Yesterday my Dad gave me some little treasures from his collecting over the decades. In the box were some arrow heads, pieces of spear points, some pieces of Indian pottery we collected at Jones Island in the White Oak River. Then there was this one piece that he said I had found when I was a child…a small rusty iron ball.
Dad said I had found this old iron ball on the Tram Road when I was a little boy. The Tram road is the lumber railroad bed I’ve written about before that transects the property we now own. I thought, well, could this be some sort of ball bearing…no it’s really rough and it appears to be cast iron which simply isn’t a good material for bearings. Dad heard me mumbling. He said it’s probably a Civil War canister ball. I said wow.
Holding this little iron ball sparked my curiosity. So, I measured the ball. It’s about 1.5 inches in diameter. Then I got to looking at tables and charts about cannons and ammunition from the Civil War era. Bumbling along the Internet I learned that some 12 and 32 pound cannons shot a cannister round that contained cast iron balls the same size as the little iron ball on my desk. Interesting.
Well, I knew that there had not been any great Civil War land battles right here in the Swansboro area…at least not any that I know about…but the Union had captured Swansboro in 1862, had burned the salt works and had destroyed the Confederate fort at Huggins Island. I wondered if the ships that participated in the siege were armed with 12 or 32 pound cannons?
So, meandering through the Internet maze looking for US Navy ship actions in Eastern NC
I stumbled across the account of the sinking of the CSS Albemarle in 1864. The Albemarle was a Confederate Ironclad. The sinking of this warship opened up the Roanoke to the Union Navy and pretty much secured the rivers and sounds all the way from the Virginia border to just outside Wilmington for the exclusive use of Union forces. The sinking of the Albemarle was a mission conceived, led and executed by W.B. Cushing. Cushing had flunked out of Annapolis and had begged and pleaded to be allowed to serve in the U.S. Navy in the Civil War. Giving him his commission was fortunate. The sinking of the Albemarle was a significant personal achievement as well as a strategic blow to the Confederacy in North Carolina.
I had read that the ship Cushing commanded during his Albemarle mission had been armed with a 12 pound cannon. Since he had personally outfitted this ship specifically for the mission maybe he had experience with the 12 pound cannons in other exploits. Had Cushing had ever participated in any Union actions around Swansboro? He had. Cushing had earned his bona fides right here in Swansboro on a ship equipped with a 12 and 32 pound cannon.
The gunboat Ellis, to which Cushing was assigned and would eventually command, was assigned to blockade Bogue Inlet and Bogue Sound. Gunboats like the USS Ellis were equipped with 12 and 32 pound cannons. Here’s an excerpt from the book, Three Wisconsin Cushings, Wisconsin Historical Commission, 1910.
“You see I have a sort of roving commission and can run around to suit myself. If under these circumstances I can not stir the rebels up in more places than one, it will be strange indeed.”
I can imagine the young Lt at the helm of his gunboat ordering cannister fire in the direction of the homes and businesses. Being ruthless but still a gentleman he probably didn’t want to intentionally hurt any women or children so he had his crew aim a high warning shot over the town and the little iron balls fell harmlessly in the outlying fields and forests.
A couple of decades or so later it was likely former slaves and their sons who dug the rail road bed for the Swansboro Land and Lumber company. The little iron ball could have been in a wagon of fill dirt or could have flown a mile into the forest right when it was shot from the cannon…we’ll never know how it ended up on the railroad bed. In any event the men unknowingly made this little asterisk in the fight for freedom part of the lumber railroad bed. Then, about a hundred years after it had flown out of a cannon, a little boy playing along the abandoned railroad bed found the now rusty and pitted little iron ball and gave it to his Dad. A little iron ball that may have been shot from the cannon on a gunboat commanded by an intrepid American hero.
Who knows if there is any truth to my story? Judge for yourself. Whatever your opinion, I highly recommend reading about the exploits of Cdr W. B. Cushing. There are many books written about him and his exploits. In one book he is called the “Civil War SEAL”. He was the real deal who fought and won just about a mile down the street in Swansboro. The stories one little iron ball can tell…are simply amazing.