140-Year-Old Civil War Cannonball Exploded & Killed Relic Hunter

Did you hear about the Civil War cannonball that exploded and killed relic hunter Sam White? The Chester, Virginia resident enjoyed collecting Civil War relics and restoring them to their former status. However, in February 2008, this pastime went horribly wrong. The cannonball which he was restoring exploded, killing him instantly.

Cannonball Kills Civil War Fan

Sam was a dedicated relic hunter, exploring the countryside around his home seeking buttons, bullets, flags, even artillery shells that were left undisturbed, buried in the ground for 140 years. Sam was so invested in finding Civil War artifacts, he would don SCUBA gear and search the rivers for trinkets. The close-knit community of Civil War relic hunters was shaken by his death. Harry Ridgeway, a fellow relic hunter, said that there are very few places in the South that are not Civil War battlefields. He, like Sam, knows well the thrill of uncovering Civil War artifacts. Sam was known to have restored or otherwise worked on about 1,600 other Civil War ordnance pieces for collectors of various kinds. 

A replica cannon from the Civil War firing off

This number is unsurprising when you consider the scale of the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, the Confederate and Union forces blasted over a million artillery pieces at each other, both on land and water. Primary historical sources indicate that up to one in five of the fired artillery shells— hundreds of thousands— were duds and failed to explode on contact. That said, explosives experts have called it ‘extraordinary’ that an inert artillery piece would explode at all. In March 2020, an 8-inch mortar shell, weighing a staggering 44lbs, was retrieved from the site of the 292-day Siege of Petersburg. The shell was safely detonated. Contrary to popular belief, the black powder which cannonballs and other artillery shells of this period were filled with was not terribly volatile. Made of a mixture of charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulfur required both friction and high temperature (572°F, to be precise) to detonate.

Young boy in the battle field carrying the American flag which would have been during the Civil War.

What Not To Do with an Old Cannonball

As this was an explosion, there was a full investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Police that attended the scene examined the shrapnel and concluded that it was an explosion by a Civil War munition that caused his death. White was working on the restoration and disarming of a 75-pound, 9-inch naval shell. These contained a potent explosive that was often more destructive than that used in shells used on land, along with a complex fuse.

There has been speculation about what White was trying to do when he died. Colonel Biemeck and Peter George, who co-authored a book on munitions used during the Civil War, suspect that White was using a drill or a grinder to remove debris from the cannonball. The intricate fuse design may have led White to conclude that there was no powder left in the ball. This, in conjunction with the shower of sparks from the drill, could have been enough to cause the cannonball to explode. 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. Of course, on the day White died, he had 18 other cannonballs lined up in his driveway to restore, which probably contributed to the force of the blast.

As this was a naval shell, the ball would have been watertight, as it was designed to fly over the water at high speed and strike an enemy ship along the waterline. This protective cover would have ensured that the black powder inside was protected from degradation by the elements.

Brenda White, Sam’s widow, is convinced that her husband did nothing wrong and that it was a manufacturing defect in the shell that he was unaware of. According to Brenda, Sam had disarmed the shell before it exploded. In the aftermath of the explosion, the neighboring houses were evacuated while a police bomb squad removed all the artillery pieces from the White collection and detonated them safely.

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Tags: 292-day Siege of Petersburg, Civil War, Confederate, Together We Served, Union Forces

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