Jump to content
SASS Wire Forum
Sign in to follow this  
Subdeacon Joe

Revolutionary Grenades

Recommended Posts

This is what happened after mislabeled Revolutionary War grenades sat on museum shelves for decades

RICHMOND, Va. — In an uh-oh episode of historic proportions, hand grenades from the last major battle of the Revolutionary War recently and repeatedly scrambled bomb squads in Virginia’s capital city.

Wait — they had hand grenades in the Revolutionary War?

Indeed. Hollow iron balls, filled with black powder, outfitted with a fuse, then lit and thrown.

And more than two dozen have been sitting in cardboard boxes at the Department of Historic Resources, undetected for 30 years.

Encrusted and corroded, no one realized what the grenades were when they were excavated in the 1980s along with 5,000 other relics from The Betsy, a British ship sunk in the York River in 1781. Analysis that would normally have been conducted after such a find was shut down by state budget cuts.

So the grenades went on the shelves — labeled with the best guess of "shot" — alongside 6 million other artifacts housed in the state's repository.

The first grenade was noticed around Thanksgiving, thanks to a conservation grant that had staff sifting through boxes to see how relics were holding up. The last was rounded up just before New Years.

 

The repository at the Department of Historic Resources is full of ghosts.

Sheltered in rented space alongside the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, it’s a library of rolling shelves and 9,000 boxes holding countless artifact-filled plastic bags preserving the remnants from centuries of lives. Arrowheads and pottery. Pipes and pieces of planks. Bottles, buttons and buckles. Anything old that’s been unearthed by archaeologists or found and donated.

Live ordnance has shown up at the door before, brought by folks who didn't recognize what they'd dug up in their garden.

"But it's usually Civil War stuff," said Kate Ridgway, a conservator with the department. "You still get quite a bit of that around here."

Standard protocol: Call the police for disposal.

"We hate to see anything historic destroyed," Ridgway said, "but it's just too dangerous to keep."

Staff had no idea what they were holding onto themselves.

The first thorough inspection of Betsy artifacts began in the fall after the department landed a Maritime Heritage grant from the National Park Service. It covered the cost of examining and re-treating, if necessary, the "organics" in the collection — pieces of wood, rope, leather and the like that are most vulnerable to decay.

When originally preserved, they were soaked in chemicals and "bulking agents" that tend to degrade over time. Better techniques have been developed.

"So there I was," said Chelsea Blake, a conservator hired to handle the project, "going through old records and boxes, trying to match things up. As I came across metal items — since that's not an organic — I'd set them aside in a box I'd marked 'Things for Kate' so she could take a look later."

On Nov. 28, Ridgway was working her way through that box in the lab when she pulled out a plastic bag labeled "shot." Inside: a gray-ish round clump not much bigger than a golf ball.

"I knew right away something wasn't right," Ridgway said. "It wasn't heavy enough to be lead shot. And it had these weird cracks in it. And what looked like crystals inside."

When she opened the bag, she caught the scent of something ominous.

A whiff of gunpowder crossed 237 years and drifted up.

In September 1781 — six years into the Revolutionary War — the siege at Yorktown was under way. Roughly 8,000 British troops were dug in, trapped against the river by twice as many troops from George Washington’s Continental Army and its French allies.

Most of the town lay in smoking ruins. Food was running low. But Lord Charles Cornwallis, the British commander, was holding out. He had a good supply of ammunition and a decent-sized fleet still afloat in the river. And he was expecting reinforcements. A British armada was on its way from New York.

But French warships fended off his rescuers, blocking their path at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. Fearing the French ships would then sail for Yorktown, Cornwallis made the desperate decision to sacrifice much of his own fleet, scuttling dozens of vessels to form a barrier of barely sunken wreckage in the river.

The Betsy was one of them. A 75-foot collier built of heart of oak in Whitehaven, England, the ship had been drafted into military service. Before dropping anchor in the York River, The Betsy carried British troops from Portsmouth to Yorktown. Then, on Sept. 16, 1781, a hole was chiseled in the ship's hull, and The Betsy sank to the bottom.

The scuttling strategy didn't change the outcome at Yorktown, of course. Cornwallis surrendered on Oct. 19, 1781 — sapping the will of the British empire to fight on. The French salvaged what they could from the crippled ships and locals picked through the remains.

In time, the ships settled deeper and the elements ate at their carcasses. What was left was eventually covered in a protective blanket of silt. And the lost fleet of Yorktown slept, largely forgotten.

John Broadwater started probing the river bed in the 1970s. Hired as the state's first underwater archaeologist, he led a team that found nine of the shipwrecks before efforts were focused on The Betsy. Located just 500 yards offshore in about 20 feet of water, the hull was intriguingly intact under five feet of silt.

Full-on excavation, which didn't start until the 1980s, was a big deal. It required a specially designed enclosure called a "cofferdam" to overcome the York River's strong currents, near-zero visibility and stinging jellyfish. National Geographic magazine published a spread on the Yorktown Shipwreck Archaeological Project in June 1988, dedicating 20 pages to the history, excavation and relics recovered — everything from a barrel still holding 10,000 musket balls to a window from the captain's quarters with glass still intact.

There was no mention of grenades. When they'd been found — waterlogged and heavy with a type of corrosion archaeologists call "concretion" — it was assumed they were shot for a small cannon that had also been recovered.

"We took some rough measurements and they seemed like they'd fit the cannon," Broadwater said. "We put them aside, along with all kinds of other stuff, for later study. We were planning to get them X-rayed to see what was inside."

Instead, a budget ax fell hard in 1989, slashing funding for the department and pulling the plug on the shipwreck project.

"Right in the middle of everything," Broadwater said, "we were all laid off. And the artifacts ended up getting stored wherever they could find room."

Thirty years later, Broadwater's brown beard has turned silver and he's accumulated quite a list of accomplishments. He's worked with James Cameron on deep-water studies of The Titanic. Led expeditions to The Monitor, a storied Civil War ironclad. Helped Jeff Bezos recover Apollo Saturn V booster engines.

But The Betsy got to his soul. Diving in such a murky river, you feel alone with a shipwreck's spirits. The small discoveries — a whistle shaped like a monkey, a scrap of yellow ribbon, a scuttlehole cut with astonishing precision — gave a pulse to the long-dead.

"Those are moments an archaeologist cherishes," Broadwater said. "I felt like I was touching somebody from the past."

He was stunned when he heard that the past has now reached out to rattle the present in Richmond:

"To think that we've been sitting on bombs all these years ... and that the powder could still be viable after two centuries underwater."

Ridgway figured it could be, especially after three decades of drying time. She carried that first strange ball to a microscope. Those were definitely crystals inside.

"I am not happy," she told Blake, before turning to her computer to search for information about weapons of The Betsy's era. It dawned on her that this ball could be the core of a grenade, what was left after the iron shell had long dissolved.

Ridgway crossed the lab to another instrument that identifies chemical elements. Sulfur. And potassium. The ingredients of gunpowder.

"I am really not happy," Ridgway said. "We're done here. Call the police."

Soon, a parade of emergency vehicles jammed Kensington Avenue out front.

"I didn't even know they had hand grenades during the Revolutionary War," said Mark Castillo, the Richmond bomb squad commander.

A bomb tech put on safety gear — the heavy, head-to-toe Kevlar suit of their trade. Employees were cleared out. No one knew what to expect.

Grenades typically need a hard outer shell to produce the kind of explosion that sends shrapnel flying. But this one's shell had broken down, leaving "bits of metal and rust inside the powder which makes it even more sensitive," Castillo said, "more unstable as time goes by."

The core was nestled inside a bomb truck, driven to a range, wired with explosives and detonated. When the whole thing blew, the core sent up its own plume of white smoke — the signature of burning black powder. "There was no doubt the material was still hazardous," Castillo said.

Two days later, the staff found three more.

Repeat bomb squad scene.

 

There is more to the article.  Got tired of scrolling, copying, and pasting.

  • Like 1
  • Thanks 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Very cool!  Thanks Joe!  Had no idea hand grenades existed during that period.

History never stops being fascinating! :FlagAm: :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
15 minutes ago, Dutch Wheeler said:

Very cool!  Thanks Joe!  Had no idea hand grenades existed during that period.

History never stops being fascinating! :FlagAm: :)

 

 

Grenades go way back. Maybe about A.D.1000

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

      Revolutionary War Grenade

 

  449677056_RevolutionaryWarGrenade.JPG.e82a93520716a68814603ed805e9bde3.JPG

 

Grenades of this type played and important battle in the biggest naval battle of the Revolutionary War. The Bon Homme Richard under the command of Captain John Paul Jones entered into a battle with the British ship the Serapis. The Serapis was a much faster and heavier ship. As the battle continued, the two ships end up side by side. Jones relied on the eighteen pound large cannons in the gun room. As six of the cannons were discharged, two of the fired guns burst. This explosion blew out the deck above and killed a large number of the people below. Jones was force to abandon his most powerful weapons. As the firing halted, British Captain Pearson asked Jones if he was surrendering. Jones’s comment has endured the test of time. He replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The fighting continued but with the battle guns disabled there was little the Bon Homme Richard could do. As the crew of the Serapis fought below, the seamen of the Bon Homme Richard began throwing grenades onto the upper two decks of the Serapis. Others followed suit, throwing the grenades through the ports of the Serapis. One seaman climbed to the very end of a yard arm and with a bucket of grenades achieved such precision that he was able to land grenades through the main hatchway. The powder-boys of the Serapis carelessly laid out a row of cartridges on the main deck. One of the grenades hit lose powder setting off a domino effect igniting one cartridge after another. The explosion was devastating to the Serapis. It is estimated that 60 men were instantly disabled by the single, well placed grenade. The Serapis was permanently disabled and the Bon Homme Richard under John Paul Jones was victorious.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Subdeacon Joe said:

Inside: a gray-ish round clump not much bigger than a golf ball.

 "I knew right away something wasn't right," Ridgway said. "It wasn't heavy enough to be lead shot.

Shot that size was almost always iron, not lead, so the weight would not have been that great. 

Hereks a couple og grapeshot balls from a CW Dahlgren cannon. Solid iron. Boom.

98C2D646-7486-40C5-83CC-A1A52D0BC65A.jpeg

2C10F87F-6ADF-4334-B71B-3F321249CCF5.jpeg

  • Like 2
  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Great. Now that Hollywood knows that grenades existed back then, wait for a new movie to come out with some 1700's action hero lobbing them at bad guys, complete with giant orange fireballs and men flying through the air everywhere. :rolleyes:

  • Haha 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, Sixgun Sheridan said:

Great. Now that Hollywood knows that grenades existed back then, wait for a new movie to come out with some 1700's action hero lobbing them at bad guys, complete with giant orange fireballs and men flying through the air everywhere. :rolleyes:

Will they light the grenades with their teeth though? :lol:

  • Haha 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
53 minutes ago, Utah Bob #35998 said:

Will they light the grenades with their teeth though? :lol:

 

Yep.  Two grenades in each hand and the slow match held in their teeth. 

  • Haha 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
9 hours ago, Sixgun Sheridan said:

Great. Now that Hollywood knows that grenades existed back then, wait for a new movie to come out with some 1700's action hero lobbing them at bad guys, complete with giant orange fireballs and men flying through the air everywhere. :rolleyes:

Hey, what about 1200AD?

Didn't you see Monty Python and the Holy Grail? They had the Holy Hand-grenade!

  • Like 2
  • Haha 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

Using grenades was, of course, the job of the Grenadiers, elite troops in most European armies as early as the 30 Years War.  Commonly composed or especially large individuals capable of throwing their projectials farther than the average soldier they were the shock/assault troops of their day.  Even after the use of grenades faded in the 1700s the Grenadiers retained their name as well as their role as elite assault troops. I have always wondered why the use of grenades diminished so quickly. Interestingly, the continued use of the term in the WWI British Army (Grenadier Guards etc) led to the new designation of grenade armed specialists as “bombers” during that conflict where the use of grenades was significantly revived. Think of the “Mills bomb” as the standard Brit grenade as called. 

 

Seamus 

Edited by Seamus McGillicuddy
  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Uh...they couldn’t make the grenades inert? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 minutes ago, Pat Riot, SASS #13748 said:

Uh...they couldn’t make the grenades inert? 

The article said that most of the iron had decayed, most of what was left was the black powder.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Pat Riot, SASS #13748 said:

Uh...they couldn’t make the grenades inert? 

 

It has been my repeated experience, in dealing with local and state police bomb squads, that they will blow up anything that even faintly resembles an explosive device, historic or not.  Part of that may arise from hard-earned experience; a big piece of it is, however, just the boys wanting to watch stuff go boom.

 

LL

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
22 minutes ago, Loophole LaRue, SASS #51438 said:

 

It has been my repeated experience, in dealing with local and state police bomb squads, that they will blow up anything that even faintly resembles an explosive device, historic or not.  Part of that may arise from hard-earned experience; a big piece of it is, however, just the boys wanting to watch stuff go boom.

 

LL

Recalling my army experience, yeah.  My squad had demolitions in case we had to destroy the nukes.  So of course we had to practice using demolitions.  Not the nukes though.  :ph34r:

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Loophole LaRue, SASS #51438 said:

 

It has been my repeated experience, in dealing with local and state police bomb squads, that they will blow up anything that even faintly resembles an explosive device, historic or not.  Part of that may arise from hard-earned experience; a big piece of it is, however, just the boys wanting to watch stuff go boom.

 

LL

Yep. Working in rail transit I have had the pleasure of interaction with bomb squads and the displeasure of overseeing the repairs of what they damaged. Erring on the side of caution can be expensive. ;)

 

2 hours ago, Marshal Mo Hare, SASS #45984 said:

Recalling my army experience, yeah.  My squad had demolitions in case we had to destroy the nukes.  So of course we had to practice using demolitions.  Not the nukes though.  :ph34r:

I had the same duty in the Navy. :)

Only we didn’t get to actually play with the explosives. We simulated everything. <_<

I requested, numerous times, that we do an actual live simulation. The only place available to us was SEAL territory and they wouldn’t allow us to tread on hallowed ground. The Army training area a few miles away would allow us if our Captain requested it but that wasn’t going to happen so we did simulations with dummy equipment.

 

Glad I never had to use the real thing. That would have meant that we were having a very bad day.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 hours ago, Pat Riot, SASS #13748 said:

Yep. Working in rail transit I have had the pleasure of interaction with bomb squads and the displeasure of overseeing the repairs of what they damaged. Erring on the side of caution can be expensive. ;)

 

I had the same duty in the Navy. :)

Only we didn’t get to actually play with the explosives. We simulated everything. <_<

I requested, numerous times, that we do an actual live simulation. The only place available to us was SEAL territory and they wouldn’t allow us to tread on hallowed ground. The Army training area a few miles away would allow us if our Captain requested it but that wasn’t going to happen so we did simulations with dummy equipment.

 

Glad I never had to use the real thing. That would have meant that we were having a very bad day.

My suspicions about why we were allowed to go to the range and practice demolitions.  Occasionally we would inventory things and find something missing, blasting caps, det cord, c4.  It meant one of the guards on the ammo dump was doing something he should not have.  Two options existed,  a cid investigation and a coverup.  The usual choice was a coverup.  So we went to the range and expended stuff, including anything that was “missing”.

  • Like 2
  • Thanks 1
  • Sad 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
27 minutes ago, Marshal Mo Hare, SASS #45984 said:

 It meant one of the guards on the ammo dump was doing something he should not have.  Two options existed,  a cid investigation and a coverup.  The usual choice was a coverup.  So we went to the range and expended stuff, including anything that was “missing”.

 

 

Less paperwork and hassle,

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Having lived in the Richmond, VA area for some 40+ years, there have been a couple instances of local unsuspecting relic hunters blowing themselves up with Civil War era munitions.  IIRC, one guy had numerous explosive shells he was collecting. He disassembled himself violently one day. Bomb squad retrieved the rest of his collection.  The surrounding Civil War battlegrounds continue to yield such relics from time to time.  

 

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
18 hours ago, Ripsaw said:

Having lived in the Richmond, VA area for some 40+ years, there have been a couple instances of local unsuspecting relic hunters blowing themselves up with Civil War era munitions.  IIRC, one guy had numerous explosive shells he was collecting. He disassembled himself violently one day. Bomb squad retrieved the rest of his collection.  The surrounding Civil War battlegrounds continue to yield such relics from time to time.  

 

 

When we visited Charleston, SC, a few years ago, there was an explosion out in the bay.  Nobody hurt, no one near the thing when it went off.  Maybe it was some CW artillery shell that finally decayed enough to go off.  Never did hear an explanation.

BTW, Marine Corps tradition has it that it was a Marine in the fighting tops of the Bon Homme  Richard who threw the grenade or a larger bomb down the hatch of the Serapis, causing the magazine to blow.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.