BOS may create rules for Civil War ordnance
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    BOS may create rules for Civil War ordnance

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    BOS may create rules for Civil War ordnance


    By Richard Carrier
    Contributing Writer


    Apr 02, 2008

    The Army of the Confederacy’s 1865 retreat across Amelia and Powhatan Counties and on to its final surrender at Appomattox was marked by the abandonment of tons of equipment and ordnance.

    “There’s no telling what is underneath the bridges that cross the Appomattox River,” commented Powhatan Civil War historian Robert Wilcox. As the horses used to move the rapidly retreating army wore down, loads were dropped in fields and along the roads. Much of this abandoned gear was then buried by the farmers who worked that land, speculated Mr. Wilcox. And there were the spent shells generated in major local battles.

    “There were over a quarter million artillery shells fired in the Battle of Petersburg alone,” said Jimmy Blankenship, who has served over 35 years as a Park Ranger at the Petersburg site.

    This imagined treasure trove of Civil War relics has spawned an army of collectors sweeping metal detectors across the farms and fields from Petersburg to Appomattox. It has also brought with it the reality of serious injury and even death. Some of the ordnance fired during the Civil War failed to function and remained in the ground, unexploded, and although there are records of retreating Confederate troops destroying jettisoned ordnance, most was simply cast aside.

    The dire consequences of handling live ordnance were never more apparent than the tragedy that occurred at Huguenot Academy in the 1970’s. According to County native, Betty West Clark, who had two sons at Huguenot Academy at the time, two students found a shell at Fort Picket and brought it to the school. Thinking it was benign they took it into a shop class intent on taking it apart to examine it. According to Mrs. Clark, “they put it in a vise and hit it with a hammer.” The shell exploded, killing one student and seriously wounding four more, including Eston Pace and Chris Elam, the son of Powhatan veterinarian Dr. C. Nick Elam, Jr.

    Wilcox recalled another incident to which he was personally a witness. In conversation with a country store owner in Chula some years ago, Wilcox mentioned that he was a Civil War buff. The store owner responded by bringing out his own most recently discovered treasure, an unexploded Civil War cannon ball. “He had been trying to defuse it and had the fuse pulled about half way out of the ball. I got out of there in a hurry,” he recalled.

    On Feb. 18, 2008 Chesterfield’s Sam White, with years of experience disarming old ordnance, was killed when a shell he was attempting to neutralize blew up.

    “Sam White had disarmed over sixteen hundred rounds,” Blankenship said, and his death has been a catalyst for change in the policies of the National Park Service. In perspective, there have only been “three or four shells found in the Park in the 30 years I have been here,” Blankenship said, but new policy dictates that any ordnance found in the park be immediately turned over to either the Virginia State Police or the U.S. Army Bomb Squads for destruction.

    Ironically, an 8 inch mortar shell was found during an archeological investigation in the Park just last week. It was immediately turned over to the bomb squad and destroyed. “I hate to see them blown up but this shell had dry powder in it,” said Blankenship. “It was a live round.”

    It is illegal to treasure hunt on federally owned lands since 1906, and Blankenship contends that there is, “not a gold mine that people think there is. The relic hunters of the 60’s and 70’s got most of what was here,” he said.

    In the context of public lands, Wilcox disagrees. “The stuff is buried all over the County,” he contends. “This was a large, rapidly moving army and Pace Road, Batterson Road, Route 13 (once known as Petersburg Road) and the loop roads like Old Buckingham are likely to have been areas where ordnance was discarded.”

    History records that General Ewell’s troops did destroy some ordnance during the retreat in their bivouac at Powhatan Station (Dorsett Road), but it is the potential danger from unexploded rounds, both scavenged and un-scavenged, that Mr. Wilcox feels so strongly about. His desire to, “try and find some sort of identifying marker as to who has live rounds,” has been so convincing that he has been asked by the Powhatan Board of Supervisors to look into the issue and report back to them. Potentially the Board of Supervisors, working with the Commonwealth Attorney, could formulate regulations against the possession of antique ordnance. Mr. Wilcox is assembling data to support such a ban and will present his arguments at the next Board of Supervisors meeting.

    kenb

 

 

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