Combat aside, military service is dangerous in times of war and peace. Disease and accidents claimed thousands of casualties in the 19th century army. Additionally, implements of war meant to kill or maim also claimed casualties outside hostilities. The testing, manufacture, and distribution of weapons, ammunition, and weapons-related equipment fell to small cadre known as the Ordnance Department.
Annually, around 65 officers served in the Ordnance Department during the last quarter of the 19th century. Despite being a small department, over 20 ordnance officers died over the same time span. Upon the passing of an officer, the Ordnance Department issued an order eulogizing the deceased. Admittedly, a handful, including Brevet Major General George A. Ramsay (1802-1882), died during retirement. However, several were accidentally killed performing their duty.
The obituaries were differentiated from other orders by a thick black page border. While indexing these orders the words “killed by the bursting of a shell, on October 21, 1886, at the Proving Ground, Sandy Hook, N.J.” popped out. What caused this accident? While answering this question the names of other soldiers involved came to light.
“An officer of fine abilities and great professional zeal”
The subject of the memoriam mentioned above was 1st Lieutenant William Morgan Medcalfe. Born in Maryland, Medcalfe entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1872. In 1876 he was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Artillery. One of the many responsibilities of the Ordnance Department was defending the nation’s sea coast. Mortars were an integral part of that defense system. In the fall of 1886, Medcalfe was on duty at Sandy Hook, New Jersey supervising test firing of a 12-inch breech loaded mortar.
Assisting Medcalfe were eight enlisted men belonging to the Ordnance Department and Allan G. Sinclair, a 62-year old civilian machinist. The soldiers included 34-year old Sergeant John Abbott, corporals George Clark (aged 27), Walter Goodno (aged 34), and Ingram (aged 32), and privates Michael D. Burns (aged 24), Thomas Cramer (aged 39), Joseph Cunningham (aged 23), and Joseph King (age unknown); another source lists King’s first name as Henry.
Scene of the Accident
At 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 21, 1886 Medcalfe’s team prepared for another test fire. What happened next was summarized in two articles written by otologist Dr. Samuel Sexton and contemporary newspaper accounts. By the late 19th century Dr. Sexton was an aural surgeon who “devoted special attention to the study and treatment of diseases of the ear”. His research on tear trauma caused by explosions led him to the Medcalfe incident. Through eye witness accounts, Dr. Sexton reconstructed the accident. The following drawings (profile and plan view) depict the positions of nine of the men just prior to the explosion.
Correspondents from the Washington, DC newspaper Evening Star spoke with senior Ordnance Department officers. Those officers evidently spoke with eyewitnesses who presented the following account. Private King was closing the plug at the base of the mortar shell. The shell weighed 585 pounds and was just filled with 27 pounds of rifle powder. The threaded plug did not turn properly and per protocol, King rapped it with a hammer. The ordnance officers theorized that “one or two grains of powder probably caught in the thread of the screw plug, and that these ignited at the blow of the hammer.”
The explosion blew Private King 55 feet away from the shell, killing him instantly. Incredibly, Lieutenant Medcalfe, standing at the base of the shell, survived 30 minutes after being blown 22 feet away. His injuries were quite severe. The Fairfield News and Herald (South Carolina) reported that he lost his right leg and his left leg was shattered. The explosion also blew Corporal Clark 15 feet, but he survived. Abbott, Burns, Cramer, Cunningham, Ingram, and Sinclair all managed to stay on their feet during the explosion and also survived.
Just an Accident While Performing Routine Duty?
Fittingly, Medcalfe’s body was transported from Sandy Hook to Brooklyn on the tug named Ordnance. He was then buried in a family plot at Green-Wood Cemetery. Whereas the Ordnance Department published a memorial for Medcalfe no such order was issued for the Swiss-born Private King. And, surprisingly, the incident is not referenced in the annual report of the Chief of Ordnance. Likewise, orders issued by the Ordnance Department did not convene a board or court of inquiry to investigate the explosion. It appears that the military simply wrote the incident off as an accident incurred during routine, albeit dangerous, Ordnance Department duty.
This article started out as a simple quest to learn more about the death of Lieutenant Medcalfe, whom, I thought, was the only casualty of the “shell burst.” As it turned out the accident affected eight other individuals, including nine enlisted soldiers. Further research identified the names of the people involved in the mishap. Importantly, the accident illustrates the daily interactions of officers and enlisted men. The Civil War was, arguably, the defining event in 19th century U.S. history. Nearly everyone alive during that conflict had a connection with the Old Army. Dr. Sexton, for example, briefly served as an assistant surgeon in the 8th Ohio Infantry between July 1861 and October 1862.
Old Army Records’ comprehensive indexing strategy allows researchers to link people, places, events, and various other military subjects. Our search capabilities comb various 19th century sources, generated by government and civilian organizations, to compile in-depth military service records of soldiers from that period. As our indexing progresses we hope to uncover more about the individuals involved in the mortar shell explosion on October 21, 1886. For instance, did the accident factor into the court martial of Private Burns just seven months after the accident? We will update this story as new information comes to light.
Have a research request? Contact us.
Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders Issued by the Ordnance Department (1876-1895)
A Military History of the 8th Regiment Ohio Vol. Inf’y.: Its Battles, Marches and Army Movements by Franklin Sawyer (1881)
Biography of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons by Dr. R. French Stone (1894)
Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1886, 1887)
“Blown to Atoms by a shell.” The Fairfield News and Herald, Winnsboro, SC (October 27, 1886)
“Effects of Explosions on the Ear.” Science.-Supplement (April 8, 1887)
“Injury of the Ear Caused by the Blast of a Bursting Shell.” The Medical Record, (February 19, 1887)
“Killed by the Bursting of a Shell.” Evening Star, Washington, DC (October 22, 1886)
“Lieut. Medcalfe’s Funeral.” The New York Times (October 24, 1886)