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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (09/2004) Relic Hunter (08/2004) Relic Hunter (10/2004)   Vol. 38 September 2004 
The Relic Hunter
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.

Over the years, I've seen some pretty nice sites, and have witnessed more than my share of interesting relics coming from the ground. I thought I would be prepared for what might be found on the site, and for the amount of physical labor involved in the act of recovery. I was not as prepared as I thought I was. Few could have forecasted the sheer volume of relics I was to witness coming from the ground during those three days! I've covered some stories in the past that I thought were, well, big. Little did I know that we were onto something HUGE!

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.

I couldn't wait to start digging!

Arriving well before the time we could check into the hotel, we followed Ed and George Simmers to a field so we could get in a little surface hunting on our first day. We unpacked our digging tools and detectors and headed across the field, swinging our coils as we went. It wasn't long before I had my first signal... and my first un-dug hut!

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."

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.

At 7:30 the next morning more than 60 relic hunters and all their equipment were gathered on the field for a quick informational meeting. One of our hosts, John Kendrick, had opened up a couple of test pits to show some of us newcomers the type of coloration we should expect to find within the confines of a hut.

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.

Ed Simmers aided us in finding one of the officer's huts, and it didn't take long before we realized that the officer's orderly ran a very tight ship, keeping the hut immaculate. What Charlie and I needed to find was the hut of "The Regimental Slob"... the soldier who was just too darn lazy to take out his garbage... the one who used the corner of his hut for trash. There were more than a few of these, but we weren't lucky enough to find a hut of that type.

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!

By listening to the instructions and lessons given to us by Ed and George, and from watching and carefully observing the techniques of others, Charlie and I set out to find our next hut. We were listening for big, deep iron- barrel hoops, in particular. It seemed that the finishing touch placed on the top of a hut chimney was an oak barrel whose top and bottom had been removed. Eventually, when the barrel rotted away, the remaining iron bands would become a good marker for the hut fireplaces. Once we were able to establish the location of the deep iron, we used a steel probe to find the depths and limits of the hut floor. Then the real work began.

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!

When you needed a break from the digging, it was a common activity to walk around the various hut sites and see how everybody else was doing. The conversations were friendly, as other relic hunters would put down their shovels for a couple of minutes and talk about how their dig was going, point out little features they had uncovered, and show some of the artifacts of camp life they had uncovered.

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.

We sauntered over to where Chuck Acton and Lori Knowles were digging and saw the beautiful Eagle plate and "US" belt plate they had just recovered from a hut that was very shallow. Art was walking around with his beautiful "US" belt plate, the smile never leaving his face once that weekend, and we saw Mike from Florida digging away, pulling relic after relic from his hut site. Even though the guy's 6-1/2' tall, we rarely saw more than 3' of Mike at any one time. I don't think he took a single break during an entire day of digging in his hut.

Ed Simmers recovered a nice cartridge box plate while surface hunting, and lucky Gary Crist pulled an Eagle breastplate from the depths of the soil. We watched as buck and balls rolled out of the sides of the hut, as he worked on expanding the hole in an attempt to find the hut walls.

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.

"Mr. Lucky," also known as Donnie Smith, found the hut site of the regimental slob. For the better part of three days, Donnie worked his hut site and was rewarded with 11 fully intact bottles. Some really nice umbrella inks came from that site, not to mention a shopping list of desirable relics.

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.

Rarely have I had so much fun and learned so much while in the process of getting sunburned, blistered, glass-cut, and bruised... and I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat!

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