Sad News for History Buffs

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The Associated Press reports the sad, strange news that Civil War aficionado and relic collector Sam White was killed back in February when a cannonball he was restoring exploded in his hands. From the story:

After growing up in Petersburg [VA],White went to college, served on his local police force, then worked for 25 years as a deliveryman for UPS. He retired in 1998 and devoted most of his time to relic hunting.

He was an avid reader, a Civil War raconteur and an amateur historian who watched History Channel programs over and over, to the mild annoyance of his wife.

In 2004 I looked at how the Sam Whites of the world helped turn Gettysburg into one of America's biggest attractions. RIP, Sam.

NEXT: Is Mrs. Conyers Smarter than an Eighth Grader?

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  1. I guess the moral is, never restore a cannonball that has, you know, gunpowder in it. That’s one I’ll definitely remember.

  2. If you’re gonna go out, at least make it part of something you love.

    I guess.

  3. “Now, let’s see, what’s this little thingy stickin’ outta here…”

    /tasteless

  4. make it part of something you love

    I’d hazard a guess that he would have prefered going out peacefully in his sleep.

  5. I’d hazard a guess that he would have prefered going out peacefully in his sleep.

    That’s not for me. I wanna know when I’m dying. Preferably while I’m pursuing a hobby.

  6. ed | May 2, 2008, 3:50pm | #
    make it part of something you love

    I’d hazard a guess that he would have prefered going out peacefully in his sleep.

    Don’t need to hazard any guesses for me: checking out doing something I love would definitely be acceptable to me.

  7. My grandpa said he wanted to be shot in the back at age 95 by a jealous husband.

  8. And yet most people who do dangerous things for a living defy the stereotype of wanting to die doing it. Ask a race car driver how he wants to die. He won’t say, “Painfully, upside down in a flaming wreck, with a hundred broken bones.”

  9. Though they say it’s every actor’s dream to die onstage. I approve of that wholeheartedly.

  10. I think this guy is a really important figure in some ways. The last 50 years has seen the rise of the amateur historian. Academic historians have to a large degree marginalized themselves. For every Steven Ambrose who writes about subjects people are interested in and in an accessible way, there are hundreds of academic historians writing PC muck no one would ever read.

    The civil war and Lincoln are two areas that have been taken over almost completely by amateurs in the last 40 years. In the UK, World War I history is the same way. What is interesting is that the amateurs in many cases really know their stuff. I took a tour of Gettysburg with a military group once and I was talking to the Ranger. He said that being a Ranger at Gettysburg is about 100 times harder than he ever thought it would be because there are so many amateur historians who have done so much research on the subject waiting to play stump the chump on every tour. The level of detail and knowledge they people have can be astounding sometimes. It really is an example the age of the geek.

  11. My grandpa said he wanted to be shot in the back at age 95 by a jealous husband.

    Now, that’s called having an ambition!

  12. Live by the cannonball, die by the cannonball, my mama always done told me.

  13. I never understood the “At least he died doing what he loved” line of thought. If I’m doing something I love, the LAST thing I want to do is die. If I’m going to die, let it be in the middle of something I hate to put me out of my misery.

    Garrison Keillor: “I want to die in my sleep like my uncle Jim … not crying and screaming like his passengers.”

  14. If you’re gonna go out, at least make it part of something you love.

    Bleeding?

  15. This kind of tragedy wouldn’t happen if we had strict cannon-control laws.

  16. At least he went out with a bang.

  17. I’m sorry, folks.

  18. If you’re gonna go out, at least make it part of something you love.

    My uncle Fred worked in a distillery. It was what he loved, and he died doing what he loved. He slipped and fell into a vat of scotch and drowned. Coworkers say he fought off rescue attempts for over two hours.

  19. If cannonballs are outlawed…

  20. Though they say it’s every actor’s dream to die onstage.

    John Wilkes Booth must have been dyslexic.

  21. I guess if you were a grave digger you could literally be digging your own grave.

    If I were to die at work though, my chosen profession should have been porn.

  22. Brenda White is convinced her husband was working on a flawed cannonball, and no amount of caution could have prevented his death.

    “He had already disarmed the shell,” she said (apparently not — ed.). “From what I was told, there was absolutely nothing he had done wrong, that there was a manufacturing defect that no one would have known was there.”

    White’s lawyer has announced plans to sue the manufacturer for making dangerous cannon balls. “This isn’t about the money” he said. “It’s about forcing greedy cannon ball manufacturers to stop making products that kill people.”

    The manufacturer was unavailable for comment.

    Meanwhile, safety advocates are decrying the appalling lack of federal oversight of Civil War relic hunters. They are calling for strict regulation, including licensing and education requirements. “If we had mandatory body armor laws for relic hunters this would never have happened. This is what happens when people are allowed to do what they want with nobody to look after them” said one safety expert.

  23. We are pleased to announce the, albeit posthumous, nomination of Sam White for a 2008 Darwin Award. From the article:

    Biemeck and Peter George, co-author of a book on Civil War ordnance, believe White was using either a drill or a grinder attached to a drill to remove grit from the cannonball, causing a shower of sparks.

  24. It is really amazing to think that civil war era black powder could have stayed dry inside a cannonball for all these years and still be operational.

    While my Grandmother was withering away at a very old age on her death bed, my Dad told me “this isn’t the way people are supposed to die. Men are supposed to die in battle. Women are supposed to….. (paused while searching for something) get eaten by tigers or something”. I’m not sure about his examples, but I can identify with the thought. Sign me up for the defective cannonball treatment.

  25. See, if those Civil War thugs had of registered there cannonballs, then the widow Smith might have had some legal recourse against the manufacturer of that defective shell. As it is, she’s stuck with the funeral costs, the loss of a loved one, not to mention the redecorating bill . . .

  26. It is really amazing to think that civil war era black powder could have stayed dry inside a cannonball for all these years and still be operational.

    A good point. From the article:

    Experts suspect White was killed while trying to disarm a 9-inch, 75-pound naval cannonball, a particularly potent explosive with a more complex fuse and many times the destructive power of those used by infantry artillery.

    […]

    The weapon also had to be waterproof because it was designed to skip over the water at 600 mph to strike at the waterline of an enemy ship. The protection against moisture meant the ball could have remained potent longer than an infantry shell.

  27. It is very difficult to write history that is both sound scholarship and accessible to a general audience, and consequently it is done very rarely. Ambrose’s work falls strictly into the latter category – although the parts he stole may have been higher quality.

  28. “It is really amazing to think that civil war era black powder could have stayed dry inside a cannonball for all these years and still be operational.”

    Actually, after a century and a half, a black power munition is more dangerous than when it was new. There is less power, but it is more sensitive, as the chemicals have separated. Add a rusty plug, and you have a bad press release waiting to happen.

    The safe way to neutralize an old bomb is to use an air-powered, automatic drill to SLOWLY go through the casing. Once through, fill it with water and let it sit for a day or two before you drain it.

  29. @ ed | May 2, 2008, 5:07pm

    …only canon lawyers will have balls.

  30. Let us take this moment to remember the actor who played Iago so well that an audience member pulled out a pistol and shot him.

  31. Though they say it’s every actor’s dream to die onstage.

    Wouldn’t that really mess up the play?

    Reminds me: Wasn’t it hilarious in the movie Gangs of New York how Abe Lincoln was on stage and somebody else got shot in the audience?

  32. Doesn’t this make Sam White the Civil War’s last casualty then?
    Not too shabby!

  33. That’ll teach him to turn in his waste fats!

  34. Oh cruel, ironic bacon!

  35. “Doesn’t this make Sam White the Civil War’s last casualty then?”

    So far.

  36. I wish reporters could be troubled to get their terminology straight when it comes to armaments. A cannonball is a solid projectile; it contains no explosives. It sounds like he was working with some kind of shell.

  37. I’ll cut the journalist some slack for not knowing the technical details of mid-19th artillery shells.

  38. History Channel programs over and over, to the mild annoyance of his wife.

    Perhaps his wife should have been extremely annoying that he was bringing in unexploded ordnance into the house.

  39. *sigh* “annoyed”

  40. Perhaps his wife should have been extremely annoying that he was bringing in unexploded ordnance into the house.
    *sigh* “annoyed”

    I think you were right the first time. I think this was an extremely cunning murder/suicide gone wrong.

  41. @ ed | May 2, 2008, 5:07pm

    …only canon lawyers will have balls.

    As a lawyer, I have to say that that is one of the funniest freaking things I’ve read in days.

  42. Anon Y. Mous | May 3, 2008, 1:43pm | #
    I wish reporters could be troubled to get their terminology straight when it comes to armaments. A cannonball is a solid projectile; it contains no explosives. It sounds like he was working with some kind of shell.

    Thank you. I thought I’d been missing something all these years. I assume it was some other round projectile, like a carcass, although I think that was only fired from ships.

  43. RE: Cannon balls/shells

    Actually, spherical cannon balls often DID have explosive black powder charges in them. Yes many cannon rounds were of the solid cast iron sort, but by the 1860’s there were a fairly wide variety of round exploding shot as well. Called “spherical case shot” by the Artillery, the round hollow ball had round balls inside the case (the origin of the word “Shrapnel” comming from the English Artillerist who devised the thing), and a bursting charge of black powder. A primitive fuse was ignitied by the blast of the cannon on firing.

    The fuses were a constant source of problems. The artillerist would cut the fuse length to set the desired range at which the shell would burst. The varying burn rate of the fuse meant that case shot might not detonate at all (as seems the case here) or most devastating, the fuse might quick burn, and explode the shell well short of the target, or even inside the tube of the gun, ruining the day for everyone within many yards.

    Larry Anderson
    History Nerd

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