"Furniture of all sorts is strewn upon the streets. Every namable household utensil or article of furniture, stoves, crockery, glassware, pot, kettles, and tins are scattered and smashed and thrown everywhere, indoors and out, as if there had fallen a shower of them in the midst of a mighty whirlwind."
So wrote one Union soldier on December 12, 1862, after viewing the destruction of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Over 140 years later, we would find evidence of that looting and vandalism in the Union 5th Corps huts we would be digging!
The occupation of Fredericksburg, so strategically located on the banks of the Rappahannock River, and the north-south rail corridor for supplying troops, would eventually end in complete failure for the Union Army of the Potomac. From the time when advance troops of the Union Army mounted the hills above the Rappahannock on November 17, until the Union troops finally assaulted the opposite shoreline, three weeks would pass, delayed by bureaucratic mix-ups and the need for a pontoon bridge with which to span the swollen waters.
As Union engineers attempted to span the waters of the Rappahannock, General William Barksdale's Mississippi sharpshooters put a halt to the construction with long-distance and accurate firing from buildings lining the shoreline. In an attempt to dislodge the Mississippians, a withering bombardment from 150 cannons was brought to bear on the city. Still the Mississippians fired on, only to be pushed back when pontoon boats were used to ferry the 7th Michigan and 19th Massachusetts regiments. Later, supported by the 20th Massachusetts, the fighting became house to house and street to street as Union troops sought to clear the city of its defenders. The fighting became so heated, that in one 5-yard section of Caroline Street, the 20th Massachusetts lost 97 officers and men. Eventually, the city was taken... at least momentarily.
On December 13th, General Ambrose Burnside attempted to dislodge Lee's force of 78,000 from their well-entrenched positions on the heights beyond the city. It would prove a disaster, as wave after wave of Union soldiers were cut down. With a loss of over 13,000 troops, Burnside retreated across the Rappahannock River, leaving the field of battle and the victory to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
The thoroughly demoralized Union troops returned to their camps along the rail lines to spend the winter... and we would be digging those camps!
The day after Election Day found us aboard an early morning flight heading toward Washington, D.C. I don't know if the altitude of the jet could possibly have been higher than our hopes and dreams of three great days of digging Union hut sites. The event was Diggin' in Virginia II, and we knew that if the results of this hunt were anything like the hunt in March, some really interesting relics would be seeing the light of day. Little did we know at the time, but this hunt would far exceed any of our expectations!
By early afternoon, we were at the motel unpacking our gear, assembling our detectors, and watching from the second-story windows as a small army of relic hunters began arriving. It wasn't long before old friends were met, and relic hunting stories began to fill the air. It was easy to see that everyone was eager to attend the evening meeting, when we would be given the historical background of the site we would be digging the following day. Even the weather forecast predicting a day of downpours couldn't dampen our spirits- this was truer after the evening meeting, where we were informed of the huge size of the site and the number of huts we could expect to find... literally hundreds of them!
The following morning, under a canopy of steel-gray skies, we began the hunt. Originally, Charlie and I had planned to spend the first morning surface hunting, but when one of our Virginia buddies, Ed Simmers, pointed us toward a likely hut site, we dropped our detectors and headed back to Ed's truck for the big shovels!
As we began digging, the clouds opened up with a steady rain, accompanied by a cold and relentless wind. I've dug under worse conditions, but for the life of me, I can't remember when! As the depth of our hole grew, we noticed bits of charcoal and patches of ash, a sure sign that we were likely digging into the remains of a hut. Scant seconds later, the tip of my shovel hit something hard in the floor of the hole. Charlie and I widened the growing pit and soon found that we had dug directly into the brick hearth of our first Union hut!
With the wind blowing and the rain pouring, I found that my raincoat was serving only one purpose... that of funneling the rain down my pants, and down my back. I glanced over at Charlie, and he certainly didn't seem any drier. We checked our watches, saw that we still had another three hours of remaining daylight, and then stared at the growing puddle of muddy water on the floor of the hut. We looked at each other, and all I could think of was the wisdom of a Civil War era belle. "Yeah, Scarlet," I said to myself. "Tomorrow is another day!"
We trudged across the muddy field about two inched taller than when we first arrived, due to the amount of clay clinging in clods to the bottom of our boots. We were like two drowned rats, yet secure in the knowledge that a warm shower, dry clothes, and a hot meal were in our immediate future!
The following morning, under bright skies, we continued digging the hut we had started the previous day. About six inches off the edge of the brick hearth, we uncovered our first bottle base. We sent a collective prayer aloft that the bottle would be intact, and then began the slow process of removing the surrounding soil with the aid of a Swiss Army knife. The bottle was indeed intact, and a few minutes later Charlie was holding a perfect patent whisky bottle.
"I see the side of another bottle," he said. "Go for it!"
I climbed into the bottom of the hole, and once again we went through the slow process of carefully extracting the second bottle. Like the first, it too was intact, but this time it was a green, flat-sided gin bottle. We placed both bottles in a soil-filled bag so that the sun would not heat them up, causing possible fractures.
The next four bottles and a whisky jug were smashed. One was an amber Plantation bitters bottle in the shape of a log cabin, and it was a shame to see it lying there on the floor of the hut in dozens of pieces. It would have been a beautiful bottle to add to any collection!
With a couple of complete bottles, some bullets, and a number of buttons to our credit, we decided to take a break from digging and roam around the site to see how some of our fellow relic hunters were doing in their huts. Charlie and I thought we were doing really well until we saw some of the relics being found on the floors and in the walls of surrounding huts. We were amazed!
Stopping at the closest hut, being dug by Mike Childers, we found that Mike had recovered a nice array of bullets and buttons, along with a very restorable bayonet. What was interesting about Mike's hut site was the fact that the brick hearth he had uncovered was in perfect alignment with the hearth in ours, suggesting that both huts were facing a company road. This led us to an idea of where other hut sites might be located. However, what seemed to be a great theory proved a lot more difficult when put into actual practice.
Doug King came to us with his freshly dug "US" belt plate, but what later astounded us was when we saw him walking around with a piece of rusty iron against his chest. It wasn't until we had gotten a little closer that we realized that Doug was "modeling" the left side of a piece of Civil War body armor!
The site was very expansive, and as we walked and talked, we learned a great deal of what camp life must have been like, and something of the odd assortment of items contained in many of the huts. We saw the remains of a large chamber pot, and furniture casters- pieces of crocks and pitchers that neither soldiers would have carried, nor sutlers sold- all evidence of the looting of Fredericksburg. All I could think of was what a strange site it must have been, that long, blue line of 5th Corps soldiers carrying back all those household items to help get them through the winter of 1862-63!
Grabbing a couple of sodas, we headed toward the far end of the camp. A group had gathered around one of the hut sites, the obvious sign that something of great interest or rarity had been found. Standing in the hut was Rick Horsley, holding a 1796 pattern Light Cavalry sword!
"That was the pinnacle of my relic hunting career," stated Rick. "A little after lunch I found my second hut, and it took about an hour and a half to open up the floor to the point where I could see the remains of the hearth. I had recovered several buttons, and a couple of nice bottles, and had great hopes of finding more. It was at about that time I saw a long length of rusty soil near the hearth. I thought it might be a rifle barrel, just like the one dug from the hut beside me. I wanted to go slowly and not do any damage to the relic, whatever it was.
"As I removed the soil, I saw what appeared to be the handle of a sword. My adrenaline was really pumping, and I had to force myself to slow down the speed of my digging. Finally, after what seemed hours, but was actually about 15 minutes, I was holding the sword in my hand. As I gripped the handle, all I could think about was the other man who had last held it in such a fashion, those long years ago. As the day was drawing to a close, I sat in the bottom of the hut and thought about the gift that had been left for me, and the events that unknown soldier had witnessed."
Among the most interesting aspects of this hunt were the records that were kept. Each digger or team was required to diagram, measure, and list the relics recovered in each of the completed huts. Additionally, each hut was carefully given GPS coordinates, so that an accurate site map could be made. A lot more than relics came out of those fields... the site was giving up volumes of information as well!
The Diggin' In Virginia experience and the finds that were made are far too large and the variety too broad, to be handled in a single column. I've yet to mention the beautiful "AVC" plate found by Robert Smith, or Ashley Fletcher's Rush's Lancers ID tag, Randy Ivey's singular Civil War plate "hat trick," Mark Swann's rare and beautiful 1858 Mason jar, and some of the other wonderful finds that were made on those fields. So, I beg the indulgence of readers, and editors, in allowing me to complete this incredible tale of recovered relics and artifacts next month. For a sneak preview of the type of relics found that weekend, check out the photo galleries at www.mytreasurespot on the Diggin' forum.