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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (01/2001) Relic Hunter (12/2000) Relic Hunter (02/2001)   Vol. 35 January 2001 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the January 2001 edition of W&ET Magazine

The Relics Of Artillery Hill

By: Ed Fedory
Photos By: Mark Swann

We bivouac on the cold, hard-frozen ground, and when we walk about, the echo of our footsteps sounds like the echo of a tombstone. The earth is crusted with snow, and the wind from the northwest is piercing our very bones. We see our soldiers with sunken cheeks and famine glistening eyes.

Such were the words of a Confederate soldier of General John Bell Hood's force as they awaited attack along the thinly stretched line outside the city of Nashville in December of 1864.

Hood was determined to recapture Nashville, which had been occupied by Union forces since 1862, and cut the Union supply lines to the South. In this way, he not only hoped to retake Tennessee, but to also starve the Union forces in Georgia into surrendering. There were only a few difficulties... primarily, General George Thomas and an effective Union army of about 70,000 soldiers.

Following the Battle of Franklin, only weeks before, his forces had been reduced from their original 34,000 to 26,000. By sending additional troops to Fort Rosecrans and others to build a fort on the Tennessee River, he further reduced his number of effectives to 21,000. Too few to attack, Hood's force awaited the inevitable tidal wave of blue along their five-mile defensive line. They wouldn't have long to wait.

In the pre-dawn hours of December 15, General George Thomas paid his bill at the Hotel Saint Cloud and joined his staff. The initial Union thrust would be on Hood's left flank, anchored by cannon and infantry.

By the end of the first day of fighting, Hood's left flank could not hold against the Union assault, and a new left flank position, atop Shy's Hill, had to be established.

Following an initial disastrous attack on Hood's right on Overton Hill, Thomas decided to once again attack on the Confederate left flank. With 5,000 troops anchoring the left, they were virtually swept from Shy's Hill by the far superior force of 40,000 Union soldiers. With his left flank annihilated, Hood watched as his entire defensive line collapsed before his eyes. The remaining Confederate forces made a hasty retreat down the Franklin Pike, and with them they took Hood's dream of recapturing Tennessee.

Over the years, plows would continue to bring relics of the Battle of Nashville to the surface, and while walking the dried creek beds one could find spent Minie balls and pieces of ordnance which had been dislodged from the banks with the spring rains. It was in such a world, and in such a place, that relic hunter Mark Swann grew up.

He had moved out of the area for a number of years, and it seemed a different Nashville to Mark when he returned. Suburban sprawl had covered many of his old relic hunting sites with houses and asphalt. You could no longer count the number of relic hunters in the field on one hand, and the attitude of landowners was one which made it difficult to gain access to, and permission to relic hunt, their properties.

As he pulled into the driveway of one particular house and surveyed the surrounding grounds, a flood of vivid memories returned. It had been on those same lawns that Mark's father, Hal Swann, had recovered 13 unexploded Confederate projectiles in one hole... and a place where Mark had "cut" his relic hunting teeth, with a vast array of recovered artifacts, decades before.

Knowing that the lands had changed ownership during his absence, Mark relied on the words his grandfather had spoken to him so often: "Son, it never hurts to ask permission." Knocking on the door, he was greeted by a young couple and their child. Mark introduced himself and, after a few pleasantries, asked permission to once again search the surrounding property. Without a second's hesitation came the reply, "Why, yes. We don't mind. Help yourself."- the very words that never fail to bring a smile to any relic hunter's face!

Later, while taking a short break in his hunt, Mark reflected on the part the top of that hill played during the Battle of Nashville. It had been used by Confederate artillery during the second day of the battle, and the stone wall which ran across the land had been used by rebel infantry to repel several Union frontal assaults.

As Mark tells it, "I had always been amazed by the tremendous concentrations of shot, shell, and cannonball fragments unearthed in this yard. To stand on that sacred ground today, gaze back into history, and attempt to visualize the intensity and fury of the battle, is both sobering and frightful."

Before Mark could continue with his search, the owner of the property approached to ask if he was having any luck. Mark replied that he had been able to recover a few fired balls, a nice Block I button, several friction primers, and a few shell fragments. Most of the targets had been found either near trash or at depths greater than some detectors could reach and had been missed. Mark also mentioned to the landowner that the grounds probably still contained a wealth of relics, but it would take a backhoe to reach them.

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