The Shell Hunter

Ben Gately Williams
by Chris Dixon - February/March 2013

For one Civil War relic collector, the past can be very much alive 

>See more photos from the story

The shell might have been a Christmas present from the Yankees. After midnight on December 25, 1863, five Union batteries commenced a yuletide rain of hellfire on Charleston, South Carolina, so relentless that, south of Broad Street, it was sometimes difficult to discern individual detonations. This particular mortar shell was a 100-pounder, shaped like a huge bullet and designed to fly nearly five miles at 900 feet per second out of the six-inch rifled barrel of a 12,000-pound cannon. Although some Parrott shells (named for their inventor, Robert Parker Parrott) were simply thick slugs of pure iron, this one contained a precise mixture of potassium nitrate, powdered charcoal, and sulfur known as black powder, designed to explode on impact. Many shells did just that. One that landed at 5 Beaufain Street instantly killed a slave named Rebecca. Another landed at the corner of Meeting and Market and blew off the leg of eighty-three-year-old William Knighton, who later died. Other shells did surprisingly little. “Most buried themselves harmlessly in the earth,” reported the Charleston Mercury. This shell likely left Morris Island on a high arc, screamed through the air, crashed through the roof of a carriage house on Tradd Street, and vanished.

“This house has been in my family for three generations,” says Simons Young, a Charleston architect who set to work restoring the property for his parents in 2010, nearly 150 years after that fateful Christmas. “It was built in 1774 by Judge Robert Pringle. The carriage house might even be older.” To fit a new HVAC system beneath the thick heart-pine joists of the carriage house floor, Young’s contractors started digging. Nearly five feet down, a worker clanged his shovel against a big, round object held firmly by sandy soil. Mistaking it for a chunk of concrete, he gave it several blows with a sledgehammer.

“My head contractor calls,” Young tells me, “and says, ‘Hey, man, you gotta get down here, we found something real interesting.’ They had this thing roped off. I had two thoughts: One, if we called the bomb squad, they would probably just detonate it. Two, Dad was really excited. He wanted to keep it. When my contractor told me he thought he could get it disarmed, I had no clue that was even possible.”

The contractor had never found a shell himself, but in a city that had endured a siege of a year and a half and the impact of more than 10,000 pieces of Union artillery, he knew this was no isolated discovery. He called on Civil War relic traders from Virginia to North Carolina to Mississippi and eventually learned whom he needed to contact to avoid two undesirable outcomes: having a law-enforcement explosive ordnance disposal (or EOD) unit destroy the old shell as a precaution; or keeping the shell around as an unusual souvenir that might someday, hypothetically, blow its owner or his property to smithereens. Folks in the know about such things refer to this person as the Big Iron Man.

At this moment, the Big Iron Man, a friend of his, and I are standing on his deep-woods property, peering into an oaken barrel half filled with mosquito-wriggler-infested water. At the bottom lies a bullet-shaped object about eight inches long. He reaches in and lifts it with callused hands. “Once you dig ’em up, you have to immediately put them in water to keep them from corroding,” he drawls. “This one is a Yankee Hotchkiss shell. It was just dug up in a field not too far from here.”

The Big Iron Man is handsome in a real-life, Sam Elliott way. Tall and powerfully built, he has wavy, longish salt-and-pepper hair and a grizzled face whose lined tributaries bespeak years in the sun and mud of salt marshes. There aren’t many like him—hunters of Revolutionary War and Civil War relics who specialize in the disarming and preservation of live shells and cannonballs; outside of police or military EOD units, he reckons maybe ten or twelve are spread out below the Mason-Dixon. They are a fairly secretive lot. Not only do they not want to give away their hunting spots, but disarming shells is both legally questionable and dangerous as hell. He has agreed to speak with me on the condition that I refrain from revealing his name or exactly where he lives. After growing up in Charleston, he moved “off” (as Charlestonians put it) many years ago, to somewhere along an imaginary arc connecting North Carolina’s Fort Fisher, South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, and Georgia’s Fort Pulaski, in a moss-and-pine-shaded corner of the Lowcountry that he regards as just this side of heaven.