. Explosives experts said the fatal blast defied extraordinary odds.

    "You can't drop these things on the ground and make them go off," said retired Col. John F. Biemeck, formerly of the Army Ordnance Corps.

    White, 53, was one of thousands of hobbyists who comb former battlegrounds for artifacts using metal detectors, pickaxes, shovels and trowels.

    "There just aren't many areas in the South in which battlefields aren't located. They're literally under your feet," said Harry Ridgeway, a former relic hunter who has amassed a vast collection. "It's just a huge thrill to pull even a mundane relic out of the ground."

    After growing up in Petersburg, White went to college, served on his local police force, then worked for 25 years as a deliveryman for UPS. He retired in 1998 and devoted most of his time to relic hunting.

    He was an avid reader, a Civil War raconteur and an amateur historian who watched History Channel programs over and over, to the mild annoyance of his wife.

    "I used to laugh at him and say, 'Why do you watch this? You know how it turned out. It's not going to be any different,"' Brenda White said.

    She didn't share her husband's devotion, but she was understanding of his interest.

    "True relic hunters who have this passion, they don't live that way vicariously, like if you were a sports fanatic," she said. "Finding a treasure is their touchdown, even if it's two, three bullets."

    Union and Confederate troops lobbed an estimated 1.5 million artillery shells and cannonballs at each other from 1861 to 1865. As many as one in five were duds.

    Some of the weapons remain buried in the ground or river bottoms. In late March, a 44-pound, 8-inch mortar shell was uncovered at Petersburg National Battlefield, the site of an epic 292-day battle. The shell was taken to the city landfill and detonated.

    Black powder provided the destructive force for cannonballs and artillery shells. The combination of sulfur, potassium nitrate and finely ground charcoal requires a high temperature — 572 degrees Fahrenheit — and friction to ignite.

    White estimated he had worked on about 1,600 shells for collectors and museums. On the day he died, he had 18 cannonballs lined up in his driveway to restore.

    White's efforts seldom raised safety concerns. His wife and son Travis sometimes stood in the driveway as he worked.

    "Sam knew his stuff, no doubt about it," said Jimmy Blankenship, historian-curator at the Petersburg battleground. "He did know Civil War ordnance."

    An investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will not be complete until the end of May, but police who responded to the blast and examined shrapnel concluded that it came from a Civil War explosive.

    Experts suspect White was killed while trying to disarm a 9-inch, 75-pound naval cannonball, a particularly potent explosive with a more complex fuse and many times the destructive power of those used by infantry artillery.

    Biemeck and Peter George, co-author of a book on Civil War ordnance, believe White was using either a drill or a grinder attached to a drill to remove grit from the cannonball, causing a shower of sparks.

    Because of the fuse design, it may have appeared as though the weapon's powder had already been removed, leading even a veteran like White to conclude mistakenly that the ball was inert.

    The weapon also had to be waterproof because it was designed to skip over the water at 600 mph to strike at the waterline of an enemy ship. The protection against moisture meant the ball could have remained potent longer than an infantry shell.

    Brenda White is convinced her husband was working on a flawed cannonball, and no amount of caution could have prevented his death.

    "He had already disarmed the shell," she said. "From what I was told, there was absolutely nothing he had done wrong, that there was a manufacturing defect that no one would have known was there."

    After White's death, about two dozen homes were evacuated for two days while explosives experts collected pieces from his collection and detonated them.

    Today, there is little evidence of the Feb. 18 blast. The garage where White did most of his work is still crammed with his discoveries, many painstakingly restored and mounted. Rusted horseshoes are piled high in the crook of a small tree.

    White's digging partner, Fred Lange, hasn't had the heart to return to his relic hunting.

    "I truly miss him," Lange said. "Not a day that goes by that I don't think of him."
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2008
  2. Dale Wilber

    Dale Wilber New Member

    May 3, 2008
    I spent a lot of time in Explosive Ordnance Disposal and in doing so I disarmed more than one cannon ball or projectile. You have to be able to learn to disarm these remotely. If you can't figure out how to do that you should stick with your day job

    Leaning over a projectile and disarming it only looks good in the movies. That projectile that killed the guy in Virginia should have had ten pounds of explosive in it. After around one hundred and forty years in the ground in a water tight container God only knows how much stress it took to set it off. Obviously not a lot.

    If you think you have to drill into it set up a drill press sand bag it well and operate the press with a long rope. You also need a way to cool the drilling to avoid upsetting very sensitive explosive. Again if you can't digure this out stay with your day job.

    I am also not telling anyone to do any of this. The suggestion is only to think of a way to do it with some degree of safety in mind if you must do it.

  3. TranterUK

    TranterUK Guest

    What a very very sad story. Many of us and most especially myself, would have had a great deal in common with Sam White. He sounds like the sort of man I could have talked to for days if not weeks without getting tired, bored or repeating ourselves. There was no way on earth I could have met him, but wish I had. He had a feeling for history I understand and share. The ability to feel the drama and magic of time travel by simply holding a recovered historic item such as a regimental badge, belt buckle or button.

    Should he have known better? I think if he were aware of the danger he would have taken the appropriate action. I think it was just an accident, pure, simple and very sad.
  4. Unquestionably it was, Tranter, and indeed it was a tragic incident . . . though one must admit there is some degree of irony that does exist in the circumstances. You folks in Europe actually face much more of a possibility of such incidents than we Americans. I still read every so often of an unexploded German bomb found while excavating in London, Coventry, and other cities in Britain, not to mention the tons of ordinance that still come to the surface from time to time in southern Belgium and northern France . . . all left over from a war that ended 100 years ago.
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