The Shell Game
Picture someone firing a cannon. What do you picture coming out of the barrel? Probably a round ball, which would make sense because that is often how it’s portrayed. During the Civil War, the art of artillery, and of designing munitions entered a new age. The picture above is a collection of many of the different types of projectiles that were used during the war.
You had the solid round shot, which is what you were picturing. It was effective in knocking things down and were often heated in ovens until red-hot so that when the hit something, like a house, ship or fortification, it could set it on fire.
There was “canister” which turned your canon into a giant shotgun peppering the enemy with small round projectiles.
You had timed fuses for shells that could cause them to either burst in the air and rain shrapnel down on the enemy, or they could be set to detonate some time after hitting the ground effectively acting a type of land mine.
Then came the rifled projectiles (the ones that look like giant bullets). They could travel further and could be outfitted with fuses or set to explode on contact.
Every situation had a special shell that could be used. If you would like more information on each individual type of ammunition produced I would recommend this website, Civil War Artillery Projectiles. They break down the many different types well.
So the next time someone asks what a cannon fires, ask for more detail because there are many, many different options…