It's In Our Blood!
By: Dennis Nunnery
When metal detecting gets in your blood, you always keep an eye open for potential search sites. My uncle Roy Keele, at the age of 71, is that type of guy. He has been an avid detectorist since 1965, when he bought his first White's metal detector. Serving in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years, he hunted everywhere he was stationed after getting a detector. After retiring from the Air Force, he settled in Benton County, Tennessee, where his wife Naomi is from, and 40 miles from his own hometown of Dickson, Tennessee. Since then, between digging for old bottles and metal detecting, he has acquired an impressive collection, and keeps a detailed log on his finds.
Settling in Benton County, Roy got interested in hunting Civil War relics. I live close by, and after seeing what he was finding, I decided to take up the hobby, too. So, I purchased my first detector, choosing a White's, the same brand Roy has used for the past 36 years. Having ancestors who fought in the Civil War has made our quest for artifacts from that terrible but intriguing conflict even more compelling.
Living in Benton County, which is located on the banks of the Tennessee River, we are surrounded by Civil War sites. One of the most productive we have hunted is Johnsonville, across the river from Benton County. This was a large supply depot that served General Sherman's army during the Atlanta Campaign. The First Kansas Battery, Second U.S. Colored Artillery, Forty-third Wisconsin Infantry, Twelfth, Thirteenth, One Hundredth, One Hundred and Seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, and the Eleventh U.S. Tennessee Cavalry guarded this depot. On November 4, 1864, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched an attack on the depot and destroyed it. Most of this site is now covered with water, after the forming of Kentucky Lake in the 1940s; the rest is now a state park.
About ten years ago, Roy discovered a campsite on the outskirts of the park. Over the years this site has produced buttons, breastplates, U.S. buckles, box plates, bayonets, patriotic buttons and pins, and a Confederate "I" button (probably a souvenir lost by one of the soldiers), and numerous other camp items. And of course there are the hundreds of dropped bullets that we found. Being so close to the depot, the troops were obviously well supplied. One of the most unique items found by Roy is a solid silver I.D. tag measuring 3/8" wide and 3/4" long, with "W. Hays 107 CO H" engraved on it.
After searching the Union rosters on the Internet, I found Hays' record number and sent a request to the National Archives for copies of his records. When we received them, we found out he was 30 years old when he enlisted on September 1, 1864. He died on February 4, 1865, of a chronic gastrointestinal disorder. That is what makes this hobby so interesting- digging up a piece of history, tracing it back, holding it, and thinking of where it has been and who held it, and for a brief moment going back in time. After all the years we have been hunting this site, we can still return and uncover another forgotten fragment of the past. And although the finds may get scarce, we always come back with something, even if it is just a few bullets. On our last hunt of the season, we recovered several bullets, two Eagle buttons, and a wedding band (found by Roy).
One of our favorite places to hunt is Dover, Tennessee, where the battle of Fort Donelson took place. We both have ancestors who fought in this battle: 2nd Lt. James Nunnery, 49th Tennessee Infantry, and George M. Keele, 4th Tennessee Cavalry, under the command of General Forrest. One spring-like day in February, Roy and I headed out to Fort Donelson, to an area I had been researching. This area was a hill about 500 yards in front of the Confederate trenches. That hill is where the 2nd and 4th Illinois cavalries were located, and where artillery fire from inside the trench line was aimed as Confederates swept up the hill onto the Union lines.
After finding the general area and receiving permission from the landowner, we unpacked our detectors and headed to the bottom of the hill to begin searching toward the Union line. After a few minutes I started finding a few round balls and an occasional Minie. Seeing Roy a few yards away, I hollered, "I think we're in the right spot!" After losing sight of each other as we headed up the hill, we were each in our own world, thinking of the men climbing the hill, firing and being fired at, long ago.
Roy and I, like other relic hunters, like to play tricks on our hunting buddies. Usually, we meet up after a few hours to check out each other's finds. Of course, most of the time one of us will say, "You won't believe what I found." This could be a genuine "Wow!" or a "You got me!" piece of junk. A few hours after separating, we met at the top of the hill to discuss our progress. Sure enough, as I opened my pouch to reveal the handful of Minie and round balls that I'd found, Roy responded with the familiar, "You won't believe what I found!" Holding my hand out, expecting a fruit jar lid imitating a breast plate, I was shocked when he laid a 6 No. Confederate shell with a Bormann fuse intact and punched at 1-1/2 seconds. I was just as excited as he was, and I didn't even find it! This is why hunting with a buddy is twice the fun.
A few weeks later, after doing some more research, we headed to Colombia, Tennessee, to an area where Nathan Bedford Forrest's troops had camped. After obtaining permission, we started to scan the field for evidence of a campsite. However, within a few minutes, we knew that it had been hunted before. Nevertheless, we kept working, because we believe a site is never hunted out. Then I got a reading about 6" deep. Digging down about 5", I then pulled out my pinpointer. (Those things are worth their weight in gold!) Probing the loose dirt, I came out with a very nice Eagle "I" button with 80% gilt still on it. Either the Union army had camped here, too, or the button was lost as they marched into Colombia after the retreat of the Confederates.
An hour went by, and suddenly Roy yelled at me from the middle of the field, "Come over here!" As I got closer, I could see a look on his face that said- what else?- "You won't believe what I found!" As I held out my hand, sensing this was no joke, he laid in it the wreath half of a "CS" sword belt plate. With my mouth still gaping in awe, I heard him suggest, "Maybe we could still find the other half." We searched the field until almost sundown with no luck; maybe someone else had found the missing half.
With several bullets and a piece of broken sword scabbard, we headed home excited about the items we had recovered, knowing that they were probably lost by Forrest's troops. As we drove, Roy would open his hand every few miles, show me the wreath, and just grin. The excitement was still there!
The coming of spring and summer brings with it an abundance of ticks and snakes in western and middle Tennessee, and thus an end to our relic hunting season. So, it will be back to the maps and books to look for new prospects until the next hunting season. Every day brings it closer, and we can already feel the excitement building up in us once more.