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Minié Balls and Memory

Who knows how many millions of Minié balls were cast or pressed between 1861-1865? Those soft lead slugs were a constant presence in soldiers’ lives. Relichunters have collected thousands of bullets that had been fired in battle and were scored with rifling, as well as some others that dropped harmlessly to the ground or were pulled, unfired, out of weapons as soldiers came off guard duty. Some are ominously disfigured by impact—testimony to their potentially deadly effects.

Though most often associated with combat, Minié balls could also be a source of recreation. During quiet moments in camp, men carved bullets into fanciful objects or simply whittled them into sharp points to pass the time. Near Falmouth, Va., the White Oak Museum’s amazing collection includes a number of these carved bullets (

 In the postwar years, Minié balls came to symbolize the shared suffering and camaraderie of army life for some veterans. In fact, the survivors of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry had their granite monument at Antietam, near Burnside Bridge, carved in the shape of an enormous Minié ball, as did the 7th New Jersey at Gettysburg.

 Today dozens of shops near battlefields sell Minié balls, often for no more than a couple of dollars apiece. Time and abundance have transformed those little lead assassins into tangible, affordable links to the great conflict. Buy one the next time you visit a battlefield and give it to a kid. You just might inspire a new generation of Civil War enthusiasts.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.