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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (05/2001) Relic Hunter (04/2001) Relic Hunter (06/2001)   Vol. 35 May 2001 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the May 2001 edition of W&ET Magazine

Relic Hunting Carolina Style

By: Ed Fedory
Photos By: Mike Mclellan

"Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Assign General Beauregard to duty under you, as you may select. Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman."- Letter from Robert E. Lee to General Joseph E. Johnston, February 22, 1865.

This order would result in the last tactical offensive the South would be able to mount against Union forces during the Civil War, and would become known in history as The Battle of Bentonville.

In the closing year of the Civil War, following Sherman's infamous "March to the Sea," it seemed to Ulysses S. Grant, commander of Federal forces, that a fatal and final blow could be dealt to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, if Sherman's forces could unite with Grant's Army of the Potomac. The original plan was for Sherman's forces to be ferried by sea to the front, but Sherman proposed another and more daring plan. He would drive north, through the heart of the Carolinas, with over 60,000 Union troops. His plan was accepted.

In a case of fortuitous good luck for the Union commander, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard split his forces to protect the cities of Charleston to the east, and Augusta, Georgia to the west, allowing Sherman's troops to strike, virtually unopposed, into the heart of South Carolina, leaving destruction and ruin in their wake.

Only North Carolina and "Old Joe" Johnston stood in his way.

Following Lee's orders, Johnston gathered the remains of his Army of Tennessee and other scattered Confederate troops to meet Sherman's northern drive. On March 19, 1865, at Cole's Plantation on the Goldsboro Road, Johnston's forces launched a massive series of attacks on elements of Sherman's left wing. Despite spirited attacks, the continually reinforced Union lines were able to hold back the Confederate advance.

As more Union forces arrived, a numerical superiority of 3-1 was quickly established; but even against such a Union juggernaut, heavy skirmishing continued for another two days before Johnston's troops withdrew across Mill Creek Bridge. In a little over a month, on April 26, 1865, "Old Joe" Johnston would lay down his arms at the Bennett Place, in the largest troop surrender of the Civil War.

The Battle of Bentonville would pass into history, but not fade from memory, especially for a group of North Carolina historians and relic hunters... and that part of the Bentonville epilogue would be filled with great adventures and the recovery of numerous battlefield relics!

One of the great pleasures I derive from writing this column, is the number of relic hunters I have the opportunity to meet and communicate with. They come from all walks of life, and their interests are as varied as the history of our country. They may hail from west Texas or New Hampshire... from the warm lands in the South, or from right in my own backyard. Yet as different as they may appear, we all share a common passion... we dig history!

It is not surprising that, living in New York, and mainly concentrating on the history of this and surrounding states during the Colonial period, I had never heard of the Battle of Bentonville; but once I started communicating with Mike Mclellan, and listened to the tales of recoveries made in his home state of North Carolina, I found my interest in "Relic Hunting Carolina Style" aroused!

There's something to be said for hitting the fields at dawn with a group of guys who share a common purpose, and I guess that is what was in the back of Phil Goodson's mind as he watched the group of relic hunters emerging from their trucks on the dirt farm road.

Before them lay several hundred acres of open fields which had seen the march of troops in the last century, and having earlier secured permission from property owners to hunt for Civil War relics, everyone was eager to begin swinging and digging. Phil had carefully researched the area, and he knew that some interesting and possibly significant finds would be made in the depths of the surrounding acres.

As with many relic hunts, the first signs of history and activity came in the form of fired and dropped projectiles- in this case, Minies of various calibers- but it wouldn't take long for some more important recoveries to be made.

The more common Eagle buttons began to surface during the morning portion of the hunt, but it was the South Carolina state seal button dug by Dave, and the North Carolina state seal button found by Ron, that let the team know that this relic hunt would be one of the truly great ones!

Continuing his search in the area of heavy thicket off the edge of the field where he had found the North Carolina button, Ron was surprised by a strong and long signal. Digging through the soil and roots, and noticing the rusty discoloration of the removed earth, is usually enough to get any relic hunter's heart thumping, but Ron Adkin's pulse really raced when he saw the long tube of a Civil War musket barrel in the bottom of the hole!

As my buddy Chuck is so fond of saying, "For a relic hunter, rust is a must!" and this fact can be attested to by Bill Schrontz after a side-hunt with some team members to Selma, North Carolina. According to Mike, the team had made some decent finds during the course of the daylong hunt in 90° temperatures, and most of the hunters had returned to their trucks, ready to bring the day of relic hunting to a close. Only Bill was left in the field, digging away at his last target of the day. Several pieces of worthless scrap iron had been pulled from the ground, but when Bill put the coil of his detector into the hole, there was still a loud, strong signal. The digging continued, and according to Mike, "All we could see was Bill from the waist down as he leaned over the ever-growing excavation. A couple of the guys got a big laugh out of the sight!" But Bill was to get the last laugh as he let out a yell and held a beautiful "US" belt plate high above his head!

"One of the best sites we found," related Mike, "was a fifty-acre tract of land in front of an old homestead." That relatively small area was to produce the largest number of Minies, uniform buttons, and other assorted Civil War era relics for the team. "It was the site of a Union troop encampment which had been held in reserve during the Battle of Bentonville- and it was a site we returned to many times, and never once came away from either disappointed or empty-handed!"

One of the things I found most interesting when viewing the finds made by Mike and the other members of the team was the variety of the objects they had been able to recover. While a substantial portion of the recoveries dated from the Battle of Bentonville, there were quite a number of finds dating from the Colonial period as well.

While searching an old river ford and picnic grove, which had been used by both Confederate and Union troops, they had been able to recover a number of pieces of Colonial era Spanish silver, as well as numerous early pewter and brass one-piece buttons... and the site of an old crossroad would prove to be the "mother lode" of interesting relics dating back to the earliest period of settlement in the area.

As I gaze out the window of my office, snowflakes are falling on January's frozen and rock-solid ground. It's a time when the thought of relic hunting brings to mind the need for pneumatic hammers and Carhart jumpsuits. It's also a time when I think about Mike's invitation to do some relic hunting, Carolina style.

...a warm and friendly thought on a cold, gray morning in New York State!

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