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Civil War-Era Cannonballs Unearthed by Hurricane Matthew

The destructive storm dug up some old history

A set of Civil War-era cannonballs were uncovered on a South Carolina beach after Hurricane Matthew. (Charleston County Sheriff's Office)
smithsonian.com

When Hurricane Matthew rolled across the southeastern United States last weekend, it left behind a body count, flooded homes and a trail of damage. But on one beach in Charleston, South Carolina, the storm also uncovered a long-lost piece of history: 16 cannonballs dating back to the Civil War.

A beachgoer watching the waves along the shores near Charleston first spotted the metal objects lying half-buried in the sand on Sunday. However, these weren’t just some innocent artifacts lying around, Angie Jackson and Derrek Asberry report for The Post and Courier. Luckily, the person who discovered them immediately understood their explosive potential. 

“I knew they were cannonballs,” former Folly Beach Mayor Richard Beck, who first stumbled across the cannonballs, tells WCSC News. ”One of them had a very distinct hole in it that went directly into it. Just knowing a little bit about the Civil War, I know that they put fuses in cannonballs for them to explode when they desired them to.”

The Charleston area has serious history when it comes to the Civil War. The first shots of the bloody conflict were fired at Fort Sumter, and the beach where Beck spotted the cannonballs was once a critical staging ground for Union troops as they prepared to storm the nearby Fort Morris, Hudson Hongo reports for Gizmodo.

While cannonballs were rusted from sitting neglected for 150 years or so, that doesn’t make them any less potentially deadly than when they sat in the soldiers’ stockpile. To this day, long-lost weaponry dating back to the Civil War is found across the south, and while they are fascinating pieces of history they can still cause serious damage. Back in 2008, a Virginia resident was killed when a cannonball he was restoring as part of his collection of antique armaments exploded, the Associated Press reported at the time. Even more than a century later, the blast was powerful enough to send pieces of shrapnel through a neighbor’s wall a quarter of a mile away.

"There just aren't many areas in the South in which battlefields aren't located. They're literally under your feet," former Civil War relic hunter Harry Ridgeway told the AP at the time.

That's why Beck called in his discovery to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office bomb squad, who soon investigated the old ordnance along with experts from the Air Force Explosive Ordnance Team, WCSC reports. After confirming that they were, in fact, leftover cannonballs, the artifacts were safely detonated later that evening, making the beach once again secure for swimmers and strollers alike.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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