Friday, May 02, 2008

Whatcha workin on there Sam?

military bob dosposalCivil War cannonball kills Virginia relic collector

CHESTER, Va. - Like many boys in the South, Sam White got hooked on the Civil War early, digging up rusting bullets and military buttons in the battle-scarred earth of his hometown.

As an adult, he crisscrossed the Virginia countryside in search of wartime relics — weapons, battle flags, even artillery shells buried in the red clay. He sometimes put on diving gear to feel for treasures hidden in the black muck of river bottoms.

But in February, White's hobby cost him his life: A cannonball he was restoring exploded, killing him in his driveway.

More than 140 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, the cannonball was still powerful enough to send a chunk of shrapnel through the front porch of a house a quarter-mile from White's home in this leafy Richmond suburb.
These guys have obsessions. It isn't just the money - although the market for war relics never slumps. Probably 90% of the artifacts we have from the Civil & Revolutionary Wars were found & preserved through private enthusiasts & collectors.

My dad, Joseph S. Rixon, wasn't a relic hunter, but he was a relic collector. Among the items in my house, we had muzzle-loading rifles (my sister learned to target shoot them & became a world champ); a deck cannon from a World War I freighter I can boast of having fired over the Manasquan River ( a blank charge, of course); a World War II artillery shell that was supposedly disarmed; & a can of black powder for the rifles - the loose stuff wasn't explosive but it burned like crazy when we dribbled trails of it around the backyard. Dad's pièce de résistance was a full-sized working replica of a Revolutionary War cannon with a trailer to haui it around. His dream job, which he didn't get until he was in his fifties, was Supervisor of Building & Grounds Maintenance at Washington's Headquarters & Jockey Hollow National Park in Morristown. He would have understood & liked Sam White. I suspect dad might have doubted the wisdom of disarming a complex 9-inch, 75-pound naval cannonball in one's driveway. Having the mind & education of an engineer, he would have asked Mr. White a few very pointed questions about the design & origin of the object, then called for a bomb disposal team. Sad accident. A known civilian casualty of the Civil War, 2008.

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