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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (06/2005) Relic Hunter (05/2005) Relic Hunter (07/2005)   Vol. 39 June 2005 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the June 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine

The Big Dig- The Big Results

By: Ed Fedory

Sometimes I'm not sure whether having a love of history and an inquisitive mind is a curse or a blessing. Being curious and easily impassioned certainly does have its costs. I say this while scrutinizing the crowded bookshelves in my office, where of late I've had to add additional space for a growing number of books focusing on the Civil War period.

Seriously, I'm not used to digging up an artifact and not having a clue to the purpose or function it served. In many ways, that nearly 100-year time span between the American Revolution and the Civil War was a technical Renaissance of sorts, and the variations of commonly used equipment took numerous forms. For example, digging a musketball in a Revolutionary War context, you can be sure in 90% of the cases that the ball will be from either a Brown Bess or a Charleville patterned weapon. You can easily tell by the size and weight of the lead you're holding in your hand. Conversely, all you have to do is check out Civil War Projectiles II by Mckee and Mason to see the exceptionally wide variety of small arms projectiles used in the Civil War. Knowing exactly what you're digging is important, and this information adds color to the image of history that is forming in your mind as you dig.

When I look across the fields through the barn's back doors and watch the hawks in pursuit of their prey, I don't want to simply relate that I saw a "big bird." I want to know if it's a Red-Tail, or a Northern Goshawk. It kind of keeps my buddies from conjuring up images of a Sesame Street refugee with yellow feathers, striped socks, and a funny voice. Being precise in your identification of recovered relics is important... hence the growing library.

I would not have this all-consuming interest, or the need to annex another room to house my books, had it not been for a few relic hunts in Virginia, or adding some Southern gentlemen to my list of friends. They say that "from little acorns mighty oak trees grow." Well, I guess my interest in this period of time is running a parallel course in its growth.

In last month's column, I spent what some might consider an inordinate amount of space and time dealing with the historical aspect of the events leading up to our dig on Union V Corps winter encampments following the Battle of Fredericksburg. In this issue, I will try to remedy that situation by concentrating on some of the significant finds that were made during those three days in November, digging in the rich, red earth of Virginia.

I didn't realize it when we began, but some of the huts we would be digging had been used several times. I guess if you want to get a hut up and standing quickly, it sure would be easier to dig out a partially filled-in pit than to break through the soil and dig a new one. I first noticed this fact as I was watching Troy Galloway digging in his hut. Gathering relics with the aid of his detector and shovel on one floor layer, Troy noticed that some relics were below the first floor and sitting on the hard-packed clay of a second floor. It was an aspect of hut digging I had never imagined.

In addition, it seemed that some of the huts had been previously occupied by Confederate troops. Ernest Bower recovered a really nice pair of Confederate Script I buttons, but it was Robert Smith who grabbed the show with a beautiful "AVC" (Alabama Volunteer Corps) box plate.

"I wasn't exactly sure what type of plate it was at first," related Smitty, "because it was face-down in the soil. When I turned it over, I got the biggest surprise of my life!"

I pressed Smitty for the first words out of his mouth when he realized what he had found.

"I recall saying, "Yeah, Baby!"' he replied with a smile.

In all, 52 box plates, belt plates, and eagle plates were recovered during the hunt, along with a nice Georgia frame buckle.

According to John Kendrick, the Diggin' in Virginia organizer and host, over 1,000 complete buttons were dug during that three-day period, including New York "Excelsior" buttons and 12th New York buttons, along with buttons from Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Maine, and Mississippi. Numerous Eagle D's, R's and I's (representing Dragoons, Riflemen, and Infantry) were found in many of the huts. Amazingly, quite a number of the buttons still had remnants of woolen uniform fabric attached to the shanks!

Steve Frantz related a humorous little story about his 12th New York button after the second day of digging. "We had just gotten back to the rooms, and I wanted to see how the 12th button would clean up," said Steve. "I was advised to use lemon juice on the face of the button. Commandeering a lemon from a local restaurant, I began cleaning the button with freshly squeezed lemon juice and a Q-Tip. It was around that time my wife called and asked what I was doing. I told her in detail about the button and the intricate cleaning process in which I was involved. She sounded very skeptical, and I had a feeling that she really didn't believe I was actually cleaning a button with lemon juice, and further stated that she really didn't think it was a restaurant from which I had just returned. I guess I must've sounded a little too happy!"

Over 140 complete and assorted bottles were recovered, along with 39 umbrella inkwells. The rarest of all the glass pieces was dug by Mark and Reba Swann, an 1858 Mason jar variety believed to be one of only a dozen known to exist! I'm sure a big "Yeah, Baby!" was issued from the bottom of that hole, too, once the successful recovery had been completed.

One of the items usually found on any relic hunter's "wish list" is something that can be associated with a particular soldier. Ashley Fletcher's wish came true with a rare Rush's Lancers (6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry Regiment) ID tag. This was a particularly flamboyant group of men. The soldier's name was Charles Cavanaugh, and the tag was stamped with his 1861 date of enlistment. Using this information, I went to a site containing the rosters of Pennsylvania cavalry regiments and indeed found Charles Cavanaugh. It seems that at some unspecified date Charles Cavanaugh of Company H had deserted. Undoubtedly, he was at the Battle of Frederickburg where the Lancer's served as the provost guard, but little more in known of him. Again, another mystery of history!

As with any relic hunt, the most common finds are usually in the category of bullets, and our Virginia hunt was to prove no different. Over 3,700 bullets were dug, as well as more than 100 Sharps bullets that may have come from a sharpshooters regiment. Dozens upon dozens of carved Minie balls were also found, many fashioned into chess pieces. Charles came up with one that was completely flattened, and he was informed that it was probably used as a poker chip. As on all of our other relic trips to Virginia, we sure did learn a lot about the typical soldier and the manner in which he fought the boredom of camp life.

Three rifle barrels, five complete bayonets, canteens, cooking pots, ration cans, spurs- and in particular a gold-plated officer's spur marked Tiffany & Co.- a crossed-sabers hat insignia, a musician's hat pin, hundreds of coins, and thousands of assorted small relics such as knapsack hooks and kepi buckles were found. The list of relics is almost as incredible as it is endless!

By the time this column appears, Charlie and I will be packing our bags for a return to Virginia to continue digging on V Corps encampments, along with a small army of ardent relic hunters. We have barely scratched the surface of the potential this fabulous site holds. There'll be tons of earth moved, a lot of sore muscles and stiff joints, and a lot of history revealed. You can never tell what that next shovelful of soil will bring to the light of day. Maybe I'll even have the opportunity to shout that expression that draws an eager crowd to the edge of my hut... a big "Yeah, Baby!"

... or perhaps something a little stronger!

Author's Note: For a view of the larger scope of relics recovered during "The BIG Dig," visit Donnie Smith's website: On the Diggin' forum galleries there are hundreds of high-quality pictures of the many interesting relics recovered during this fabulous three-day hunt!

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