JOHN YDSTIE, host:
There was an unusual casualty of war recently. Not the war in Iraq, but the American Civil War. Sam White, a Civil War memorabilia collector, found an artillery shell and took it to his home in Chester, Virginia, just south of Richmond. It detonated in his driveway, killing him and sending shrapnel as much as a quarter mile away. The accident is a tragic reminder that military ordnance can remain deadly long after a war's end. Jimmy Blankenship is the historian and curator at the Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia. He joins us from there. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JIMMY BLANKENSHIP (Historian, Curator, Petersburg National Battlefield): Thank you.
YDSTIE: Have you ever heard of anybody else being killed by old Civil War-era ordnances in the way that Mr. White was killed?
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: There have been some people injured by trying to disarm some Civil War artillery shells, but I think you've got to go back to the 1960s to find someone actually being killed by one of them.
YDSTIE: How long can a shell like this, a piece of ordnance like this last?
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: It's been over 140 years since the war ended and there are a good number of these items around. We did find a shell at Petersburg National Battlefield about a month ago and we called the Virginia State Police Bomb Squad and they split it open and the powder inside was still dry. If a spark or a flame could have gotten into that shell, it probably would have exploded, so the powder can remain dry for many, many years. The bigger the shell, the thicker the iron is and so it's just going to take that much longer for the iron to eventually rust away, but it's going to take probably a couple hundred years at least for that to happen and in most cases the powder usually is still dry. So the idea is to try to get the powder out of these shells. Now just pouring water into it and letting it sit is not going to work because once the powder dries back out, it is still dangerous.
YDSTIE: So how do these shells detonate? Can they detonate by contact or is there a fuse that you light?
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: Everybody and their grandmother was inventing weapons during the Civil War, so there's many different varieties of how you set them off.
YDSTIE: You're the historian and curator of the Petersburg National Battlefield. Do you have a lot of this old Civil War ordnance or has most of it been picked up?
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: I believe that relic hunters back in the 1960s and '70s pretty much got most of the shells out of the park. There are probably still some out there, but not in large numbers.
YDSTIE: So what's your advice to people who might come across some of this ordnance and want to pick it up and keep it up as a collector?
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: Number one, do not try to disarm it. You can buy these things on the Internet already defused. Get one from a reputable dealer. That would be the safest thing. It's easy to spend a couple hundred dollars and buy one than to take a chance on one blowing up on you.
YDSTIE: Jimmy Blankenship is the historian and curator at the Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia. Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: Sure.
YDSTIE: This is NPR News.
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