Durham man finds Civil War cannonball in yard

krupp@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2013 

PIeces of a Civil War cannonball after Durham's bomb squad used a small explosive charge to open the cannonball and break it into multiple pieces. The cannonball was found in Durham by Michael Jacobs at the beginning of March while he was doing yard work.

DURHAM SHERIFF'S DEPT.

— When Michael Jacobs tried to sell a Civil War cannonball he unearthed in his backyard to a Hillsborough antiques dealer, the dealer advised him to contact law enforcement officials right away.

“When I set it down he rolled it over and looked at it and saw the fuse and he got really scared and said he couldn’t do anything with it as he backed away from it,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs, 47, dug up the cannonball at the beginning of March while he was doing yard work.

“When I originally found it,” said Jacobs, “it didn’t hit me it was a cannon ball. I scraped off the dirt and saw a metal ball and put it in a pile of scrap metal.”

But after the antique shop owner’s reaction on Monday, he contacted the Durham Sheriff’s Office. At 12:20 p.m., the Durham County’s Hazardous Devices Unit came to Jacob’s house on W. Main Street and confirmed it was a 6-lb. Confederate cannonball from the Civil War.

It was taken to the county firing range in a containment vessel and destroyed. Officials said it contained black powder explosives and was fitted with a fuse.

Bennett Place, the historical Durham farmhouse that was the site of the largest troop surrender of the American Civil War, is located less than 10 minutes away from where Jacobs unearthed the cannonball.

“Very few North Carolinians realize that there were roughly 130,000 soldiers that passed through the Raleigh-Durham area in April 1865,” said John Guss, Site Manager of Bennett Place. “All kinds of military supplies and equipment were left or dropped or were being prepared for use in this area before the war ended,” he said.

Durham’s bomb squad disarmed the cannonball with the shaped charge method, using a small explosive charge to open the cannonball and break it into multiple pieces. They could not drill or penetrate the cannonball without the risk of creating a spark or heat and detonating the gunpowder inside, said Deputy Paul Sherwin, the Public Information Officer of the Durham Sherriff’s Office.

“When you have anything 150 years old or Revolutionary War era, 200 years old, it is like dealing with a wild animal. You can never tame them,” said Guss.

But some historians argue that there are safe ways to deactivate cannonballs and other war relics without destroying them.

“I consider the shaped charge method to be destroying archeological evidence,” said Jack Melton, a Civil War historian and artillery collector.

“It is possible to use a remote drill press to slowly and safely remove the black powder and that way you are saving history instead of destroying it,” he said. “A cannonball will not detonate if it is just sitting there or if it falls once; that is a complete misnomer.”

Melton’s method involves submerging the cannonball in water while a remote drill exposes the black powder to the water, washing it out. Black powder is less powerful than modern gunpowder and harmless once the cannonball’s fuse is removed. The process does not generate heat because it is underwater and preserves the cannonball’s shell, Melton said.

Jacobs said the Durham Sherriff’s Department did not return the severed pieces to him after the cannonball was destroyed.

Rupp: 919-829-8955

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