Summertime, And The Diggin' Is Easy
By: Sid Witherington
I have been metal detecting for Civil War artifacts since 1989, and I have found them in many different settings. I recovered most of my 88 belt plates, 500+ buttons, and over 6,000 bullets from residential yards within 45 minutes of my home in Germantown, Tennessee. I have also recovered many artifacts from agricultural fields and wooded areas.
It is possible to detect all year long here in west Tennessee, unlike other areas of the country that have harsh winters, and the best time is before and after deer hunting season. I prefer to hunt in the winter, as summers in the South can be oppressively hot and humid. The yards that I find so productive are manicured, and owners are not as open to the idea of someone digging hundreds of holes when they are trying to impress the "Yard of the Month" committee. In the summer the woods in this area are horrible with briars, fire ants, spiders, and snakes. The fields are all planted, and farmers do not want anyone digging or trampling their crops. In short, the options for productive sites in the summer are few and far between.
One type of potentially relic-rich locations actually increases in the summer months in the Mid-South, however: construction sites. For example, every summer dozens of subdivisions and businesses go up in the suburbs around Memphis. Since I have been searching this area for years, I know where the troops were, and whenever I see one of these areas being graded off, I am there! Historically I have had no problem getting permission to search these areas. A helpful hint: some foremen at these sites have insurance concerns. To ease their fears of injury, signing a release that you will exempt them from any liability while you hunt the site is helpful.
The key to being successful at construction sites is to get permission from the person in charge, and to get there first and before they move much dirt. I am always amazed, after searching a site with numerous types of detectors, to discover how much more can be found by removing even a couple of inches of dirt.
A few years ago, I hunted a construction site in a nearby town where a huge business is now located, and when they graded off the road I found 400 bullets, two Mississippi buttons, a Confederate plate, parts of guns, old coins, and all the usual odds and ends that are found in Civil War camps. I later learned, after talking to some old relic hunters, that the site was a Mississippi camp, but was difficult to hunt due to the undergrowth and a chicken farm in the middle of the site. Every time I thought I had hunted it out, the workers would remove an inch or two, and I would find dozens more artifacts. I use top-of-the-line detectors, and I could never understand how much difference this made. Nevertheless, I have repeated this particular scenario many times at many different construction sites with different types of soil. It makes me wonder how much I have left behind in all those yards where I could not dig fire pits.
Some of the best artifacts I have found were dug from construction sites. These include a rare gold coin, Spanish coins from the 18th century, a Confederate belt plate, Confederate spurs, six Union belt plates, hundreds of bullets and dozens of buttons, both Union and Confederate.
I get a warm feeling whenever I pass by a former Civil War/construction site that I have hunted- a sense of satisfaction that I have done my part to help save something of our nation's past. I particularly get this feeling when I take my artifacts in to my American history classes and show them what I dug up on the weekend.
My inspiration for writing this article at this time is that this summer they graded off four Civil War campsites within ten miles of my house. These sites are being prepped for construction simultaneously, and I had exclusive permission to search three of them. I dug 30 bullets in June, and 65 in July. I also dug eight buttons, one a general staff button with 90% of the gold on it, an eagle breastplate, two round "US" bridle rosettes, a "US" bit rosette, part of a "US" buckle, part of another rectangular sword belt plate, a whole Gallagher carbine cartridge, and two carbine sling tips ("bat wings"). Another huge camp site is due for construction near historic LaGrange, Tennessee. I am really looking forward to that development because I dug 350 bullets on that property and several plates in the mid 1990s.
I guess what I am trying to say is, don't sit at home in the summer because it is too hot or the yards, fields, and woods are off limits. Find a construction site with its soft dirt and no undergrowth and try your luck. It can be the best metal detecting experience of them all!