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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (02/2006) Relic Hunter (12/2005) Relic Hunter (05/2006)   Vol. 40 February 2006 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the February 2006 edition of W&ET Magazine

On The Trail And Trials Of The 24th Foot

By: Ed Fedory

There exist two simple facts about relic hunting. First, you can never tell just what that next shovel full of soil will reveal. Second, we often unearth more questions than answers. Certainly, both these facts surrounded Roger Duron when he pulled that British 24th Regiment artifact from the depths of the rich Virginia soil.

However, my first following of the trail of the 24th Regiment began years earlier and much farther north, while researching the British campaign of 1777 which finally resulted in General John Burgoyne's defeat and surrender at Saratoga. The goal of dividing the colonies in half, and ushering in a quick and decisive British victory, was never to be achieved.

The 24th Regiment was the advance corps for Burgoyne's army as it swept south from Canada toward its final destination of Albany, New York. In Albany they would rendezvous with Clinton's forces making a drive up the Hudson, and St. Leger, whose forces would strike from the west along the Mohawk River. It was a bold plan.

Clinton would sweep the Hudson Valley of its numerous fortifications; Barry St. Leger would take Fort Stanwix and other more minor outposts as he marched east toward Albany. All Burgoyne had to do was retake Fort Ticonderoga and his path to Albany was secured- or so he thought!

It was outside the town of Ticonderoga, on a crisp, late October morning, that I first picked up the trail of the 24th Regiment. Having obtained permission to search the rolling farmlands above Lake Champlain, and armed with a series of maps, both old and new, we hoped to find remnants of Burgoyne's line of march from where his troops disembarked three miles north of the fort. We knew the troops would be heading south and that they would probably stick to high ground. It didn't take long before we were able to prove our ideas correct.

In a large and elevated hayfield we found numerous dropped musketballs and the first of many buttons. It was in this field, which must have served as a staging area, that I saw the first two silver officer's buttons recovered... a small button of the 62nd Regiment, and a much larger officer's button from the 24th.

I didn't find either of those silver buttons... I guess it was my day for pewter. Searching in an area where the hay rolls were stored, I pulled my first 24th "other ranks"button. Hoping that the regiment had held this position for a time, I began running a tight search pattern. Minutes later, the second 24th button came to light. They were the only two regimental buttons I was to recover that day, but they instilled in me the desire to seek out more information about the regiment itself.

Following the retaking of Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne continued his push south. Believing he would meet little resistance, he was surprised and shocked when he found himself up against a large force of well-entrenched rebels in the town of Stillwater. Here the two battles of Saratoga would take place, in September and October of 1777, eventually leading to Burgoyne's retreat back to the Heights of Saratoga. It was a rainy, dismal retreat for the 24th Regiment. They formed the rear guard during the retreat, heads hung low, having just completed the burial of their commanding officer, Simon Fraser, who died as a result of a long distance rifle shot by one of Daniel Morgan's Virginia sharpshooters. Surrounded, out-gunned and out-manned, Burgoyne finally surrendered, agreeing to the terms of the Convention of Saratoga, on October 17.

Burgoyne's troops, which would become known as the Convention Army, were marched to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the meantime, Congress was seeking any way possible to repudiate the terms of surrender which would allow the captured British forces to return to England following a pledge not to fight in the colonies again. One of the small, yet effective, reasons for the eventual repudiation of the Convention of Saratoga was a major discrepancy between the number of troops and the number of cartridge boxes that should have been surrendered at Saratoga.

The captured British and German troops were forced to march the 700-mile distance from Cambridge to Charlottesville, Virginia.

Enter, Roger Duron!

"We were relic hunting in northern Culpeper County, Virginia,"stated Roger, "and we were finding a lot of fired bullets from both the Union and Confederate forces. My buddy, Robert 'Smitty' Smith had found the site, and it sure proved to be a good one! Within a couple of hours I was able to recover a nice sword belt plate and an eagle breast plate, in addition to all the bullets."

As Roger continued his tale, it wasn't until he had gotten home from the hunt that he decided to clean another large recovery that was coated with half-frozen mud. "As I cleaned the piece, the big brass number 24 emerged from beneath the mud. I knew I had found something special at that point, but I just wasn't sure what it was."

It was suggested that Roger contact a well-known relic collector concerning his find. "After scanning the plate,"Roger continued, "I sent the pictures to him, and he told me that I had found a 24th Regiment of Foot belt plate from the Revolutionary War! It was a great day to have been digging in Virginia!"

As I said in the beginning of this column, we never know just what we're going to find in the depths of the soil, and we often dig up more questions that we do answers. Such seems to be the case with Roger's recovery. How did this belt plate, which should have been surrendered at Saratoga, wind up in northern Culpeper County, Virginia?

Long before I had any thoughts of doing a column based on Roger's recovery, I had given this mystery quite a bit of thought. I knew of a 47th Regiment belt plate that had been found in Greene County, New York. It, too, should have been surrendered at Saratoga. Couple these events with the fact that Congress acknowledged a great discrepancy in the number of cartridge boxes that were finally accounted for and the number that should have been turned in. Add to this mixture the fact that at that period of time the American army was in terrible need of all sorts of equipment. Indeed, it was noted that a third of all the soldiers that had retreated from Ticonderoga, scant months earlier, were barefoot.

Think for a second of all that high-quality surrendered equipment piled up on the Field of Grounded Arms and our own ill-equipped troops. What better way for a commander of such forces to re-equip his men in the field than to have them help themselves to some of the captured stores? We also know that Morgan's Virginia riflemen were present at the battle and surrender. Had one of Morgan's men taken a 24th Regiment belt and cartridge box to replace his own, a useful souvenir of a hard-fought battle... some useful memento of a time of struggle to bring home to Virginia? It would seem likely.

And yet, still another mystery exists: Why was the 24th belt plate found on what apparently was a skirmish site of a war that took place almost a century later? By far, the first and easiest answer to this mystery can be summed up in one word... coincidence. Certainly, if we adhere to the theory of Occam's Razor, "Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler,"coincidence answers well. However, I am often given to romanticizing history.

I can see that 24th Regiment belt and cartridge box hanging from a wooden peg on the back of a door in a Virginia homestead. The Civil War breaks out, and many a Virginian answers the call to arms. Long has this one particular young man heard the story of his great-grandfather, one of Morgan's riflemen, and how he had fought against the aggression of a tyrant from across the seas. With his own singular reasoning, he views this war as another act of aggression... Northern aggression. The cartridge box and belt are taken from the wooden peg... and once again it is destined for war.

Another incurable romantic, you say? Guilty as charged!

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