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Expert tries to blow out St. Augustine's cannonball mystery

A pile of cannonballs at the fort in St. Augustine may date to the Civil War.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The fort in St. Augustine has cannons on display, but inside one room, there were many cannonballs that park staff didn't know much about. 

"You can tell a little bit from a big ball of metal," Andrew Thompson said. 

He is a cannonball expert. 

Thompson has an interesting assignment, to solve a cannonball mystery. 

The case started with a pile of cannonballs at the Castillo de San Marcos, the fort in St. Augustine.  

"They were in the powder magazine, tucked away in a dank, dark secure location," he said. 

Wanting to know more, the National Park Service, which runs the fort, handed over 16 of the cannonballs last month to Thompson who works for the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program.

Based on size and weight, he thinks most of them are American-made and from the Civil War era.. which is interesting because the fort did not see much action during the civil war. 

"That's probably why there was a cache of cannonballs leftover because they weren't used," he said. 

He doubts they date before the 1850s but there are a few cannonballs which he can't wrap his head around. 

"These things should weigh 16 - 18 pounds, but they only weight 11," Thompson said. 

He's not sure where those unusual cannonballs are from. They may date to the early days of America.

"[Or] they could be British, they could be Spanish, they could be French," he said.

In trying to answer the questions, Thompson will also clean and preserve the balls.

"Our iron cannonballs, if we left them to their own devices, would start rusting and falling apart, so that's what we're trying to avoid," he said. 

Thompson is working to save some history in the form of cannonballs while trying to blow out the mystery they contain. 

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