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From the Field of Gettysburg: Two Unusual Bullets from an Early Collection

There were many different types of bullets used by the opposing armies during the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Cavalry troopers used brass, rubber, or paper cased bullets for their carbines, while infantry used a wide variety of types and calibers of lead bullets. The “bullets,” more accurately called minie balls in honor of their French inventor, Claude-Etienne Mine (1804-1879), could once be found all over the battlefield, but have become very scarce in recent years. I can recall a visit to Gettysburg after a thunderstorm many years ago and finding a Confederate Gardner bullet on Cemetery Hill. The unfired and pristine two-ring minie, still packed with black powder, was likely lost by one of the Confederates who charged up the hill during the night of July 2, 1863. Because it is illegal to hunt or remove relics from federal battlefield property, the bullet was turned over to a National Park Service Ranger.

Engraved Portrait of Claude-Etienne Minie

Two of the rarest bullets recovered from the Gettysburg battlefield are those of the French Triangle Pattern. They can be found in both .577 and .69 caliber. The larger of the two bullets are generally found in areas of the Gettysburg battlefield where General A.P. Hill’s Confederate infantry fought. The .577 variation is a scarce minie for Gettysburg battlefield but has been found in quantity at 1862-63 Union army camp locations such as Stafford and Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. The two examples pictured here were both found in the Devil’s Den area of the Gettysburg battlefield many years ago. At least one other .69 caliber example that originated with the same early Gettysburg relic collection, was found at Barlow’s Knoll – an area associated with the First Days’ battle. The .69 caliber example pictured shows evidence of being mold cast in the field, with a rough seam and unfinished sprue at the point. It is very possible that this was field cast by a Confederate soldier using a European bullet mold.

French Triangular minies came in several different forms and have been recovered from many different battlefields throughout the South. Examples of the .69 caliber minie have been found at such diverse locations at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, Fort Fisher, North Carolina, Port Hudson, Louisiana and Vicksburg, Mississippi, as well as Shiloh, Tennessee, Grenada, Mississippi and a Confederate camp at Readyville, Tennessee. A single .69 caliber French Dragoon minie was discovered during a 2003 dig at Pea Ridge, Arkansas supervised by the National Park Service.

Standard Union .58 caliber conical minie ball (left). .69 caliber triangular cavity bullet (center). .58 caliber triangular cavity bullet (right)

Most bullets used in Civil War long arms had hollow cavities to allow for expansion of the soft lead minies as they spun through the rifled barrels toward their targets. The French Triangular type minies had a peculiar cavity that has been a source of much speculation. In explaining the unique design, European collectors and historians have claimed that the triangular cavity provided greater strength to the bullet during transport. A misshapen lead bullet could misfire and the triangular design to the cavity was intended to provide greater stability when ammunition boxes were stacked. The issue of large caliber minies deformed during transport was a frequent subject of discussion in ante-bellum military publications. In the United States, the large caliber triangular bullets are generally associated with Confederate infantry and are usually found in campsites and battlefield positions held by the Confederate army.

The bullets pictured here were once part of the famed Rosensteel Collection, an early collection of Gettysburg artifacts that began in the days following the battle by John Rosensteel and continued by other family members into the 1960s.

.577 caliber French Triangle Minie from the Rosensteel Collection Recovered from the Devil’s Den area of the Gettysburg battlefield (Author’s Collection)

Triangular cavity design inside the base of the .577 caliber French Triangle Pattern Minie.

In the thousands of bullets included in this collection, there were only a small number of French triangular cavity bullets present. The collection was originally displayed in a private museum located near Little Round Top by the Rosensteel family, but was moved to a new building known as the Gettysburg National Museum and Electric Map that was just outside the gates of the National Cemetery. This impressive collection was transferred to the National Park Service in 1971. Perhaps more than any other assemblage of Civil War artifacts, the Rosensteel Collection inspired generations of Gettysburg visitors to start collecting Civil War memorabilia. The collection still serves as the foundation for the display at the new National Park Service Museum in Gettysburg.

.69 caliber French Dragoon Rifle Pattern Triangle Minie Recovered from Devil’s Den (Possible Nose Cast)

While the main collection of Rosensteel relics is owned by the National Park Service, a separate collection of artifacts put together by George Rosensteel’s daughter, Iva Ryder, was recently sold to the Horse Soldier, a prominent Gettysburg militaria dealer. Most of the artifacts (bullets, shell fragments and assorted brass items such as belt buckles) were recovered from the battlefield during the 1930s-1960s, but some items in the collection were very early battlefield pick-ups that dated back to the turn of the century. Some were given to the Rosensteels by local farmers and others were found by Gettysburg residents such as John Cullison, Lawrence Monroe and Ronald Hardman and were sold to the family. The relics were generally sorted by the location of the recovery and stored in separate boxes. When Iva Ryder died, the collection passed to her daughter. It was purchased directly from her by the Horse Soldier with separate items resold by other Gettysburg dealers, such as Artifact at 777 and the Gettysburg Museum of History.

Early collections, such as that assembled by the Rosensteels, helps to document the history of the Gettysburg battle because of the solid provenance of the artifacts. In the thousands of items the Rosensteels collected from the fields around Gettysburg, the history of the battle can be told with greater reliance on material evidence. Once the Rosensteel artifacts are gone – dispersed into private collections throughout the United States, the last of the privately held Gettysburg collections will have passed into history – a history that will forever be linked to the great battle fought in July of 1863.

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