News, Pre-WW1

Live Civil War Cannonball Found in River

  • Jim Enright from Hampton uncovered a US Civil War artefact from the Exeter River.
  • The round, weighty, and slightly corroded object was a live cannonball.
  • An ATF bomb squad emptied the old relic of all its explosive elements.
  • Experts hypothesize the cannonball landed in the Exeter River, rolling off from a nearby War Memorial in Gilman Park.

The American Civil War ended in April 1865. Yet, every once in a while, something pops up in the headlines that reminds us of the gruesome battles that took place during this bloody time. The story of a Hampton family is no different. In August 2022, Jim Enright from New Hampshire pulled up a live Civil War cannonball from the Exeter River. The man knew he had found a historical gem.

Enright is a Sanborn Regional High School teacher who loves spending time on walks with his sons. The team of four is fond of combing local waterways and finding historical artefacts. On 17th August 2022, they noticed a roundish ball in the mud while walking on a river’s edge. Only a quarter of the object was visible, but it was enough to spark their curiosity.

Civil War Cannonball

Enright described the object as incredibly weighty, slightly corroded, and suspiciously round.

“It was about the size of a candlepin bowling ball, 4 ½ inches in diameter. But it was 14 pounds!”

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He was confident they had found a cannonball. But how did the ball end up in the Exeter River? The pressing question confused the four. The high school teacher was a scuba diver for a long time, so it was easier to imagine a cannonball on the ocean bed. However, finding one in the Exeter River was a mystery: the site had never been an active battleground.

Perplexed, Enright shared the cannonball in a Facebook group, “Bottle Diggers & Collectors.” The find quickly came under the spotlight. People corroborated that, indeed, he had dug up an ancient relic. However, one particular comment alarmed the family.

“Hey, that might still be live.”

A re-enactment of Civil War artillery

The Bomb Squad to the Rescue

Enright was under the impression that cannonballs were solid objects. But now he had to do his research. It did not take long for him to find out that Civil War cannonballs were hollow and packed with explosive shrapnel. Not really a souvenir one could proudly showcase.

His friends from Facebook advised him to reach out to New Hampshire’s ATF (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.) And that is exactly what he did. The ATF then referred the matter to the New Hampshire State Police Bomb Squad. “The Bomb Squad reached back in half an hour,” said Enright.

According to Enright, Trooper Nick Cyr set up his X-ray equipment in the backyard. The next step was to check if the ball contained live ammunition. What they found inside was bone chilling. A brass plug was holding black powder and pieces of lead in place — just the right ingredients to make a big boom. The high school teacher had a live bomb in his living room.

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To Enright’s disappointment, Cyr mistakenly split the cannonball into three while removing its content. It was unfortunate. But at the same time, he preferred to stay safe than fall victim to a live, 160-year-old cannonball. So once the danger was off of the table so to speak, Enright decided to bring the ball back to its original shape.

The ball was broken in the process of being made safe but has since been restored.

How did the cannonball reach the Exeter River?

New England never saw the Civil War. Yet, Enright had found live ammunition that was saying otherwise. It was a question that needed an answer. His research and the Exeter Historical Society helped solve the mystery.

During the 1890s the American government offered towns and cities worn-out cannons to display as monuments. However, they stated one condition. They had to return the artillery whenever national security demanded it.

Exeter had asked for two cannons. The government gave three instead. Two were 32 pounders, while the third cannon weighed as heavy as 1,600 pounds. Along with the cannons came 69 cannonballs. The authorities placed the monuments in Gilman Park with the ammunition stacked on display nearby.

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According to the Exeter Historical Society, over the years a mix of extreme weather and vandalism took their toll. Some cannonballs fell victim to theft, while others were thrown into the Squamscott River. Mischief makers even managed to blow one up. As a result, all the cannons were neutralized, that is to say they were altered so they could never fire again.

Moreover, Enright is not the first to find a cannonball in the river. Exeter Historical Society confirmed three other such discoveries that happened before his. Nonetheless Enright is proud of his discovery, but he has taken up the job to warn people about the dangers of an old cannonball.

“I could’ve had it on my mantel, and it might’ve rolled off and caught a spark from the fireplace,” he stated. “I don’t know what the possibilities could’ve been.”