Explore the Civil War

Unexploded ordnance posed dangers after war

By Dave McMillion

As if the Civil War itself wasn’t traumatic enough for the country, the conflict continued to pose dangers after it ended, according to a local history expert.

A .58-caliber Minnie ball
A .58-caliber Minnie ball File photo

In the years immediately after the war, cannon shells and human remains dotted battlefields, said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

In some instances, the artillery shells were live, posing dangers to people such as farmers plowing in what had been battle areas, Frye said.

“If a plow hit this metal and sent a spark, you would be blown to bits,” said Frye.

Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Brien Poffenberger said his grandfather, James Earl Poffenberger, was born on the Miller Farm at Antietam Battlefield and used to plow the battlefield in the 1920s.

While James Poffenberger was plowing, it was not unusual for him to unearth artifacts such as bayonets, buckles and Minie balls, Poffenberger said. Such items were considered “junk” at the time and James Poffenberger would take them into Sharpsburg and trade them for cigarettes, Brien Poffenberger said.

It probably should come as no surprise that James Earl Poffenberger found so many Civil War-related items at the Miller Farm.

“There’s no other place that saw more bloodshed,” said Frye.

During the day-long Battle of Antietam, the fighting was most ferocious in the morning, when Union soldiers began an assault on Confederate troops in Miller’s Cornfield. The fighting in the 320-acre cornfield was intense, with battle lines fewer than 250 yards apart and soldiers firing as fast as they could load their rifles, historians have said.

Frye said his grandfather, Ira Poffenberger, told similar stories.

Frye, who said he is a distant cousin of Brien Poffenberger, noted that his grandfather used to find bayonets, buckles and Minie balls when plowing the land on his farm on the west side of Fox’s Gap, an area on South Mountain just east of Boonsboro that saw heavy fighting during the war.

As he became fascinated with history as a young boy, Frye said he recalled asking his grandfather what he did with the Civil War artifacts he found.

Frye said his grandfather told him he kept the items for a time, but during World War II they were sold for scrap to help meet a demand for metal.

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