Only Gunpowder Lasts Forever

| June 20, 2019

I’ve been doing a little digging as always, and came across some interesting items.

During the War of Independence, Cornwallis had ships off the east coast and in American bays and waterways, partly to blockade American shipping, partly to put the press gangs to work (although most of that was on the high seas), and partly to have a supply train that the Continental Army couldn’t interrupt.

Among these ships was a converted collier (coal-hauler) named Betsy, carrying munitions and troops to support Cornwallis’s efforts at Yorktown, among other things. When he found that, at Yorktown, he was meeting with defeat, he ordered the scuttling of that fleet of ships, including Betsy, with all cargo still on board, before he admitted defeat and surrendered.

Meanwhile, during the same period, John Paul Jones was engaged in a specific effort to form and establish a full active Continental Navy to represent the United States on the high seas and abroad. Jones could be a somewhat impatient fellow, but he was driven by his vision of a Navy representing the infant United States to the rest of the world. He was commissioned as an officer to run the 10-gun sloop Providence along the American east coast and harry British fishing and shipping in the Maritime Provinces. “Jones also foresaw the crucial role naval power would play in America’s future. In fact, he predicted it outright in a letter to his friend Thomas Bell, captain of an American privateer.” – Article

The linked biography of John Paul Jones tells us of his efforts to start the US Navy from scratch. It was his assignment to Bonhomme Richard that prompted him to sail to the British Isles and engage in the same harassment and warfare along the British, Irish and Scottish coasts, and led him to the close quarters battle between Bonhomme Richard, a converted East Indiaman provided by the French and Serapis, on the eastern coasts of England.

While the cannoneers on Bonhomme Richard, a converted East Indiaman provided by the French, were firing directly at Serapis, one of Jones’s sailors was up on a spar, lobbing hand grenades at Serapis, and managed to get one right into the ship’s powder magazine.  The modern-day equivalent to this destruction might be the WWII attack in which a Japanese Zero pilot dropped a bomb into Enterprise’s hangar bay and blew the 9-ton hangar door straight up 50 feet into the air. While this was going on, back in the nascent US of A, the efforts of the Continental Army were bolstered by the French ships that would not let the British ships pass. (Back in those days, the British Army had Grenadiers. Now we call them the Arty-guys.)

Moving forward to the late 20th century, the remains of a large fleet of troop carriers and supply ships which had been blockaded by the French and scuttled by the British, sank to the bottom of the York River and became covered with silt until they were barely “there”.  Betsy was covered by 20 feet of water and 5 feet of silt, still loaded with what were now artifacts of the 18th century.

Archaeologist John Broadwater began the discovery effort in the late 1970s, finding 9 ships, which included Betsy.  The recovery effort began in the 1980s, and began with building a cofferdam around Betsy.

Artifacts were brought to the surface, examined, catalogued and stored. Then funding ran out and the efforts to catalog and preserve Betsy’s cargo ended. For 30 years some of those items sat on a shelf about 20 feet from the curators, wrapped in plastic and awaiting identification.

At first, the small gray balls were thought to be cannon shot, and were labeled as that… until one curator decided to check some of those artifacts, undid the wrappings on the small gray balls and smelled gunpowder.

Yes, they were 18th century hand grenades, originally made up of gunpowder poured into thin cast-iron shells the size of golf balls and plugged with a fuse that could be lit, and a cork. Over those centuries, the iron deteriorated and migrated into the gunpowder, solidifying the shape, and creating a concretion.

Iron ore has a knack for forming concretions. I have fossils from the Carboniferous period that are iron ore concretions of dead shrimps and plants.

The concretions last forever, and in this case, the gunpowder/iron concretions were still very much alive and still very explosive.

The museum staff had to call LEOs for ordinance disposal.

Gunpowder lives forever.


Category: Historical, Navy

Comments (10)

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  1. Thunderstixx says:

    The King is dead, Long live the King, of battle, gunpowder !!!

  2. If I was that guy that smelled the possible unstable state of the gunpowder, I would have taken a “powder” out of there (Def:Leave)

    • ChipNASA says:

      If that were me, and I’d have recognized centuries old explosives, I’d have had part of me take leave before I was able to leave, ifyouknowwhatImean.

  3. ChipNASA says:

    Because this is a low count thread and probably won’t get lost posting for everyone to catch this BREAKING

    Don’t know where else to post this but Holy Fucking Shit bombshell. Just breaking

    Medic testifies that he, not Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, was responsible for ISIS fighter’s death

    I just sent this to AW1Ed but he can’t post until he’s at home in the evening.

    • Heard the same thing on Fox same time as ChipNASA.

    • Ex-PH2 says:


      Well, that just blew a hole in all the rest of it.

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Well, well, well, would you lookie here. As if there wasn’t enough d^@k stepping already. More interesting stuff to pour over.

        And Ex…Good post, I enjoyed this story. Had known of the original scuttling of the fleet, but had missed any news of the semi recovery. In my years of historical programs I’ve had people bring me cannon balls and case shot that they had found/dug in various places. Many of them still had the wooden plug and unexploded powder in them. Good times!

      • Ex-PH2 says:

        You’re welcome, 5th/77th, and I hope that you had fun blowing those munitions to smithereens.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Love the graphic, Ex.