Several days ago, I had dinner with a gentleman who told me an interesting story about soldiers burying minié balls so they could claim to be out of ammunition and leave the battlefield? The fellow claimed to have discovered unused balls in scooped out depressions on battlefields. I found the comments interesting and something that I had never heard about. I decided to post the question on LinkedIn's Civil War Sesquicentennial Network.
Joyce Henry, Head Coachman and Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, offered the following explanation:
You have to remember that in battle many times cartridge boxes would be lost, either by the soldier being wounded and falling, artillery explosions, straps broken by wear, breaking during close combat, or any number of reasons. Over the course of 40 years of battlefield excavation, we have found evidence of this occurrence many times over, intact cartridge tins filled or mostly filed with minié' balls found on battlefields of particularly heavy action. Have recovered entire crates of intact ammunition found where supply wagons were mired down in mud and contents lost during muddy marches and chaotic retreats. Bullets were often dropped as well during the loading and firing process. After 150 years of erosion and deposit I would think it would be difficult to determine a "scooped out" feature in the earth, and would have to go with what we know to be a more plausible explanation. Somehow I can't picture many soldiers in the heat of battle digging a hole and burying ammo, would have been a pretty severe punishment involved compared to desertion if they were caught. So even if it were done, I don't think it was a common occurrence.
Duane Whitlock, Museum Guide at Historic St. Mary's City, commented:
Burying or dumping your ammunition would not get a soldier a free pass to the rear. The most common method early in the war would be to help a wounded comrade to a field hospital. As the war progressed the noncoms and officers put an end to this practice. Joyce [Henry] pretty much covers the reasons for finding unused minié' balls grouped together. In camp sites paper cartridges that were old, wet and damaged were strewn about the company streets and the men were issued fresh ammunition. We have identified the company streets in known campsites by the presence of these minié' and round balls. They also mark the locations of the camp kitchens by their melted condition.
Duane posted the following description of how ammunition was brought to the front. Especially interesting is Duane's comment on how the boxes were color coded to identify the different caliber of minié balls.
During an engagement, when the men started pulling the tin liners out of their cartridge boxes to get at the rounds stored in the lower compartment, it was taken as a sign by the officers to send men they trusted to the rear to bring up more ammunition. The ammo boxes weighed around 100 lbs and contained 1,000 rounds each. Because many of the men were illiterate, the boxes were color coded in 1862 so that the proper rounds to match the weapons of the companies would be supplied. Green for .57, .58 cal. [caliber] minié' balls, blue for .69 cal. minié' balls and red for buck & ball and buckshot rounds. Because of the handle design, each box could only be carried by one man. However, the men operated in teams and came up with all sorts of ingenious methods of transporting the boxes including stealing litters from the ambulance corps, making up slings and drags from whatever they could find and stealing the occasional mule.
Thanks to Duane and Joyce for sharing this information and adding to our understanding of Civil War combat. You can join the discussion by becoming a member of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Network.
For more information on the minié ball, please see Minie Ball on Historynet.com.