As seen in the September 2004 edition of W&ET Magazine
Relic Diggin' In Virginia
By: Ed Fedory
They came from all over the country- from the frosty fields of New England... from the western deserts... from the deep South... from the shores of the Great Lakes. They came and gathered on a small, seemingly empty field in northern Virginia, and prepared to make their dreams come true. Expectations and hopes ran high, expressed in the accents of their home states: New York... Wisconsin... Pennsylvania. There were local boys from Virginia, combined with the easy drawls of Florida and Georgia. And although they sought relics of the Civil War, rarely were the terms Yankee or Rebel heard in conversation. A common denominator existed: all were relic hunters.
This Civil War era photograph shows part of the 1862-63 Union encampment we would be digging that weekend.
The winter encampment we would be searching was located at Stoneman's Switch, on the Potomac Creek. In December of 1862, the Union Army, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, arrived outside of Fredericksburg and planned to push on to Richmond, 50 miles away. They immediately began the construction of a short-term camp. The First Division of the 5th Corps was ordered to encamp at Stoneman's Switch. A few days later, the Federal Army advanced across the Rappahannock and attacked the Confederate Army, but was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Pushed back across the river, the Union Army returned to their previous encampments and began making substantial improvements to face their next adversaries, winter and boredom.
On the last day of the hunt, all of the recovered relics were put on display, among them this musket lock and bridle rosette.
I couldn't wait to start digging!
This early photo of the site shows a lot of undug ground. It certainly didn't look that way two days later!
Let me just preface this little part of the story by admitting that I am a relative newcomer when it comes to Civil War relic hunting. It's something like what we do in upstate New York, but in other respects, it's a whole different experience. This little excerpt from an entire weekend of digging should only go to prove the old saying that, "Even a blind pig can find an acorn once in awhile."
By combining surface hunting and hut digging, Troy Galloway was able to recover quite a number of bullets and a beautiful carbine sling buckle.
Before I was able to recover that first target, the blood running down my thumb told me I had found some broken glass. I repaired back to the truck, bandaged myself up, and then put my gloves on. I continued digging, pulling fragments of a broken patent whiskey bottle as I went, and was finally able to reach into the depths of the hole and pull the target out. It wasn't whole, and the rust and corrosion bespoke the years it had been in the ground, but I could still easily identify it... the remains of an Eagle breastplate. It was the first metallic target I was to dig on that wonderful weekend.
My relic hunting partner, Charlie, came over to lend a hand with the digging, and Ed and George soon arrived at the side of the ever-expanding hole to offer some well needed, not to mention appreciated, advice on just how to dig out a hut. To these fellows, digging a hut was second nature. They could read the ground and tell us the direction in which to dig by following the clay walls of the former hut. They were speaking in a "language" I didn't understand too well, at first, but by the end of the weekend I could pretty much understand all of the lessons they were throwing my way. I think there's a pretty good reason why we have two ears and only one mouth. I listened... I learned.
Seeing light for the first time in over 140 years, Chuck Acton's "US" belt plate was in perfect condition!
By 7:35, the soil was flying, as individual Union hut sites from the winter of 1862-63 were located. More than just relic hunting, we were acting as preservationists. The property was in the process of being sold to a developer, and we were searching and recovering just ahead of the bulldozers that would soon erase the existence of the camp once the foundations for new housing were put in place.
Slowly, as each hut was identified and dug, the lines and layout of the camp were revealed. I found this to be one of the most amazing aspects of the hunt. I could almost visualize the camp... its avenues between huts situated back-to-back... the fire pits... the parade grounds... the officers' huts, set off from those of the enlisted men.
Throughout the weekend there were numerous times when all of the diggers would drop what they were doing to watch the recovery of an interesting relic as it was eased from the walls or floor of a hut. People would gravitate to the site, drawn like iron filings to a magnet, as they watched a "US" buckle, Eagle breastplate, or bottle slowly emerge from the soil. The experiences were shared, with never an envious word being uttered. I guess it was a form of recharging your personal batteries... your enthusiasm... your will to keep on digging, when you saw the continued successes of others. Everyone encouraged and helped one another... wished each other luck... patted each other on the back, both literally and figuratively. I liked that aspect of the hunt. I think I liked that aspect of the hunt the most!
Finding this Eagle crossbelt plate led Gary Crist and his wife into a hut that yielded dozens of Civil War projectiles!
We removed the sod and began digging out the soil, checking constantly with our detectors for metal targets, and yet slowly enough so that we didn't smash any bottles that the hut might've contained. We didn't have to worry much on that account, as our next hut didn't contain a single bottle. Other than some percussion caps, buckshot, and a couple of dropped Minies, our hut was pretty free of discarded material. There were some real "neat freaks" in that Union encampment, and Charlie and I seemed to have the roadmap that led to all of them!
Big Mike, another newcomer to hut digging, was lucky enough to find a hut that held three perfect umbrella inks and a wide assortment of relics.
We wandered over to George Simmers' hut site and couldn't believe the depth of the floor. Later in the afternoon, George would pull a beautiful green cathedral bottle from beneath some heavy rocks in the bottom of the hole. I learned something about the patience needed to properly dig out a hut from George that day.
The heavy barrel hoop that led Mike to dig on his hut site made an interesting accent piece for his displayed relics.
Ernest Bower, from New Jersey, was continually being called away from his hut site to identify unfamiliar relics, and on more than one occasion that weekend, I had to consult his expertise when something unknown to me would surface.
Also on hand was Michael O'Donnell, co-author of American Military Belt Plates. Personable and informative, Mike spent a good deal of time photographing the numerous finds being made.
As I mentioned earlier, the story behind this dig is big, and while I've only been able to scratch the surface about the events of the hunt, and primarily focus on the metallic relics recovered on the site, I hope to follow up shortly with a column on the non-metallic recoveries made during that weekend.