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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (07/2005) Relic Hunter (06/2005) Relic Hunter (08/2005)   Vol. 39 July 2005 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the July 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine

Up From The Muddy Depths

By: Ed Fedory

"The advance of Grant's army struck Ewell upon one road and mine upon another almost simultaneously. Rushing through the broad gap between Ewell and myself, the heavy Federal forces soon surrounded the command of that brave, old, one-legged hero and forced him to surrender. Another Union column struck my command while we were endeavoring to push the ponderous wagon-trains through the bog, out of which the starved teams were unable to drag them. Many of these wagons, loaded with ammunition, mired so deep in the mud that they had to be abandoned. It was necessary to charge and force back the Union lines in order to rescue my men from this perilous position. Indeed, not only was my command in almost incessant battle as we covered the retreat, but every portion of our marching column was being assailed by Grant's cavalry and infantry." So wrote General John B. Gordon in his Reminiscences of the Civil War, concerning his command of Confederate troops as the Army of Northern Virginia was pushed toward Appomattox in those final days of the Civil War, in early April of 1865.

Reading such accounts as Gordon's, written in his own hand, one has to speculate about all that abandoned equipment, mired in that deep mud those long years ago. Certainly, anything that could later have been salvaged after the war was over was undoubtedly dragged off- wagons, cannon limbers, destined for use on surviving farms... axles and spoked wheels destined for some secondary and domestic use. How much of that military equipment, of so little use in a time of peace, was thrown to the ground to lighten the load of an abandoned vehicle stuck in the swampy ground? These are the types of clues in first-hand accounts that relic hunters seek. They form the starting point of the hunt. From where were the troops coming? What was their destination? What roads existed at the time? Where were the low grounds that would become swampy with the early spring rains?

With the use of a combination of old maps and modern topographic maps, most of these questions can easily be answered. In the final analysis, once the research has been completed, there exist only two other factors needed for a successful relic hunt... a whole lot of legwork and a whole lot of luck!

These were lessons not lost on Robert Compton, Jr. and his hunting partner, Tony Wilborn, as they studied accounts and maps of Lee's retreat from Petersburg, Virginia to Appomattox.

"In the Library of Congress we were able to find an old map dated 1862," began Robert, "that showed us some of the old roads and troop movements. We headed across the county line and sought permission to relic hunt in an area that might have great promise. We found this very accommodating older gentleman who owned a large tract of land, and while he mentioned that the property had been heavily searched over the years, he told us to have fun and see what we could find.

"After three or four weeks of intermittent searches, we had amassed quite a number of dropped and fired bullets. I decided during one of these hunts to return to one of the fields that had produced quite a number of bullets and give it a more thorough search. In order to get to that field, I either had to go the long way around using the roads, or take a shortcut through a swampy section of ground. I opted for getting my boots a little muddy.

"As I proceeded across the spongy ground," continued Robert, "I was still swinging my Shadow X-5. Suddenly, I heard what I knew to be a deep iron signal running through my headset. I knew it would probably be a piece from an old plow and that the digging would be pretty tough, but I decided to dig it anyway. At a depth of almost 3' my shovel hit something hard. I cleared away the mud sticking to the target and found it to be round. With a little more clearing away of the mud, I could easily see that I was staring at the upper side of a large cannonball!

"I called Tony on the radio and told him where I was and what I had found. Tony brought the truck around to where I had been digging and helped me dig the cannonball out. It was then that we noticed that these were not solid shot, but fused Confederate shells. To say that we were happy would be a gross understatement. We walked back to the truck with the shell, and while we were taking a break I reminded Tony of the time he had dug two cannonballs out of the same hole."

"I wonder if there are any more down there?" Tony asked.

"I looked at Tony and he looked at me, and a couple of seconds later we were quick-stepping it down the hill with our detectors in hand. Within a few minutes I had pinpointed and dug another shell. There seemed to be deep iron signals all over the place!

"I told Tony to put his detector down and grab a shovel. That's pretty much the way it went for the rest of the afternoon. I'd pinpoint a deep signal, and we'd both work on pulling the next shell from the ground. It was a very hot and humid day, and by the time late afternoon arrived we were both tired, covered with mud, and sore. We recovered a total of twenty shells that day, and yet there seemed to be no end to the number of signals in the ground. Talk about a relic hunter's dream come true!

"We decided to come back the following weekend and dig the rest of the targets. That had to be the slowest work-week I've ever experienced. Neither of us could stop thinking about how many more shells we would be able to dig at week's end.

"When the day of the second big dig came, we headed out early and worked late. We found 16 more 12 lb. shells, giving us a final total of 36 rounds. We found several shells together in the bottom of a couple of holes, and some of the digging was slowed down by the amount of ground water that would continually fill the bottoms of the holes. When we were finished, we were muddied up to the eyeballs, but such minor inconveniences could not take those broad smiles off our faces!"

With a little research, a couple of maps, weeks of crossing fields with metal detectors swinging, not to mention a little luck, Tony and Robert were able to make a spectacular series of finds... and after hearing their account, I think I will always look a little suspiciously at any areas of swampy ground, and certainly won't be afraid of getting my boots covered in mud!

-From Ed's Notebook-

Bormann Fused Case Shot

This cross-section of a 12 lb. Bormann fused case shot displays the positioning of the smaller pieces of iron shot in their sulfur matrix. The time fuse and charge, running down the center of the iron shell, would ignite, delivering a deadly shower of fragments and shot on attacking forces. (Display created by George Lesche; photo by Charles Ashby)

With all wars, technological advances and inventions are the rule, rather than the exception, and the Civil War saw a large number of these often innovative ideas applied to the weaponry employed by both the North and the South.

While exploding artillery shells had been used by armies for well over 100 years, it was British artilleryman, Henry Shrapnel, who improved on these earlier designs by adding small lead or iron balls to the inside of the shells. The balls were embedded in sulfur or coal tar and were designed to explode in the air, showering enemy forces with a lethal rain of shot and shell fragments. To accomplish this end of exploding in the air above attacking forces, a time fuse was needed.

Earlier fuses were fabricated from wood or a combination of wood and paper, but these proved to be far from reliable in the field. Additionally, they were subject to water damage.

On the other hand, the Bormann fuse, a closely guarded Belgian military secret, finally came into general use just prior to the Civil War.

More costly and time-consuming to produce than its wood-and-paper counterparts, the Bormann fuse was waterproof, reliable, and easy to use. The cannoneer would simply screw the fuse into the shell and then punch a hole in the face of the fuse for the number of seconds before the shell would explode. For enemy troops at a great distance, five seconds might be required, but if troops were on the attack and approaching rapidly, the cannoneer might punch the fuse to detonate after a flight of only one second.

The fuse was designed to be ignited by the main charge of the cannon. The positioning of the fuse was always away from the main charge, and ignited by the hot blast of fiery powder seeping around the shell. Obviously, a fuse facing the main powder charge might detonate the shell before it ever cleared the end of the barrel, visiting death and carnage upon the gun crew and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in the immediate vicinity of the cannon.

One of the most popular types of cannon to deliver a Bormann fused shell was the Napoleon, which was a standard, in both 12 lb. and 6 lb. sizes, for both the North and the South.

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