I'll never forget those days of playground metal detecting... days when you walked 50' from your car and found yourself in prime detecting. You didn't have to dig very deep, and in some cases, a mere shuffling around in the pebbles or sand with the tip of your boot was enough to make the target visible.
You didn't need to carry the supplies for the day on your back. You didn't drag along a first aid or snakebite kit, and if the bugs started buzzing around your head, it was simple enough to walk back to the car and call it quits for the day- or head to another nearby site.
They were the days when multiple Mercuries would give you bragging rights for a week, and a large cent would be enough to send you homeward bound with the knowledge that you had used up all of your luck.
They were very simple days. No need for any in-depth research... no complex historical puzzles to piece together from old journals and older maps. You were rarely skunked, usually coming home with some small treasures in your pocket.
I trust I don't sound overly nostalgic. I wouldn't go back to those days again. It's the bugs and the brush for me... the open fields where battles were fought, and the fate of nations rested upon the shoulders of grizzled veterans and raw recruits. Relic hunting is the game, and in many cases the ultimate challenge in the field of metal detecting.
Often, the real thrill of relic hunting will come when you least expect it, and generally after a lot of hard work and numerous frustrations. Such is the case with this story, related to me by relic hunter Richard Angelico. It's a story of luck... a story of painstaking research... a story of the deep woods and heck of a lot of legwork. Simply, just another neat story in the annals of relic hunting!
The search for the lost sites initially began with a friend's lead on some C.S.A. and Union picket posts and camps in the deep woods. There wasn't any map with a big X to guide their way... that would have made the job of finding the camps a heck of a lot easier. Instead, their information and research led the team on a search conducted in a large, general area filled with ravines, woods, and brush.
According to Rich, the heat index was hitting around 105°, and the team had hiked over ten miles in some of the worst conditions in which relic hunters can find themselves. "Plainly," Rich related, "we had become turned around so many times in the dense brush, and sliding down one side of a ravine, and crawling up the other, that eventually we became lost. We were actually in the process of calling it a day and attempting to find our way back to our cars and trucks, when I spied the shade of a large tree and called the others in to rest up. I think we all fell asleep for the better part of an hour."
At this point in the story, luck or perhaps coincidence entered, to turn what had hitherto been a day of arduous toil, sweat, and aching muscles into one of Rich's best relic hunting excursions. "When I woke up, I decided to swing my detector around for a while and let the others sleep. I didn't get very far before it started beeping on targets every couple of feet.
"It was a sound I had become very familiar with on previous trips... they sounded solid, and they sounded like lead. I dug my first target and was amazed to find myself holding a beautifully carved Minie ball a couple of minutes later. I continued to dig, and it didn't take me very long to put a dozen balls in my pouch. Then I woke everyone up and showed them what I had found!"
It wasn't that many years ago that I had a similar experience, when relic hunter Gene Salvino called across the open fields of a Revolutionary War site those magical words, "Musketballs!" From what we would later call "The Killing Field," we were about to pull over 100 fired musketballs from the soil in less than an hour. Rich was about to introduce the rest of his team to a very similar frenzied digging experience!
"Within a minute, everyone had their detectors in hand and were scouring the ground with their coils. At any given time, at least three out of the four of us were on our knees, digging our latest targets. Boyd found a nice ball, but before he could get to it, he had to pull a complete bayonet from the hole first! I thought he had used up all of his luck with that find... that is, until he recovered a perfect 'US' box plate from his next hole!
"We dug for the better part of an hour, adding more buttons, balls, bayonets, and plates to our collecting bags. Still, in the back of our minds, and despite the great success we were having there continued that one nagging thought: 'We don't know where we are... we don't know where our cars and trucks are parked... we are still lost!'"
The team was finally able to find a trail and make it back to their vehicles after another four hours of hiking. "We took a compass heading on a tower we could see, and later, with the aid of satellite pictures found on the internet, we were able to locate the exact area in which we had found the lost camp. Better than that, we were also able to find an easier way in and out of the site. On that first day, we estimated that we had hiked over 15 miles. That would be the last time we would do that much hiking... the next time, we'd have to do a lot more relic hunting!
"During the course of the next week our imaginations began running wild with the thoughts of what the campsite might still contain," Rich continued, "but as it turned out the first find of the second hunt was made without the aid of a metal detector. Hy and I were scrambling up a steep ravine, and we both passed something which Keith's sharp eyes found sticking out of the ground- another 'US' boxplate! From that point on, I made a vow to myself about keeping my eyes open at all times."
During subsequent trips back to the site, the team was able to recover over 1,000 Minie balls, several bayonets, a total of seven plates, numerous buttons from New York and Connecticut troops, bayonet scabbard tips, and a host of other interesting relics from the Civil War.
Listening to Rich tell his tale of lost camps and numerous recovered relics is enough to get any relic hunter's heart pumping. Up here in the Northeast, we rarely find the quantity of relics that Civil War sites often yield. When you look up the statistics on the number of troops engaged on the fields of combat, and compare the figures with those of the French & Indian War and the American Revolution, it is easy to see the reason behind so many recovered relics from that period of conflict. More soldiers died at Gettysburg during the first 36 hours than Burgoyne and Gates fielded during the entire Saratoga campaign!
It's easy to see, however, from Rich's story, that it takes a combination of luck, research, and a lot of legwork to make a successful hunt. I liked the part of his tale about waking up and finding himself surrounded by numerous targets... but I'm not so sure that I would have enjoyed taking part in that 15-mile blind trek through the deep woods!