Several readers have sent me local news articles about a cannonball recently unearthed by a homeowner doing yard work on his property on Main Street in Durham. The story goes that the owner, Michael Jacobs, tried to sell the artillery projectile to an antique dealer, who informed him that the potentially live ordinance was dangerous and refused to touch it. Jacobs then called the Durham police, who used a controlled detonation to destroy the intact cannonball, splitting it in two.
The Durham cannonball, image from WRAL
The problems I have with this story are twofold. First, I’d like to address the unnecessary destruction of this Civil War ordinance. Post war artillery, including WWI and WWII artillery, can be extremely sensitive to handling when discovered after many years in the ground. I would never recommend handling them in any way, and call authorities immediately! Civil War ordinance, on the other hand, is generally much more stable. I have watched live Civil War shells being excavated in person, and held them in my own hands. While I have recovered solid shot artillery in the past (which contains no powder charge), I hope that someday I do find a complete shell!
Live ordinance dug at the RRRHA Mine Run Hunt.
So are CW shells completely safe to handle? In some cases the black powder inside the shell can still be very much alive. In others, water seeping inside the shell can cause a breakdown of the powder into hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen gas, which are also explosive. So make no mistake about it – while simple handling isn’t going to set it off, it’s still a bomb. Even though you'd have to be doing something incredibly stupid to make it go off (like subjecting it to high heat or trying to drill into it yourself), it should still be disarmed as soon as possible.
The Durham police chose to “disarm” the bomb by blowing it up. While I appreciate that they were acting out of an abundance of caution, I do think it’s a shame to needlessly damage an object of such historical relevance when other options are available. Many CW shells had paper or wood fuses which have rotted out long ago, exposing the powder chamber. Disarming is as simple as flushing the powder chamber thoroughly with water. For solid fused shells, the shell can still be disarmed by a trained professional with the right experience and equipment. This will require drilling into the powder chamber, which can be EXTREMELY dangerous if done wrong, so please DO NOT try it yourself. I really can't stress that enough. The heat of the drill bit can be enough to set off a live shell, so the process should always be done slowly using a remote drill press and a water cooling system. There are professional relic experts who can do this process safely and at a reasonable price.
BUT WAIT -
Is it even a cannonball? Stay tuned to find out why I think this iron sphere may not be a cannonball after all! UPDATE: Read Part 2 here!