Amateur archaeologist finds history in Hillsborough river

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJune 15, 2014 

— A young boy with a love for archaeology dug a Civil War cannonball from the muddy banks of the Eno River this month in Gold Park.

“Sometimes you chase history, and sometimes it finds you,” said Scott Washington, assistant director of the Orange County Historical Museum.

Eli Aquino, 9, was exploring the river with Hillsborough resident Tim Duffy and his friend Cornelius Lewis when they spotted the object June 1. Normally, they find old glass bottles and shards of pottery, but this looked different, Lewis said.

They thought it might be a cannonball, but the fuse on top reminded them of a prisoner’s ball and chain. They took it back to Duffy’s house in a bucket of water, where it sat for about a week in the driveway.

“We like swimming, and he got some goggles from his mom and he wanted to go find treasure,” Duffy said. “He was down there having fun.”

Gold Park, which is owned by the town of Hillsborough, is not an identified historical site. State and federal rules prohibit the removal of rocks, plants and artifacts from historic sites and parks.

Efforts to reach Eli’s family for this story were unsuccessful. But Duffy said he called the museum and the Hillsborough Police Department about the object. Police evacuated the property Monday as a precaution and called the nearest bomb squad at the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

The U.S. Bormann 12-pound fused cannonball, coated with red mud and rust, had an intact timer and was live, said Sgt. Mark Manning, with the bomb squad. Even if kept in water, black powder never goes bad, he said.

The bomb squad put the cannonball in a “containment vessel” and took it to a storage area. They plan to disarm it but aren’t sure how much will be saved, Manning said.

Duffy did the right thing by keeping the cannonball in water, Washington said.

“He consulted (with authorities), he put it in a bucket of water as soon as he knew, (and) didn’t move it,” Washington said. “You don’t want to transport these around.”

The best approach, however, is to call law enforcement and leave the ordnance alone, he said.

Confederate headquarters

There’s no way to know how the cannonball got to the park, he said. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston headquartered in Hillsborough during the Civil War, and many troops camped there before the 1865 surrender to Union Gen. William T. Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham.

Steve Peck, site manager for the Burwell School Historic Site, said he uncovered some of the town’s Civil War history while doing research for a cemetery tour he leads at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

The wife of a church rector, Mrs. M.A. Curtis, wrote in letters from the time that more than 60 cannons were spread around the small town and the church overflowed with artillery men. The church records also report what may have been the town’s last death of the war: A 12-year-old boy who was killed when an artillery shell exploded in 1865. The boy, whose death likely was an accident, Peck said, is buried at the historic Moorefields estate.

Washington said the cannonball found recently would have been packed with black powder and projectiles; its fuse was ignited by the muzzle flash. The timer was set to explode the cannonball one to five seconds later, raining a hail of shrapnel on the enemy.

“If some kid had found this, let it dry out and then just decided to play catch with it, who knows what we might have found,” he said.

The good news is the Confederate cannonballs weren’t as well made, he said.

Ordnance calls

Hillsborough police regularly get calls about unexploded ordnance, Cpl. Scott Foster said.

Several years ago, one man put a World War II shell he found in his trunk and drove it to the department. The incident shut down Churton Street in downtown Hillsborough for many hours, Foster said.

Durham’s bomb squad gets more calls than you would expect, Manning said.

The last cannonball – a 6-pounder – was halved with a shape charge and explosives. The Durham man who found it while digging in his yard had hit it with a hammer to remove some dirt and took it to a Hillsborough antiques dealer, who ordered him out of the store, before he called deputies.

He was lucky he didn’t blow himself up, authorities said.

“Most times, people don’t know what they’ve got,” Manning said.

 

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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