The Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU), which sits near North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, is one of the largest military terminals in the world. Built during the Korean War, it serves as a transfer point between trucks, railroads, and ships for the movement of weapons, military equipment, and ammunition. Today the 596th Transportation Brigade, part of the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, operates MOTSU. This facility has been involved in the transport of munitions to every major U.S. conflict since it opened in 1955, so it is not a stranger to different types of ammunition. An unusual piece of ammunition came to light in 2018, however, when a live round from the Civil War was recovered.

In that year, an artillery shell washed ashore near the South Warf at MOTSU. This type of shell would have been a foot long and weighed about 25.4 pounds with an intact powder charge. It would have been fired by a 30-pounder Navy Parrott Rifle. A gun of this size, depicted below, weighed 3550 pounds, had a barrel 102 inches in length, and fired shells to a range of 6700 yards. These guns are still used at MOTSU Change of Command ceremonies.

When the age of the shell was determined and the decision made to save it, the 596th Transportation Brigade contacted Camp Lejeune to render the round inert, a process called de-milling. It was taken to Camp Lejeune by Jim McKee, Site Manager at nearby historic Fort Anderson, a Civil War Fort that sits on top of a colonial site known as Brunswick Town (that was razed in 1776), who documented the de-milling process.

After the round was rendered inert and safe to handle, it was taken back to historic Fort Anderson by McKee, for conservation and preservation. The shell first spent a year undergoing electrolysis, a process that removes rust from iron or steel objects by using an electric current to create a chemical reaction. Then, after spending a year drying, inside and out, the shell was finally given a special application of tannic acid, to protect the iron, and a coat of wax to seal it.

While the process of conservation was ongoing, the historical research began to answer the question, “What was a 30-lb round from the 19th Century doing at MOTSU?” During the Civil War, a Confederate artillery battery, known as Battery Lamb, was located near where MOTSU is today. This battery was situated 17 miles south of Wilmington and consisted of a two-gun emplacement built to protect the land and water approaches to the Port of Wilmington. This was one of 12 Confederate Batteries around that port.

Only two vessels were known to have fired on Battery Lamb, but neither had 30-pounder Parrott Rifles in their inventories. Three other ships that were in the area that did were the USS Eolus, the USS Maumee, and the USS Shawmut, but are not known to have fired on Battery Lamb. Regardless of who fired it, based on historical records, the shell was probably fired in either December 1864 or January 1865.

In 2023, the conserved shell was returned to MOTSU where it will remain on permanent display. For now, it remains a historical mystery as to what circumstances led to the round being fired. Future research might uncover the answer.