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.
Randy and Rhonda Ivey found themselves in a really productive hut. Pictured is a portion of Rhonda's recoveries, including bullets, buttons, and a couple of very nice umbrella inkwells. (Photo courtesy of Randy Ivey.)
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.
Several of Rhonda's New York buttons still had fabric from the woolen uniform attached to the shank. (Photo courtesy of Randy Ivey.)
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.
Linda Galloway displays a scabbard tip, button, and large rivet recovered from the surface of the second clay floor in Troy's hut.
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.
Not to be outdone by his wife, early in the afternoon of the last day Randy recovered three beautiful plates from the wall of his hut. (Photo courtesy of Randy Ivey.)
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.
Robert Smith's heart-stopping find of the dig was this rare Alabama Volunteer Corps box plate. (Photo courtesy of Greg Sites.)
In all, 52 box plates, belt plates, and eagle plates were recovered during the hunt, along with a nice Georgia frame buckle.
Bob Buttafuso's hut contained, among other relics, a nice assortment of bottles- patent whiskies, ginger beer bottles, a perfect ceramic jug, and an aqua pickle bottle.
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!"
Appearing more like ants and ant holes, this aerial photograph of the V Corps encampment site gives a good indication of the amount of digging that went on during that three-day relic hunt. (Photo courtesy of the Diggin' in Virginia organizing committee.)
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!
The rarest glass recovery was made by Mark and Reba Swann. Here Mark displays his 1858 patent dated Mason jar moments after it was pulled from the soil. (Photo courtesy of Greg Sites.)
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!
Mike McLellan spent most of his time surface hunting the expansive site with his metal detector, locating a large assortment of bullets, buttons, and other interesting Civil War relics.
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!"
Due to the wonderful condition in which it was found, and with the information stamped into the reverse side of this Union ID tag found early in the hunt by Ashley Fletcher we were able to gather some information about Private Charles Cavanaugh of Co. H, Rush's Lancers. (Photo courtesy of Greg Sites.)