Though the shell was destroyed, historians suspect that it was fired by Confederate forces on July 2, 1863.
While sweeping the grounds of Gettysburg National Military Park as part of a rehabilitation project, archaeologist Steven Brann detected something buried beneath the earth with his metal detector. Two feet down, he came across an intact shell from the Civil War.
Brann, used to finding small objects like buttons or old bullets, carefully dug the ordnance out of the ground. Then, the archaeologist fled.
“He laid it gently on the ground, took a picture of it, and ran for the hills,” Jason Martz, spokesman for Gettysburg National Military Park, told CNN.
Park officials then called in the Army’s 55th Ordnance Company, stationed nearby at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, who came to the park to examine the object. They studied it, put it in a hole with C-4 explosives, and detonated it.
“Safety protocols call for us to assume it is live,” Martz said, and CNN noted that destroying historical ammunition is standard procedure, as it’s often too difficult to make such artifacts safe enough to put on display.
That said, historians do have some educated guesses about who fired the ordnance during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
Live Science reports that the ordnance was discovered near Little Round Top, a hill at Gettysburg that offered Union troops a strategic position during the pivotal battle, which lasted from July 1 until July 3. On July 2, Union and Confederates fought fiercely for control of the hill, which is when historians suspect that the ordnance was fired.
The Army’s 55th Ordnance Company determined that the ordnance was a Burton round, according to CNN, which would have been fired from a Parrott cannon or 3-inch ordnance rifle.
Park officials stated that the round could not have come from Union canons, which means that Confederate forces likely fired it. But because the fighting at Little Top Hill was so intense, the ordnance could have also been a case of Confederate friendly fire.
“We ourselves would like to know as much as we can, so we can tell this story when we are doing ranger programs,” Martz told CNN. “It is possible that Confederate artillery fired upon Confederate infantry.”
Wherever the ordnance came from, it represents one small part of the larger story of Gettysburg. That battle ended in a Union victory, dashing Southern hopes of invading the North, forcing a peace deal, and ending the conflict. Instead, the Civil War would drag on for two more years.
And some are annoyed that the park decided to destroy such a valuable piece of American history.
The Gettysburg National Park posted about the ordnance’s discovery — and destruction — on Facebook, arousing the ire of many users who believed that the artillery shell should have been saved.
“Ironic that a national military park who wants to preserve the battlefield, would destroy a relic from that very battle. This could have easily been displayed at the park,” wrote one user, according to CNN.
Indeed, the ordnance found at Gettysburg is a historic treasure — the Washington Post reports that just five artillery shells have been discovered at Gettysburg since 1980. Martz acknowledged that it was a “rare find, for sure,” and that its destruction ensured that “we’re never going to know whether the thing was live or not.”
But safety regulations demanded its destruction, and park officials hope that its mere existence can remind people of the true, human stakes of Gettysburg.
“[I]t reminds us that it was all real,” Chris Gwinn, chief of interpretation at the park, told CNN. “The battle really happened and beneath the veneer of this beautiful national park are the tangible reminders of its ferocity and tragedy. Finds like this help connect people to the past and make it a real, three-dimensional place.”
After reading about the Civil War-era ordnance discovered at Gettysburg, look through these haunting photos of the Battle of Gettysburg. Or, discover the eerie story of the Gettysburg ghosts, the spirits said to haunt the battlefield.