Found! Civil War Pistol
By: Duane E. Caldwell
Photos By: Leonard Short
It was October, and a large group of us had been relic hunting on a tract of private property between Hopewell, Virginia and the James River. A fort had once sat on the bank of the James a couple of miles away. Around and near the fort a great many relics had been found, and as with any well hunted site, the finds were still good, but they were coming less often. Three brothers— Leonard, Mike, and Dennis— and I had decided to spend the day searching an area away from the fort, in hopes of finding a stray artillery shell that had overshot the fort, or perhaps an undiscovered cavalry camp. Research, along with recent finds in the area, indicated that during the war the cavalry camps had been moved well away from the fort to offer some protection to the horses from the constant bombardment of artillery.
Because of the nature of our search, I was using the all-metal mode of my Minelab Sovereign, in hopes of finding either some shell fragments, an entire shell, or at least numerous small iron targets indicating a possible camp. I was also using “reverse discrimination” in my search, first finding targets in all-metal mode and then rechecking them in discriminate mode.
We spread out through the woods, staying just close enough to keep sight of each other, and then began working our way along, generally following a creek. We checked the high, flat areas along the sides of the creek, running loose patterns. By early afternoon, my finds were meager. A couple of buck balls and a handful of shotgun shell brass were all I had to show. The brothers had a few nice finds, though, including a large, flat button, harmonica reed, and some unknown brass item. At least these were enough encouragement to keep us going.
Around 2:00 p.m. we came to an area that had a large concentration of iron targets. We later found out that this was an old Colonial house site that had previously been pounded by other relic hunters. They must have done a good job, too, because I never got any positive hits in the whole area. After a while, I noticed that my hunting buddies had disappeared from my site. I went in the general direction where I had last seen them, and found them all digging in one small area.
As I approached them, they said that they had just dug several horseshoes all in this one spot, which was maybe as large as a truck bed. As soon as I joined them I got a large iron target and also dug a horseshoe. This was about my sixth horseshoe for the day, since I was digging all the larger iron signals, but none of the other shoes had come from a spot where there was such a concentration of them. We all agreed that this was either a place where a number of horses had been tied up, or else a blacksmith’s shop. Considering that there were no other large amounts of scrap iron, it must have been where a number of horses had been reshod... indication of a cavalry camp! We decided that maybe it would be good to give this area a bit more than just a passing sweep of the coil.
From the “horse shoe graveyard” I walked about 20' straight down toward the creek, working a close search pattern all the way. I then turned about 90° and went another 20', then turned again about 90° and came back up to about the same level where we had hit the horseshoes. I got another large iron target right there. I looked over at where we had just dug, and figured maybe there was a “line” of horseshoes along the gentle slope. I plunged my shovel into the ground and felt it hit iron just beneath the surface.
I bent down and folded back the rough plug, hoping for a shell or at least a frag. Looking at the shape, I saw something round but not large enough to be a shell. I brushed away some dirt and saw a funny lever-looking thing sticking out. Suddenly, the shapes became recognizable to me, and I shouted out, “Hey, you guys, come here! You won’t believe this!” What I had seen was the cylinder of a gun, and the hammer sticking out above the frame.
I let everyone get there before digging it out of the hole, so that we could all share the experience. At this point, I didn’t even know if it was a complete gun or, more likely, just part of a broken and discarded firearm. After pictures were taken of the relic still in the hole, finally it was time to get it out. A few strokes of the shovel blade made quick work of a couple of clinging roots, and I pulled the gun free. It was complete!
A small celebration ensued, more pictures were taken, and the gun was eagerly passed around. We decided that a good search of the area was now in order, so we spread out a bit and went to it. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I hadn’t checked the hole yet to see if anything else might be there. After all, this gun might have been in a holster, and some nice brass attachments from that would be really nice. A small signal in the hole revealed the icing on the cake. I found the iron screw with the two brass nuts that had held the grips on the gun. Now it was complete.
It wasn’t until a week later that I would discover just how “complete” this find was. To keep the air from further rusting now that it was removed from the soil, I had wrapped it in a damp towel and sealed the whole thing in a plastic bag. The following weekend, I decided to do some preliminary cleaning, just enough to get the rest of the loose dirt off and see how much of the covering on the gun was rust, and how much was dirt. As I carefully cleaned around the cylinder, I saw what appeared to be a percussion cap still in place. I then brushed some dirt from the front of one of the chambers in the cylinder, and there was the nose of a lead bullet! A little more careful cleaning revealed that all of the chambers were loaded!
Wow! My find suddenly gained a whole new significance. Not only had I found a complete cavalry pistol from the Civil War, but it was still loaded with the very bullets that were put there by some unknown soldier over 140 years ago. Obviously, my mind has been reeling ever since with all of the possible scenarios of how this gun came to be lost.
As of this writing, I still do not know if there is a bullet loaded in the top, ready-to-fire chamber of the gun. Until it is fully cleaned and restored, I will not be able to tell. If by chance the top chamber has been fired. Whatever the answer, it will only add a whole new series of possibilities. What happened after this soldier got off one shot— if indeed he did?
I have found some amazing Civil War relics in the past 30+ years, but this will probably be the best I have ever found. I don’t know how I could possibly top this find, but then again, I never thought I would surpass my last one. To me, the pistol’s historical significance far outweighs any dollar amount you could put on it: it is priceless. I don’t know how many fully loaded Civil War pistols have been found in the past, but I would venture to say very few. I have seen literally hundreds of belt plates found in my time, and personally saw five Confederate plates dug this year... but I haven’t heard of any other relic like this one.
I will close with a little bit of advice for relic hunters. Dig iron. Especially the big iron targets. Right after I found the pistol, Mike asked his brothers, “Who dug this iron ring? He held up a ring about 3" in diameter that was leaning up against a tree. It was obvious that it had been dug by a relic hunter; however, a close look at the hole beside the tree indicated that it had been dug probably within the past year, but not that day. Someone had been within 8' of this gun and either missed it or decided not to dig it because it was an iron target. Too bad for them. Considering the lack of any positive targets in the area, we felt that it had been hit before. And with all the large iron targets there (horseshoes) it is also likely that someone dug some horseshoes, got tired of the big iron signals, and quit digging them. I am grateful that they left this one for me... but don’t you make the same mistake.
DUANE E. CALDWELL, 54, is a USPS letter carrier. He has been metal detecting for over 33 years, and is known on the internet and to his relic hunting buddies as “Buzzardjaws,” a nickname he has had since he was a teenager. Readers who wish to e-mail Duane may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org