Civil War Cannonballs

Invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, the cannon was adopted as a weapon in Europe and Middle East in the 13th and 14th centuries, and played an important role in the American Civil War. Early cannonballs were made from dressed stone, but by the 17 th century, they were iron. Cannonballs could be explosive and packed with gunpowder, or solid iron projectiles that could cut a lethal swathe through buildings or advancing troops. Cannonballs like the ones in these photographs had a nonexplosive charge and were also called round shot.

These three cannon balls were donated to the Emory & Henry archives by W.N. Holbrook of Bristol, TN. The provenance of them is unknown The three cannon balls differ in size; the smallest one weighs 2 ½ pounds and is 8 ½ inches in circumference. The medium one is the heaviest of the three, weighing 6 pounds and measuring 11 ½ inches around. Although the small and medium cannon balls are completely round, the largest ball is lumpy and oddly shaped. It is also the lightest, weighing 5 ½ pounds and is 17 inches in circumference.

Cannonballs still turn up today in backyards, fields and construction sites where Civil War activity took place over 150 years ago. Or, as in the case of Folly Beach, SC, over a dozen cannonballs were uncovered by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. They were “live,” and had to be detonated by an area ordinance disposal team.

The only information available for the cannonballs is the name and city of the donor. If you have any additional information on these Civil War artifacts, please contact Kelly Library, 276.944.6208, or email