A Particularly Bad Idea
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
Vicksburg has experienced more artillery bombardment than any other city on the North American continent. The U.S. Navy launched hundreds of shells into the city throughout the spring and summer of 1862. The three-day battle at Chickasaw Bayou contributed even more to the accumulating total. Then the siege began. From May 18th to the cease fire on the afternoon of July 3rd, a virtual cast iron rain fell on the city, from both the U.S. Navy and the Union Army. A Confederate soldier camped on the banks of the Pearl River, 40 miles east of Vicksburg, recorded in his diary that he could hear the bombardment of the city. A commenter on my blog site told me that people in Winston County Mississippi, 100 miles away, could hear it as well! Most of these shells were of the exploding variety and they did their dirty work with varying amounts of success, but in some cases, the fuses did not work as intended, and a shell that was supposed to explode at a predetermined point in the sky, instead buried itself deep in the ground. With the passage of time the wind and rain erased all surface evidence of its existence.
The war ended and slowly things began to return to normal. Tennant farming “share-cropping” replaced the slave labor of the antebellum days and the big plantation owners became “landlords” collecting the rent in cotton. Thousands of new small farms, 40 acres and a mule, sprung up across the land. The cycle of the seasons continued –sowing, cultivation, harvest—much as it had for the last 12,000 years. Relics of the war worked their way to the surface from time to time. Ragged fragments of cast iron, from the huge mortar shells or solid shot, designed to punch holes in buildings or men, were harmless enough, and more than one family had a “family cannon ball” or two around the house gathering dust on a shelf, or acting as a doorstop. Occasionally an unexploded shell would turn up! Dud shells were, and still are, potentially very dangerous. The black powder mix in these shells is composed of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) all occur naturally in nature. Combined in the right proportions they make an explosive mixture, that can be ignited with a tiny spark. When wet, they are inert, but they don’t break down with age, so as soon as they dry, they are again deadly, whether they are five years old or 154 years old. The old timers knew the difference. They were fairly easy to identify, and they did not keep the exploding ones around. There was no bomb squad to call in those days, so the best practice was to carefully rebury them in a safe area (far from your house or field) or to drop them in a river or stream, so they would remain forever wet and harmless.
There is an old story oft repeated in this area of a farmer, that was perhaps “not the sharpest tack in the box”, who plowed up a particularly well preserved example of a “Parrot” shell (a long narrow shell fired from a rifled cannon) and decided to make good use of his prize by using it as an andiron in his fireplace. OOPS! That’s right it was not a solid shot, but an exploding shell! Well it being plowing time he got away with it for several months, but the first cool day of fall when he kindled a fire in the hearth, BOOM!
The story ends there, no mention is made of the farmer’s fate, I like to think that he survived, battered and bruised perhaps, but wiser for his effort! For it is said that sometimes God watches over babies and fools!
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