Military Service Hazards: Ordnance Testing

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.

The positions of the men at the time of the shell explosion on October 21, 1886. Modified from Figure 1 published by Dr. Sexton in his article published in Science.-Supplement (April 8, 1887).
Plan view showing the positions of the men at the time of the shell explosion on October 21, 1886. Modified from Figure 2 published by Dr. Sexton in his article published in Science.-Supplement (April 8, 1887).

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)

Government Documents

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)

Old Army Records Update


Jim and I are back from our most recent Old Army records acquisition trip.  As our journey through Old Army records continues, we always encounter new information that refines our knowledge on the daily operation of the 19th century U.S. Army.  For example, in 1864 the Adjutant General issued General Order No. 75, which clarified several personnel issues, including the designation of draftees and the transfer of soldiers to the U.S. Navy.  Last week we found a document that tabulated the number of copies and distribution of general orders in the 1860s.  The Adjutant General printed and distributed over 5,900 copies of G.O. 75 to various military commands, states, installations, and generals.  This example illustrates the civilian and military manpower required to maintain the War Department.  With that being said, we are excited to announce that soon thousands of names will be indexed related to the following Old Army topics:

  • Soldiers who qualified as marksman/ sharpshooters
  • Lists and assignments of army sutlers/ post traders
  • Charges and specifications against soldiers
  • Lists of soldiers fitted for artificial limbs
  • Lists and assignments of civilian nurses
  • Rosters of noncommissioned officers serving in regular army units
  • Lists of officers detailed to teach military science at high schools and colleges
  • Individuals issued specific firearms
  • Lists of soldiers detailed to perform specific jobs
  • Lists of civilian clerks working at various staff departments
  • Prisoners at Forts Leavenworth and Pulaski
  • Individuals serving as scouts during the Civil War

Old Army soldiers performed a wide-range of daily duty. For example, this list includes the names of soldiers from the 47th New York Infantry assigned to picket duty in North Carolina.

Wide range of Old Army Subjects

What distinguishes Old Army Records apart from other databases, is our commitment to not only capture the names of soldiers, but index the events, places, material, and other subjects associated with the period.  Together, these subjects, or what we call searchable units (SUs), put soldiers into context with the Old Army.  We are therefore pleased to announce the following additions to our dataset:

  • 500+ names and descriptive data for army horses and mules
  • List of countersigns and paroles used during the Civil War
  • List of safeguards issued during the Civil War
  • Tabular data of the types of firearms lost, damaged, and rendered unserviceable by regular army units
  • The causes of desertion from the regular army
  • Lists of items received by soldiers confined to prison
  • Accounting for ammunition expended in the southwest during the 1860s
  • Lists of ordnance and ordnance stores lost by the Union Army in key Civil War battles

Army officers were responsible for all government property and could be called upon to account for expenditures. One enterprising officer maintained a ledger which included the loss and usage of ammunition. This excerpt, for example, includes ammunition used in combat and by the the butcher for Company C, 1st California Cavalry in November and December 1865.

Following the Paperwork Trail

With each document digitized, we are amazed at the breadth of records kept by the 19th century U.S. Army and that survive, yet, today.  The details contained in those documents helps fulfill our goal of presenting the rich day-to-day life of an Old Army soldier.  In the coming months, while we index the new data, we will publish articles on these topics.  So, keep checking the Records Inventory page for updates.  In the meantime, feel free to contact us with questions or your research requests.

Old Army Officer Duty: Council of Administration

As previously discussed, Old Army officers completed a variety of temporary assignments dealing with government property, funds, and activities.  This series continues with an overview of another of these duties:  Council of Administration.

Council of Administration Jurisdiction:  Laundresses and Sutlers

Councils of administration became part of army regulations early in the 19th century; they were included in 1821 regulations.  Originally, council duties dealt with two specific adjuncts of the army:  laundresses and sutlers.  Laundresses were women, often spouses of enlisted men, employed to wash the clothes of the troops.  Councils determined the price laundresses charged the soldiers.  For example, enlisted men stationed at Fort Shaw, Montana in 1878 paid $1.00/ month for laundry services.  Officers paid $3.00/month; children $1.00/month.

Sutlers (also known as post traders) provided consumer goods to soldiers.  The Secretary of War appointed sutlers.  By the 1890s, the Army assumed the role of sutler with establishments known as canteens or post exchanges.  However, councils determined the prices of items sold and sometimes they decided the types of goods sold by the sutler.   In 1873 at Fort Abraham Lincoln, for example, the sutler offered no less than 15 types of cigars and nearly 40 styles/types of boots and shoes (men, women, children, youth, and misses).

Councils of administration regularly audited the accounts of sutlers to ensure soldiers paid fair prices.  Councils also assessed a tax imposed on sutlers.  The tax formula being a set rate (e.g. 10¢) times the average number of officers and enlisted men present at a post for a specific period.

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A Council of Administration regularly audited the accounts of sutlers to ensure that they did not bilk soldiers.

Council of Administration Jurisdiction:  Funds

By the end of the 19th century Army regulations and soldier responsibilities increased significantly.  This trend also applied to councils of administration.  Consequently, by 1895, councils convened to examine a wide range of topics including the post, regimental, company, bakery, and mess funds.  These funds provided goods and conveniences meant for the benefit of the garrison (funds will be discussed in detail in future articles).  Councils of administration periodically examined the accounts of each fund and identified any improprieties.

Council of Administration Jurisdiction:  Personal Effects

One of the somber responsibilities of councils was disposing of the personal property of dead soldiers.  Councils took an inventory of and sold at public auction personal effects of the deceased whether they died in combat or from disease, illness, or injury.  Councils convened for two 1st Cavalry enlisted men, Sergeant William H. Smith and Private Karl Schohe, who died in Arizona Territory in June 1869 serve as typical examples.  A former shoemaker from Boston, 25 year old Smith died at Camp Bowie on June 10th.  Schohe, a 23 year old former butcher from Germany, died from an aneurysm at Camp Goodwin.  The inventory and prices realized for the auctions of the personal effects are summarized below.  Interestingly, Schohe’s meager belongings included an item reflecting his life before joining the army, a butcher knife.

Proceedings of Councils of Administration

Typically, three officers on duty at the respective post made up a council of administration.  Not surprisingly, the junior officer of the council served as the recorder and transcribed the proceedings.  Both the council president and recorder signed the proceedings.

Once the council prepared its written decision, each member signed the proceedings and forwarded them to the commanding officer for review and approval.  Per the 1895 Army regulations, “should the post commander disapprove the proceedings, and the council, after reconsideration, adhere to its conclusion, a copy of the proceedings will be sent to the department commander, whose decision thereon upon all questions not involving pecuniary responsibility will be final.”   The Secretary of War served as the appellate for monetary disputes.

Councils of administration are a great resource regarding personal items and goods and services purchased by 19th century soldiers.  The documents also allow the 21st century observer an opportunity to look at the purchasing power of our military ancestors.  These are the types of documents Old Army Records digitizes and indexes (see the list here).  We appreciate the feedback from you regarding previous posts.  As always, feel free to suggest an Old Army topic for future posts.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders and other documents, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, Fort Shaw, Montana Territory, and Camp Bowie, Arizona Territory

Army Regulations
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)
Regulations of the Army of the United States (1881)



Finding Old Army Battlefields: December 6th Battle

In the early 2000s, I had the privilege of directing the only large-scale archaeological investigations on Fetterman Battlefield.  Named after the senior officer in charge of the detachment (Captain William J. Fetterman) the battle resulted in the loss of 81 soldiers and civilians.   Grants from the National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) funded the fieldwork.  Before finishing the first field season, my thoughts turned to locating the site of another fight Fetterman participated in, simply known as the December 6th Battle, which occurred just 15 days prior to his death.

The December 6th Battle

In the early afternoon of December 6, 1866, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors attacked a wood train west of Fort Phil Kearny.  Post and military district commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, annoyed by the constant harassment of his forces and pressured from his superiors to inflict casualties on “hostile” Indians, assumed personal command of the operation.  His plan called for a classic two-prong attack meant to trap the warriors.

Finding the Battlefield

The December 6th Battle was a fluid engagement occupying an area of approximately 6,700 acres.  Most of the fighting occurred during three short skirmishes.  In 2010, my archaeology consulting firm received the contract to locate the December 6th Battlefield.  The ABPP funded the project.  Our plan involved using metal detectors to locate at least one of the skirmish sites.  However, the engagement occurred in a 25-mile² area.  Obviously it was impractical to metal detect 16,000 acres.  In order to refine the search area, we turned to Old Army records.

Several military participants recounted the day’s events.  Carrington also prepared a map, based on visual inspections of the landscape, of the engagement.  His map, which lacks a scale, illustrates the movements of the major troop commands landscape features.  We were able to correlate the landscape, shown on Carrington’s illustration, with modern maps to delineate the probable boundaries of the December 6th Battlefield.

Map drawn by Carrington, December 1866.
Map of the December 6th Battlefield drawn by Colonel Carrington shortly after the engagement.


The fieldwork occurred during 21 days and surveyed about 46 acres.  By locating at least one of the three main skirmishes, we hoped to verify the accuracy of the Old Army records.  To our amazement, we discovered one of Fetterman’s skirmishes.  A total of 15 artifacts were identified on two hills about a half mile away from where we expected to find them.  The location of these artifact concentrations is consistent with Fetterman’s route, as depicted on Carrington’s map and described by the officers.

Overview, to the north, of the December 6th Battlefield from the top of Lodge Trail Ridge.
Overview of the December 6th Battlefield from the top of Lodge Trail Ridge. View to the northeast down Jenks and Peno creeks. Photo taken December 6, 2010.


Both the military and Indian participants in the December 6th Fight spent most of their time attempting to exploit the landscape to their advantage.  Indian warriors concealed themselves in drainages and behind ridges while decoys led pursuing soldiers into ambushes.  Conversely, the soldiers sought out higher landforms for observation and avenues of approach.  Landscape features rather than artifacts are the defining vestiges of the engagement.  No doubt the warriors learned valuable lessons regarding army maneuvers and behavior on December 6th that translated into in a resounding victory 15 days later with the death of Fetterman, 78 soldiers, and 2 civilians.

Want More Information?

If you’d like more information on the December 6th Battle Archaeology Project, including a full synopsis of the battle and photos and descriptions of the recovered artifacts, contact us Please write “December 6th Report” in the subject box and we’ll send you a digital copy of the report, absolutely, free (public version-the pdf report is 96 pages long and 3 MB in size). Old Army Records does not sell or trade names or email addresses.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Letters Sent, Fort Phil Kearny, D.T.
Letters Received, Department of the Platte

Technical Reports
December 6th Battle Archaeological Survey Research Design (O’Dell-2009)
Final Technical Report:  Archaeological Investigations and Landscape Analysis at the December 6th Battlefield (O’Dell and Powers-2011)
National Register of Historic Places Evaluation of the December 6, 1866 Fight (O’Dell-2006)