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.
One of the most commonly deployed cannons used by both the North and the South was the Napoleon. (Photo courtesy of www.cannonltd.com)
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!
It's hard enough digging a deep signal in muddy soil, but when ground water is filling the bottom of the hole, just finding your target can be frustrating!
"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.
You can just make out the upper half of the 12 lb. shell in the bottom of this 3' hole. There's a reason why relic hunters carry serious shovels!
"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 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!
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)