A good example of William Shakespeare’s “the evil that men do lives after them” is the aftermath of war. Even when the fighting finally stops, there are still plenty of broken lives and homes that can’t be made right. In the case of modern warfare, such as the Civil War, there is another enduring evil as well. A lot of unused explosives are left lying about, extending the war’s casualty list into future generations. Even today, for example, authorities still find and dispose of old ordnance from Europe’s World War I battlefields. Or, on a more recent note, leftover mines are a problem in such places as Afghanistan.
The Civil War shared this problem. For decades after the War ended, the nation’s newspapers would periodically run articles about unexploded shells and cannon balls being dug up from battlefields, or put on display in amateur exhibits, or even kept around the home for such uses as doorstops. Sometimes they were disposed of safely—-and sometimes not.
During the war, sometimes a shell or cannon ball didn’t go off when it landed. It would lie embedded in the ground, or a tree, or a bridge, biding its time. In addition, sometimes the authorities on both sides could be remarkably careless in their record-keeping, and old caches of ammunition would be left behind at a battlefield or a fort, and forgotten about.
Cannon balls could be especially dangerous. Many souvenir hunters over the years assumed that cannon balls were simply solid iron, whereas many of them actually contained black powder and were meant to explode, scattering shrapnel about. As the black powder aged, it could become even more sensitive to handling, and even more likely to explode.
In May 1947, the federal government set up a “war trophy safety committee” to make a nationwide search for such dangerous leftovers, and then dispose of them. The committee was a combination of the Army, Navy, and Treasury departments, along with the National Rifle Association. They set up local safety committees across the country, with almost 20,000 volunteers.
As of March 31, 1948, they had examined 200,000 samples of ammunition, and deactivated 25,000 shells, grenades, bombs, and booby traps, from the Civil War, as well as the Spanish-American War and World War I. The Treasury department ended the committee’s operations in 1951, by which time they had examined over 1,000,000 pieces of ammunition, and reduced the annual death rate by 1,000. President Harry S Truman said the committee’s work “saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars.”
One of the more prominent sites for bomb disposal work was where the Civil War began, Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederates successfully took the fort after 33 hours of bombardment, beginning on April 12, 1861 and concluding with the fort’s surrender on April 13, 1861. The Lincoln administration was naturally eager to re-take the fort, and during the war subjected Fort Sumter to Union bombardment.
Whatever postwar cleanups may have taken place, they were not enough. In August 1949, six shells were found under the parade ground. They were removed, and only then was the fort opened to tourism.
The committee’s work notwithstanding, Civil War ordnance is still occasionally uncovered. As America’s cities grow in size, they expand into once-rural areas where fighting took place. It is even possible to find Civil War leftovers in the city centers themselves. For example, as recently as November 2, 1972, the Washington Post ran a piece about a cannon ball found during construction work, 24 feet below 7th and G Streets, N.W.—in the very heart of Washington’s downtown.
It’s probably still a good idea to be careful around old war-related sites.
Nashua Telegraph (Nashua, New Hampshire)—May 26, 1948—page 6.
The Washington Post—August 14, 1949—-page M2.
Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania)—October 21,1951—page 43.
The Washington Post and Times Herald—September 30, 1956—page B-2.
The Washington Post—November 2, 1972—page K-2.
-By John Lockwood