From Sword to Plowshare: The .44 Caliber Lead Ball Found at Wornall House

University of Missouri-Kansas City

This is the .44 caliber lead ball found during recent archeological excavations by Doug Shaver. (Photo by bethanywearsphotography.com)

Follow along as the John Wornall House Museum builds an exhibition exploring how John Wornall’s home became a field hospital for both the Union and Confederate wounded. “Farmstead to Field Hospital: A Family in the Crossfire of War and the Making of Modern-Day Medicine,” will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Westport. It will be on display between September 26 and November 9, 2014.

This exhibition will be presented by The Wornall/Majors House Museums in partnership with the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City, the Clendening History of Medicine Museum, University of Kansas Medical Center, and the Kansas City Public Library.

 

Holding the .44 caliber lead ball in the palm of one’s hand and feeling its 11.8 gram heft imbues the milky-colored solid shot with an eerie feeling when considering the purpose of its creation. This Civil War-era lead ball, found in the summer of 2013 by archeologist Doug Shaver near the front porch of the John Wornall House in Kansas City, Missouri, was manufactured with malice, and its intent was for the murder of humans and animals, specifically horses. The lead ball was found along with rusty nails, shards of broken glass, chunks of bone, and children’s marbles in a state-of-the-art excavation that utilized the latest archeological technology such as LiDar and gradiometric mapping. Shaver’s detailed report inevitably raised as many questions as it answered. This particular lead ball is unfired.

The .44 caliber dimension became popular among a number of small arms manufacturers after the Mexican-American War, most notably Remington and Colt. After that war, Captain Samuel Walker allegedly told gun maker Sam Colt that he wanted a weapon that would halt a charging enemy and his horse at 100 yards. There can be no doubt this exact test was tried and proven several times at the height of the Battle of Westport. There, in present day Loose Park, were the largest cavalry charges to have occurred west of the Mississippi. During one of those charges there occurred a rare event during the Civil War; two opposing officers shot and wounded one another with their pistols - no doubt firing lead balls like the one found during the recent archeological excavation. After the fighting ended, in addition to the wounded soldiers that filled his home, nine-year-old Frank Wornall counted about 100 saddles and harnesses piled up in front of the family’s barn that had been gathered from dead horses lying about the family farm.

There is no way of knowing exactly when this ball was deposited there beside the front porch at Wornall House; perhaps it was dropped during the incident when “bushwhackers,” dressed in Union blue uniforms, caught the family in their carriage on the road in front of the home. In that incident, one of the family’s hired laborers, a German immigrant named Hans, witnessed the family’s abduction and quietly slipped away from the Wornall farm on foot to notify a detachment of Union cavalry stationed at the Shawnee Indian Mission of the events taking place. Meanwhile, the bushwhackers led the family inside the home and proceeded to abuse and torture John Wornall, tying him up and nearly hanging him from the second story balcony. The bushwhackers steadfastly refused to believe Wornall’s claims that he had put all of his money into banks in Kansas City and Westport.

At some point in the melee, John’s son, Frank Wornall, escaped unnoticed from the gang of bandits, grabbed an unloaded double-barrel pistol, returned to the room, and tried to defend his father. One of the bushwhackers slapped the pistol out of young Frank’s hands and told him that was a sure way to get killed. When the bushwhacker’s pickets spotted the squad of Union cavalry coming from the Indian Mission they fled the scene of the crime in a rush, leaving John Wornall to untangle himself from the noose they had hung around his neck. Maybe the ball rolled out of bushwhacker’s guerilla shirt pocket as they dashed away from the scene of the crime.

Perhaps the ball was even dropped during the Battle of Westport, where 30,000 men fought a battle often called “Gettysburg of the West.” This battle marked the end of General Sterling Price’s invasion of Missouri, and the Wornall House was at the center of the fighting that swept through the area. Most of what is now south Kansas City was the scene of a three-day battle. The fighting left 1,500 casualties on each side, and the Wornall House became one of six local buildings and houses that served as a hospital for wounded troops. Perhaps the .44 caliber lead ball rolled from the shot pouch of a wounded soldier as he was carried into the Wornall House for surgery.

Lead bullets fired from black powder rifles and pistols with grooved barrels such as this were the cause of 94 percent of recorded Civil War battle wounds. These dense projectiles with their heavy mass traveling at around 1,000 feet per second created devastating wounds on the human body. Most wounds were sustained in the extremities, with the majority of those wounds to the legs and feet. When these types of bullet hit bone, they pulverized it and made amputation the only option in many cases. A surgeon’s assistant would have worked near the battle scene, sorting out those with survivable wounds and sending them back to the Wornall House where the regimental surgeon operated. Penetrating wounds to the abdomen or head were 90 percent lethal, while those to the chest claimed about 60 percent of its victims. Men with both types of wounds were often left to die on the battlefield.

One fact that is known is that this specific lead ball did not wound or kill; it was dropped at the Wornall House and lay hidden in the ground alongside a child’s toy marbles for 150 years. It was made for war, but now it is used to teach about that war’s history and humanity’s capacity for good and evil. This .44 caliber lead ball has made a journey - a journey from sword to plowshare.

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