Charleston museum showcases Civil War explosives

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — They were the messengers of death in America’s bloodiest war: special rifle ammunition that caused mayhem on Civil War battlegrounds, artillery shells designed to blow ironclads out of the water and early mines and napalm.

A Quinlivan shot, used against ironclads, is part of a new exhibit about Civil War explosives at the Charleston Museum.   BRUCE SMITH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
BRUCE SMITH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A Quinlivan shot, used against ironclads, is part of a new exhibit about Civil War explosives at the Charleston Museum.

They are on display in a new exhibit at the Charleston Museum in the city historians say has been bombarded more than any place in the Western Hemisphere.

As part of the sesquicentennial of the war that started in nearby Charleston Harbor and saw the city bombarded by Union shells for 567 days, the museum is mounting the exhibit “Blasted: Assorted Projectiles and Explosives of the Civil War.” More than 100 rarely seen items from museum collections are on display through Sept. 10.

The items include a rare Confederate Quinlivan shot, a solid shot used against ironclads and one of only four thought to be in existence.

There’s a two-chambered shell that was an early form of napalm that Union gunners lobbed at the buildings of Charleston. The shells had an explosive charge in one chamber and in the other, a mixture of coal oil, coal tar and petroleum that would splatter and burn.

“This exhibit goes into the nitty-gritty of things that are not normally discussed,” curator Grahame Long said.

The exhibit has more than 100 items including models of torpedoes that were anchored in the waterways around Charleston during the Union blockade. If a ship’s hull hit the detonating pin, the torpedo would explode. But they sometimes caused more problems for the Con­federates.

“Saltwater corroded them and they would break free and float aimlessly with the tide,” threatening Southern vessels on the rivers and harbor, Long said. Torpedoes adapted as land mines were used to defend Morris Island where, in 1863, the black 54th Massa­chusetts made the attack commemorated in the movie Glory.

The most chilling display shows exploded Minie balls, the rifle ammunition that could be fired at longer range on the battlefield. The round tumbled when it hit flesh, causing gaping wounds. Photos show the damage from the balls developed in the years before the war.

“During the war the weaponry outpaced the tactics,” Long said. Though weapons could fire farther, he said, many officers still used the European method of lining their men shoulder to shoulder to mass their fire on the enemy. That made them easy targets in the open field.

Officers saw the casualties, but developing new tactics took time.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was criticized early in the war for urging his men to use field fortifications – such as digging trenches and foxholes – as protection from the enemy, said Maj. Ben Richards, a historian at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.


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