Unexploded Civil War Shell Unearthed in Georgia

Local authorities plan to safely detonate the ordnance, potentially destroying it in the process. The decision has sparked controversy among history buffs

rusted conical artillery shell covered in mud, view from top
Researchers unearthed 10-pound Civil War artillery shell at a national park in Georgia in February. Local authorities say they plan to safely detonate the bomb—a decision that angered some historians arguing for the artifact's preservation.  Cobb County Police Department

Archaeologists discovered an unexploded Civil War artillery shell buried underground at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (KEMO) in Georgia last month.

Per a Facebook post from the National Park Service’s (NPS) Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC), archaeologists and four local volunteers discovered the 157-year-old, ten-pound Parrott shell while using a metal detector to survey the park on February 28.

“There is an old ‘truism’ in archaeology—the most exciting find is almost always on the last day. And this project was no exception,” the center wrote on Facebook.

Meredith Hardy, one of the archaeologists who found the explosive, tells Newsweek’s Catherine Ferris that the group conducted the survey ahead of the creation a planned hiking trail. Before the path can open, experts must clear it of any historical artifacts. In addition to the shell, the team discovered buttons and buckles from Civil War–era uniforms.

After spotting the unexploded ordnance, the park’s chief ranger called the Cobb County Bomb Squad, which sent two bomb technicians to carefully dig the shell out of its resting place ten inches underground. Per a Facebook post from the Cobb County Police Department, the technicians moved the artillery round to a storage bunker, where they plan to countercharge it to render it safe.

front view of civil war artillery shell
Front view of shell Cobb County Police Department

As Henri Hollis writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), experts will perforate the shell’s casing with a separate charge to safely detonate it. Though the technicians plan to use “the smallest charge appropriate,” according to a department comment on the Facebook post, the explosive may be destroyed in the process.

Per the NPS, the 2,965-acre park, located roughly three miles west of Marietta, preserves a Civil War battleground where Union and Confederate soldiers fought between June 19 and July 2, 1864. The battle was part of the Atlanta Campaign, a series of influential clashes in northern Georgia that ultimately forced the Confederates to surrender the city. The successful campaign boosted morale among Union troops and helped[1] [SRA2] President Abraham Lincoln secure reelection in November 1864.

The newly discovered projectile contained a percussion fuse that did not ignite upon impact, according to SEAC. The cylindrical shell, which has a flat bottom and a tapered, curved tip, was likely fired from a Union Army cannon, per the police department.

The police department’s post about countercharging the shell sparked a lively online debate over whether technicians could instead try to preserve the weapon.

Heath Jones, a former law enforcement officer and the co-founder of the History Seekers Facebook page, tells the Marietta Daily Journal’s Aleks Gilbert that rediscovered Civil War-era explosives are typically safe to handle, as the shells contain black powder, which is unlikely to ignite once wet. He offered to connect the department with an antique explosives expert.

“It is a very important part of the Battle for Atlanta,” Jones says. “So, you know, it’s something that they can display, this item—it helps tell the story of what happened there. You know, rather than just have a picture and then blowing it up.”

According to the police department, however, controlled detonation is the only way to ensure the weapon is harmless.

“The bomb squad stated that they would love nothing more than to preserve this piece of history. [But] there is no way to safely render it without countercharging it,” wrote the department in a comment on its Facebook post. “... This charge is very small and will perforate the case. Unfortunately, even [a] small amount of live explosives can set the whole shell off.”