Behind a two-story home on a rural Lowcountry road, long-forgotten relics from a more than century-old conflict lie marinating in electrolyte baths so that future generations might someday see them up close.
Dozens of cannonballs, mortar shells and other munitions used in the Civil War sit in water-filled barrels that are juiced with a small electrical charge that travels along a maze of wires from a battery. It’s part of a year-long process to remove iron oxide, salt water and rust to keep the aged armaments from chipping, cracking and crumbling when they are exposed to the air after years under water or ground.
The backyard operation is not part of a high-tech laboratory or the brainchild of a noted scientist. Rather, it’s a labor of love launched by a coastal native with a passion for history and skills honed by decades of experimentation, trial-and-error and advice from those who came before him.
Unexploded rounds from the War Between the States pepper the region and are uncovered from time to time during construction digs and renovation projects, prompting anxious calls to local police and military bomb squads. Their solution, more often than not, is to blow up the old rounds to eliminate any threat to the public.
That galls some preservationists, who see each exploded piece of ordnance as another chunk of history lost.
“They don’t need to do that,” said the man with the backyard munitions collection. “This stuff needs to be seen by people.”
The man has what may be the largest private collection of Civil War munitions in the state, but he stays far clear of the limelight as a general rule. He agreed to talk with The Post and Courier on the condition that his name not be used and the location of his home kept secret.
He’s wary of thieves, curiosity-seekers and reality-TV producers looking to make a buck off his endeavors.
More than a half-dozen TV types tried to track him down after he appeared anonymously in a Garden & Gun magazine article this year. But the collector, known by some as Iron Man, said he is not interested in helping with low-budget productions looking to ridicule the South or spur a frenzied hunt for artifacts on solemn ground.
“South Carolina is one of the few states where you can still find artifacts,” he said. “And it is a privilege.”
His relic-hunting days are pretty much over, but he still spends hours laboring over munitions found by friends and others who come to him through word-of-mouth referrals. He has advised military explosive experts, historians and others.
The scientific team working on the restoration of the Hunley even stopped by to pick his brain on electrolysis restoration techniques after the Confederate sub was pulled from waters off Charleston in 2000.
Still, some bomb-squad members question the wisdom of trying to save old, and potentially volatile, explosive rounds. They also said federal law makes old munitions found on U.S. soil the property of the military, regardless of the vintage or who fired the round in the first place.
Lt. Patrick Morris, commander of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad, acknowledged that most people who hand over found munitions to authorities won’t ever see those rounds again.
“I understand the other side of the argument, and it’s shame to lose good historical pieces,” Morris said. “Unfortunately, these could still be live rounds and they could still be deadly.”
Black powder can survive decades and still ignite, even if it got wet during that time, Morris said. Cannonballs more than 100 years old can pack the punch of a large pipe bomb, he said.
In February 2008, for example, an avid relic collector in Virginia was killed when a Civil War cannonball he was restoring exploded in his driveway, the blast blowing shrapnel a quarter-mile away.
Morris said police just can’t take the chance that something deadly might happen when such a relic is discovered.
“It’s like I tell people, I don’t ever want to be the last casualty of the Civil War,” he said.
Keith Purdy, a local re-enactor and vintage artillery expert, said authorities tend to greatly exaggerate the danger posed by old ordnance. Most cannonballs and shells can be safely carted away in a bucket of water, and he and Iron Man said they have not encountered a single instance of someone being injured moving old ordnance.
“They can be transported and disarmed safely,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”
Iron Man said that before soaking his relics, he has them safely drilled under water and emptied of gunpowder. Once that is done, they are completely harmless.
“This place could burn down and they’re still not going to hurt anybody,” he said.
Iron Man developed his passion for old projectiles as a kid fascinated by military history in the 1960s. He found his first Parrott shell along Morris Island in 1969, and was crushed when a military bomb squad hauled it away. “I vowed they’d never take another from me.”
Among the items on display at his home are 200-pound Parrott shells, a Harding shell made in Charleston and fired at the Battle of Seccessionville on James Island, early grenades, two anchors used to hold torpedoes in Charleston Harbor, and an extremely rare 15-inch cannonball packed with iron that would serve as a shrapnel when exploded.
Iron Man hopes to someday find a place to properly display his collection so that future generations can experience the history firsthand. But that would cost money, and he’s not seen much interest from local institutions in making that happen.
“It’s not a Blue or Gray issue with this,” he said, rubbing his fingers together. “It’s a green issue.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.