Is old cannonball a curiosity or dangerous explosive?
When Christine Jablon and her husband began renovating their historic Montagu Street home last year, an amateur archeologist they knew asked if he could root around in the yard for artifacts.
His digging produced some old dolls, tool parts, toothbrushes and what appeared to be a Civil-War-era cannonball that they placed on display inside their home, built in 1812.
It’s 3 inches in diameter and is sitting in a display case along with other artifacts found in the backyard.
Jablon began questioning the wisdom of keeping a cannonball in her house after reading an article in The Post and Courier Sunday about unexploded Civil War munitions. The story mentioned police in Atlanta having to detonate a similar round found last week in Centennial Olympic Park.
“We thought it might be a good idea to let someone take a look at it and make sure it does not need to be destroyed or preserved better, etc.,” she said.
Her husband is Eric Jablon, an opthalmologist who specializes in retina surgery. They have lived in Charleston for a number of years and have been working on the historic house on Montagu Street for about nine months.
It’s not uncommon for fully intact projectiles to turn up around Charleston and other Southern cities that played an active role in the Civil War.
During the Siege of Charleston, Union forces shelled the city for nearly 600 days, firing ordnance that landed on homes, streets and gardens. Digging around the city often turns up old munitions, as well some cannonballs dating as far back as the Revolutionary War.
Due to the potentially volatile nature of old armaments, Charleston police strongly advise people to call the police department if they stumble across such items. The police Explosive Devices Unit works closely with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office bomb squad and the Air Force explosives unit at Joint Base Charleston to dispose of old munitions.
The police bomb squad has come across folks using old cannonballs as mantel ornaments and doorstops. It can be difficult to tell by sight if the round is a solid cast-iron ball or a hollow projectile filled with gunpowder. The latter can pack the punch of a pipe bomb, police officials said.
About eight years ago, the police bomb squad pulled a Civil War round out of a home on Charleston’s Rainbow Row. Though more than a century old, the gunpowder inside was still dry and quickly ignited when a flare was put to it, police said.
The bomb squad can be reached by calling 577-7434. But be advised that calling the bomb squad means losing the cannonball.
Keith Purdy, a local artillery expert, said most old cannonballs don’t have to be destroyed, as bomb squads tend to do.
Purdy said the rounds can be easily disarmed and preserved for future generations by a knowledgeable expert. He said they can be transported in a bucket of water and run through an electrolysis process, rendering the powder inert and the round a safe keepsake.
“They can be transported and disarmed safely,” he said. “There’s no question about it. I just wish people knew that.”
Purdy said the 3-inch cannonball found on Montagu Street appears to be solid, with no gunpowder inside.
“It’s completely harmless,” he said. “It would be a shame to blow it up.”
Christine Jablon said she will continue to consult with experts before deciding what to do.
Irene Dorsey of James Island hopes someone like Purdy can save the old cannonball she has carted around for years. She thinks it was passed down through generations in her family. Her grandfather’s uncle was John Gary Evans, who served as South Carolina’s governor after the Civil War, from 1894 to 1897, she said.
Dorsey grew a bit uneasy about possessing a potentially hot round, but she said she would hate to part with her little piece of history.
“I don’t know how exactly it came into the family,” she said, “but it’s still a fun little story to tell.”
Dave Munday contributed to this story. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.