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Ransom Hundley

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Whittled WhitworthsThe Mystery of the Whittled Whitworths
Ransom Hundley

The American Digger
September-October 2008, Vol.4, Issue 5

A few years ago, I was fortunate to buy a small collection of Civil War relics from a digger who primarily hunted the Appomattox, Virginia area. Over the years, this local digger had found about 4,000 Civil War Minie Balls and I bought them all.

Among the diverse varieties were five cylindrical Whitworths, and a host of other rare bullets, including a few of the elusive LeMat Variants. I did an initial survey of the balls, and soon realized that there were only twelve Gardners and it made me wonder why. I knew from past experience that given a population of 4,000 rounds of Confederate used ammo, one would expect a fairly large number of Gardners.

Actually, I was pondering an old and unanswered question that had puzzled me for years. Back in 1980-81, I was relic hunting the Appomattox area and found quite a few pretty good relics and some eight hundred dropped balls, but few Gardners.

I began to study roughly thirty two hundred to start. (Some purchased from the same digger later that were included in the arithmetic). In an effort to determine what the Confederates had at the end of war, I was forced to learn a lot, but couldn't identify a few of the bullets to save my apple butter. I needed someone to help me with the renegades, so I called my good friend Dan Poppen. Dan seemed right eager to jump in. He came down to Ashland from Stafford and we laid it all out, but it was Dean Thomas who solved the Gardner mystery for us. Dean explained that the Gardner was subject to failure due to the way it was machine produced and was eventually replaced by several bullets for that reason. "By 1864," Dean said, "the Gardner was history." (Dean will address the Replacement Minies, (and there were several), in his up coming book on Confederate Ammunition, which he will soon publish.) With Dean's help, Dan and I were successful in having this study of ammunition published in North South Trader Magazine. 30th Anniversary Edition, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2003.

Whittled WhitworthsBut here's the real story. In that article, a photograph of five Confederate Whitworth Minie Balls highlights three that are carved and two that are not. They were all dug from the same hole across the road from Lee's Headquarters about 2 miles from Appomatox Courthouse on land then belonging to the digger's Aunt. From an initial examination, I concluded that my Rebel Sharpshooter, no longer needing them, sat down and began to despondently carve. I kept the Whitworths and had a chance to look at the bullets every day for years. One day, as I looked at them, an idea began to form and I suddenly felt that I knew exactly why they were carved in the manner I will now describe. I would like to share my theory with you.

As you look at the Whitworths from left to right, you will see a perfect and intact specimen which is probably English made. The second ball is cruder and was probably Confederate made. Note the differences; the first is longer and has with a thin skirt. The Confederate one is rough, has a thick skirt, and is not completely straight. Now look at the third. This carved bullet resembles a modern boat-tail bullet. The center (of the side) has been carved away, and you might think it's a chess piece. If you look closely, the front of the ball and the skirt have been delicately and meticulously carved in a manner that seemed designed to maintain the integrity of the vital nose and expansion cone. Bear in mind this fact. Sir Joseph did not use a traditional "lan and groove" system to spin and launch his deadly missiles. He used a revolutionary system of parallel planes inside the bore, which gave the long rounds more stability and much longer range. The Whitworths were often called "Bullet on a Stick" because the .45 caliber balls were placed inside a long cardboard cartridge that contained a good dose of gunpowder. There are documented kills of over 1300 yards with this arrangement! The truth is the explosion and discharge could not accommodate more powder. Adding more would simply result in powder being discharged out the bore of the rifle and no significant range would be gained.

Now, take a look at the fourth Whitworth. It has been carved in precisely the same manner as the third, but not as deeply. I think that round was not yet completed. Now, look at the fifth and final bullet. It has been circumcised--- (that really is the best word) ---in preparation for mass reduction like the first two. With my perspective having been thus altered, once again I sought out Dean Thomas to get his input. Dean agreed, at least on this point. "While there can be no absolute and conclusive decision regarding the rendering of these rounds, the theory of mass reduction to gain range is plausible."

"Yep," I said with no one to hear, "this ol' Reb was trying to find a way to shoot further!" Anyway, that's my theory and I feel good about it.

(These unique bullets are now offered for sale!) Click here.

The Last TelegraphThe Last Telegraph
Ransom Hundley

North South Trader's Civil War
Vol.32 No.1/ 2006

In 1833, Samuel Morse demonstrated a communications system that could send electronic signals over wires to a paper-marking machine called a register. His real breakthrough came in 1844 whenb he was able to send a message over 40 miles of wire from Washington to Baltimore, Maryland. Morse's simple yet memorable message - "What hath God wrought?" - ushered in a new era of communication.

The military telegraph was first used in the Crimean War, but saw its first large-scale implementation during the American Civil War. Both North and South became dependent on the wires to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies and to communicate with distant cities and isolated commands. The North eventually built a system that stretched for more than 15,000 miles in length. By contrast, the South only managed to build a wire system 1,000 miles in length.

The ability to intercept messages by listening to "open text" messages became an important - but hazardous - art form. Both sides used enciphered codes to make it difficult to interpret the series of dots and dashes coming over the wires. Examples of intercepted messages being used to advantage include the foiled Con federate plot to burn New York City on November 25, 1864, and the capture of 2,586 head of cattle by Wade Hampton in 1864.

Such was the significance of telegraphic communication that overtaking telegraph offices and cutting lines (see photograph) became important strategic maneuvers.

Those lines that survived the conflict must have been in lively use come the surrender at Appomattox, spreading the word to the battle-weary commands and the news outlets of the day.

The telegraph-sending key and the related items were recovered near Appomattox Court House, across the road from Lee's Headquarters, a few years ago by a digger who was detecting on land then owned by his aunt. The device is of the "camelback" variety, which saw use between 1848 and 1860.

I have reassembled the telegraph key to the best of my knowledge for the sake of the image. Of course, the board on which they were originally mounted has long since disintergrated. An examination of some of the larger brass parts reveals crude casting bubbles and lathe marks typical of Confederate Manufacture. The brass wire screws still function perfectly. The threaded stems seem to be hollow - reason unknown.

The two stanchions that support the key lever are die-struck with the letter D, but the marks do not appear in the same location on the two stanchions. I can find no other marks anywhere on any of the pieces. Research into the early telegraph makers failed to reveal which maker might have so-marked their product.

Given the location of discovery, immediately adjacent to Lee's last ever headquarters, and the manufacturing characteristics; this must surely be among the last of the telegraph keys used by the Army of Northern Virginia. (This wonderful artifact is now offered for sale!) Click here