There exist in the realm of relic hunting certain anomalies which we stumble over every now and then. They are the things that shouldn't exist, but do... in areas where they shouldn't be found, but are. I guess that is one of the facets of using a metal detector that makes recoveries so interesting. You never know what the next shovelful of earth is going reveal!
The relics we manage to recover are the footprints left by soldiers past... the imprint of lives and times long gone. For those unnamed, who lie beneath the forest floor, or beneath stones marked unknown, these relics are the minor monuments to their ever having existed. In some cases, these recoveries serve to illustrate and illuminate certain aspects of history; or, in rare incidences; they serve as evidence to support some vague or shadowy incident from our nation's early history. Such is the case of this British regimental belt plate... this little footnote in history.
For decades I had roamed the cornfields and the deep woods, the fort sites and battlefields, skirmish areas and creek crossings, in hopes of finding such a significant relic. On these relic hunts I was no stranger to musketballs and buttons, cannonballs or grapeshot... but a marked plate always eluded me. I was searching the types of sites where this elusive type of relic could have been expected to be found... where it should have been sealed beneath the layers of soil... but wasn't.
Over those long years, those tens of thousands of cut plugs of earth, the countless tons of removed soil, you'd have expected that at least once Lady Luck would've sat on your shoulder, and you'd find a small rectangle of Colonial-era brass bearing a regimental number, sitting in the bottom of a hole, staring back at you. At least I thought that was the way it was going to be!
Who would have suspected that a 47th British regimental plate would be found more than 75 miles from where it had been surrendered, on the morning of October 17, 1777, as a condition of the Convention of Saratoga?
In the annals of the American Revolution, the 47th Regiment of Foot was far from being an unknown corps. They had arrived in Boston in October of 1774, and had fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill. In 1776 they went to the relief of Quebec, and then served under General John Burgoyne until he surrendered at Saratoga in 1777. They fought at Bemis Heights and Freeman's Farm... faced Kosciuzko's battlements... engaged troops led by Benedict Arnold... and listened to the eerie howling of wolves as they savaged their fallen comrades on the moonlit battlefields.
If ever a relic could tell its story, or give us a view of the events it had witnessed, I would love for this belt plate to be that relic!
In the surrender agreement, it was stipulated that Burgoyne's army, once it had grounded its arms, would be allowed to leave North America, having promised never to fight here again. In due course, the surrender of seven generals, 300 other officers, 3,379 British, and 2,202 German soldiers became fact. In addition, the Americans had captured all of the remaining cannon, and all existing military stores.
Interestingly enough, this small piece of numerically engraved brass stands as evidence to the repudiation of the surrender terms agreed to following the battle of Saratoga. In the signed agreement, Burgoyne's troops were to turn over their weapons and cartridge boxes, among other "public stores." Fearing that the British troops, once released, would join Howe's command in New York, Congress eagerly sought any means to repudiate the agreement.
One of the trivial points which Congress used to deny the fulfillment of the surrender terms, was a discrepancy in the number of cartridge boxes and belts which were laid down on the Field of Grounded Arms. It would seem that around such small details world events turn!
Let's leave the story of the 47th belt plate for just a second to illustrate a small point. In my office, amid a collection of recovered artifacts, exists a German flag captured in Belgium during WWII. Near it is a Japanese belt, fabricated from a fire hose, recovered on Iwo Jima. There's also the Japanese Navy lock my father brought back from Saipan, along with several Japanese bayonets. Old footlockers across the nation are filled with captured war souvenirs that U.S. G.I.'s brought back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
For the better part of three decades I have taught social studies and history at the elementary and middle school level, and it never fails that once we hit the World War II era, grandfathers and now great-grandfathers open up their hidden stashes and display cases and send their grandchildren to school with mementos of their days of combat. Such was the case with the 47th belt plate.
Once placed on that Field of Grounded Arms in October of 1777, evidently it was quickly snatched up by some needy or enterprising young rebel, and added to his equipment. When he marched back to his home in Greene County, New York, it probably sat on his mantle, beneath his musket, for the remainder of his life. It was the evidence of his having been at the battle which many consider to be the turning point of the American Revolution... it was a prop around which to weave fireside tales to his grandchildren as they heard the story before the hearth, of Gramps and his tangle with "Johnny Burgoyne's Boys" back when he was a young soldier. With the passage of time and the passing of a young soldier turned old veteran... with the drying of leather belts and cartridge boxes from the heat of countless fires... the captured box and belt may have provided the needed equipment for a young boy "playing soldier" around his family's farmhouse.
Because of that dried and cracked leather, combined with the lack of care and sense of history, so profound with the young, the belt plate was lost, only to become covered with the leaves of countless falls and the snows of countless winters, until its recovery several years ago.
Each time I held that 47th belt plate in my open palm, I could almost feel the life and death struggles through which it had been... I could almost glimpse the events to which it had borne witness... and, I could almost faintly hear the birthing cries of a new and powerful nation coming into existence...