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 

Somehow or other, the Big Iron Man’s life has always included unexploded mortar shells. While he was growing up, they were a commonplace part of the landscape around Charleston. He and his friends would play hopscotch on old remnant shells strewn along the Battery. Walkways, church entryways, and flower gardens were lined with them. A pharmacy on Tradd Street used a massive solid shell called a “bolt” as a doorstop. “Sometimes they were live,” he says as we settle in comfortable chairs in his workshop, sipping Cokes his wife brought in as she joined our conversation. “Sometimes they weren’t. Eventually over time, folks just sort of picked them up, and there got to be less and less of them around.”

To this day, Charleston is almost certainly still littered with relic shells, although few remain in plain sight. “We were shelled for five-hundred-and-sixty-some-odd days,” Grahame Long, curator of history at the Charleston Museum, tells me after I’ve met the Big Iron Man. “The stuff turns up more here than anywhere in the South. We certainly haven’t found them all. And however many there are on the Charleston peninsula, there are, I’ll bet, ten times more in the harbor. Most of the EOD calls I’d hear about were coming from harbor dredgers. They’d be dumping spill out on Drum Island and the shells would just go down those dredge pipes like a big pinball.”

The Big Iron Boy learned about these artifacts scattered around his hometown while he was in elementary school. When he met Omega East, the late superintendent of Fort Sumter and longtime National Park Service historian, East regaled the youngster with stories of the fort’s battles—and the relics that still lay beneath the ground. A cheap metal detector led to a few discoveries, and soon he was hooked. As he pursued his new hobby, he learned early on how dangerous a Carolina marsh could be. “My younger brother and I went to this place one time when he was about eight years old and got split up,” he tells me. “When I found him, he was half buried in the marsh mud, and the tide was coming back in. He wasn’t saying anything, just had this blank look on his face. I remembered this issue of Boys’ Life where they talked about rescuing someone from the ice. I had to crawl like a turtle out across that mud to get him.”

By the mid-1980s, magnetometers capable of peering deep below saltwater, mud, and sand enabled previously impossible searches. He often set out with an author/historian named Jack W. Melton, Jr., who has penned an authoritative guide to Civil War artillery, and he made the acquaintance of Harry Ridgeway, a relic hunter from Virginia. Discoveries of massive and valuable shells all along the Southern coast followed. Recovering a 200- to 400-pounder was particularly perilous. “Charleston is the hotbed,” says Ridgeway, a prolific shell hunter and memorabilia dealer known as the Civil War Relicman. “The exchanges of bombardment resulted in a lot of misses, and the shells would go sailing past their targets into the swamps. But it’s very difficult to find them, and very dangerous. All you see is that marsh grass, six, seven, eight feet tall. You sink up to your butt immediately. You get stuck, the tide comes in, and you’re just gone.”

Other hazards of relic hunting are of the crawling, biting variety. The thousand or so forested islands that run from Charleston to Savannah teem with rattlesnakes, black widows, Lyme disease ticks, mosquitoes, and the occasional rogue alligator in a freshwater impoundment. “When you’re out on an island, and you hear a giant bullfrog sound,” says the Big Iron Man, “that’s a mama alligator lettin’ you know you’re near her young.”

At that, his wife hefts a Confederate cannonball recovered from just such an island. It’s been cut into cross section, its terrible interior payload plainly visible. Confederate troops used whatever they had on hand as shrapnel agents because they couldn’t afford lead balls. “That’s how you know it’s Confederate,” says the Big Iron Man. “Johnny Reb would use nuts, bolts, anything.”

He hands me an iron sphere the size of a billiard ball, part of a load of grapeshot. “Grape was like a big shotgun shell,” he says. “The troops were marching in and they’d fire grape into ’em. Thirty people would just disappear in a mist of red. It was horrible.”

If these weapons inflicted such misery, I ask, why preserve them? “People have been trying to kill each other through all of history,” his wife replies. “Well, this is how they did it from 1861 to 1865. It illustrates not only the advances in technology, but the differences in resources between the North and the South.”

Her husband props his feet up on a fifteen-inch Union cannonball. “The Yanks were throwing these at Battery Wagner on Morris Island,” he says. “That’s solid iron, four hundred and eighty-five pounds. Can you imagine what it took just to handle the cannon that fired this? It would damage a modern warship.”

“If you don’t understand history,” his wife adds, “how can you understand human beings? This isn’t just iron. It’s engineering and technology. It’s the bravery of the soldiers. It’s the sheer foolishness of it all.”