Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Live Civil War Ammo Found Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Bruce E. Perkins

[image] From left: Towney Anderson, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Arthur Cohn with bombs and portrait of General P.P. Pitkin (Bruce E. Perkins) [LARGER IMAGE, 32K]

A cache of 63 unexploded Civil War-era mortar bombs has been discovered by sport divers in Mirror Lake, near Calais, Vermont. Arthur Cohn, director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, working with Towney Anderson, a state historic preservation officer, in cooperation with other state and federal agencies, recovered the ammunition, which was still live. Three years ago the same divers found a cache of 93 bombs, which were determined to be a hazard and destroyed by the police. With support from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), funding was secured from the Department of Defense Legacy Program to preserve the second cache. "This time it was acknowledged that there could be a positive outcome," says Anderson. "The state police gave us time to find a team that could bring the bombs up without [later] destroying them. My hat's off to them." The bombs, 12-pound spherical case shot, are nearly five inches in diameter and attached to a wooden base called a sabot. When such a bomb was fired, the sabot fell away and the projectile, timed by a fuse to explode after one to five seconds, rained shot down on the enemy. "Well-preserved sabots, rounds, fuses, and powder are extremely rare," says Cohn. A special Navy demolition team from Indian Head, Maryland, working with the Vermont National Guard, used a remote-controlled drilling device to remove the powder from the bombs, rendering them harmless. The ammunition will be conserved at the Maritime Museum, where it is currently on display. The Lake Champlain Basin Program has provided financial support.

How did live Civil War ammunition end up on the bottom of a Vermont lake? Records show that the state had a large arsenal at Montpelier. Lids from shipping crates, found on land owned by Vermont's quartermaster general from 1864 to 1870, bore his name and address, "General P.P. Pitkin, Montpelier, Vermont," on one side, and "Watervilet Arsenal New York January 1865," on the other. Records from the Watervilet arsenal show that 12-pound mortar bombs were produced there at the time. The bombs may have been dumped into the lake in an attempt to neutralize them.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America