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Civil War ‘parrot gun’ shell find a mystery

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Posted: Saturday, October 2, 2010 12:00 pm

In 1962, 12-year-old Dan Terhune found a Civil War-era “parrot gun” shell in the backyard of his Olive Street home.

Of course he didn’t know what it was at the time, but 48 years later he does know but is still trying to figure out one mystery - how did it get there. 

 Terhune, 60, a graduate of Murray High School and Murray State University now living in Texas, said the mystery began when he was digging around in a ditch looking for whatever a 12-year-old boy could find.  

“I was digging around in the back yard where there was a draining ditch that ran from the back of the house to what we used to call in that neighborhood ‘an alley’ and on one of the banks of the ditch closer to the alley the tip of something metal was protruding,” Terhune says. “I dug around it and found a cylindrical metal object”

He took the strange object inside and cleaned it up. His mother put it on the fireplace hearth in the front room. He thought it might be a clock weight of some kind.

“We thought nothing more of it for over 45 years,” Terhune said. “When we were cleaning out the house to sell it after my mom died and dad moved to Fort Worth to live with me in 2005, I figured since I found it as a kid I had to take it with me. It was a few years back when I noticed in the Fort Worth Star Telegram a picture of a Civil War shell that looked a lot like mine that had been discovered by a construction crew and identified as a Civil War ‘parrot gun’ shell.” 

He took the artifact down to the Texas Civil War Museum in west Fort Worth where curator Ray Richey identified it as a blunt-nose parrot gun shell.

“It weighs approximately 30 pounds and was used in a siege gun primarily on naval ships,” he said. “ This particular shell was a single shot with no gun powder in it. It was used to take out other artillery. It has no gun powder in it. My mother would have been relieved to know that since it sat on the fireplace hearth for 45 years.”

A powder bag was attached to the bottom that was lit from a fuse inside the gun that propelled the shell. Richey told him the range could be as much as a mile.

“He said it was probably worth about $500,” Terhune continued. “Of course I was not interested in selling it. Now the big question is how did it get in a draining ditch in my back yard at 804 Olive St. in Murray, Ky.”

Terhune says he has not researched any accounts of old records from the Murray Ledger & Times. He supposes, based on what he has learned, that Union troops did pass through or near Murray in 1862 on their way to Fort Heiman or perhaps some Confederate troops passed that way as well to the same destination. Both Union and Confederate armies used parrot guns.

“At any rate, Mr. Richey told me that many times the powder bag would break making the shell useless and the troops would throw them off the wagon to the side of the road,” Terhune said. “ It might also be supposed that the alley which had had two wheel tracks when I was growing up could have been an abandoned road. The Olive St. House was not built until 1913 and that part of Murray was open countryside in 1862.”

Terhune says he’s amazed that a Civil War artillery shell would be found in Murray where it is believed nothing happened during the Civil War.

“I just wish I had found it and known what it was when we were in the fourth grade at A.B. Austin,” Terhune said. “I would have been the envy of every kid in school.”

Parrot guns were used by both Union and Confederate armies. The weapons were a military development of small “parrot gun” cannons and rifles previously used to kill or scare away parrots and other birds from roosting atop buildings in America’s cities following a bird-keeping craze before the war. The guns were used to be rid of the birds and other subsequent problems resulting from pet owners becoming weary of the pets and releasing them.   

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