By: Sid Witherington
For a relic hunter research is vital, as is public relations. Detailed recordkeeping also is important in order to secure a historical perspective. Indeed, the recordkeeping phase can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the hobby.
Recording finds daily and monthly can allow you to compile totals and even graph yearly results. Site maps with individual artifacts plotted in color- for example, red X's for bullets, yellow discs for coins, blue for belt plates, and orange for buttons- can help in planning future trips to the site by revealing areas of concentration. Pulling out an old site map can also be extremely rewarding, offering an opportunity to sit back and reflect on all the relics likely still awaiting recovery just down the road.
If you keep records in detail and hunt long enough, you will find that certain types of artifacts tend to surface in groups or even in cycles. You may find many old coins one year, and the next year very few. Types of plates can also fit into this pattern.
Lately, my relic hunting friends and I have been finding almost all breastplates. Over the years, I have read articles about the large numbers of breastplates that other hunters find. Usually, the reason given for this is that the Federal breastplates provided a nice, bright target in the center of the chest for keen-eyed Southern sharpshooters, and the Yankees discarded them quickly. Unfortunately, the high recovery rate reported by other relic hunters was not the case with me. I found 20 other types of plates before I found my first breastplate. Today, however, I have over 20 breastplates, and it's still a thrill to find them.
We hunt Civil War camps in the Mid-South along old roads and railroad routes, at strategic sites on local rivers, and in old towns that were occupied by both armies. These areas have been hunted for years, yet we still manage to locate untouched camps every year, some of them quite large. We can always find something.
My brother-in-law, Bill Bugg of Bartlett, Tennessee, found one of these untouched camps last March. So far, he has found a cartridge box plate, half of another "US" plate, two breastplates, a South Carolina button (rare in west Tennessee), a 1791 Spanish real, a choice 1853 quarter, a brass sword guard, numerous other buttons, Union and Confederate spurs, and over 250 bullets.
In the last year and a half, I have unearthed six breastplates, two of them a quarter-mile from Germantown High School, where I teach. In fact, I have dug over 40 belt plates within two miles of the school since 1989, which is nice since it is only two miles from my house.
This brings us to the relic hunt of April 18, 2003. Bill Bugg, Troy McGaugh, Jimmy Lowery, Troy Galloway of Troy Custom Detectors, and I went on an all-day relic hunt down Highway 57 east of Memphis, hitting several Civil War camps. The most impressive site was Woodlawn Plantation in LaGrange, Tennessee, which was used as a headquarters by General Sherman and the Union army in 1862. The entire town of LaGrange became a huge Civil War camp used by U.S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Earl Van Dorn, and Sterling Price, to mention a few.
Within a ten-mile radius of LaGrange, an estimated 500+ belt plates have been found over the years. I have excavated 12 in this area, and John Marks, one of the best known relic hunters in the region, dug 66 belt plates from one camp in LaGrange.
Troy Galloway had come up from Dallas, Texas to talk to our club (the Memphis Metal Detecting Club) about his company's new Shadow X5 metal detector, and we promised him an interesting relic hunt the next day.
Everyone found bullets, buttons, tent rings, and knapsack parts at Woodlawn, but the area was grown up; so, after a nice lunch in nearby Grand Junction, Tennessee (also a huge camping area in the war), we searched a field along the railroad in LaGrange. Again, everyone found bullets and buttons.
Next, we loaded up and headed back toward Memphis, to another site that was a 600-acre camp with both Union and Confederate occupation. In the past, I had found Wisconsin and Mississippi buttons only yards apart at this area. We hunted until dark, scoring more bullets and buttons, but no plates.
Finally, just before we were going to call it quits, Troy Galloway with his X5 found an eagle breastplate about a foot deep. Needless to say, we were all impressed; and later, as we said our goodbyes, we invited Troy to return in the winter when we could hunt the woods and fields with ease.
As we drove home, we reflected on an exhausting but rewarding day of exploring our nation's past. Heading east, toward home in the fading twilight, Bill and I surveyed each hill and meadow between Moscow and Germantown, debating on where the next breastplate might be lurking. We agree on one thing: they're out there, and we're going to find our share!