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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (08/2006) Relic Hunter (05/2006) Relic Hunter (09/2006)   Vol. 40 August 2006 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the August 2006 edition of W&ET Magazine

The Legacy Of Brandy Station

By: Ed Fedory

The antique melody of a lonesome fiddle on the still night air was a siren's song across the centuries. Closing your eyes, it would be easy to imagine the faces of grizzled and hardened veterans in the shadowy half-light of a flickering campfire... the wood smoke and the distant notes of an ill-played harmonica were just beyond my ken.

In my mind, I could easily picture those fields and rolling hills bathed in the eerie glow of a thousand still and moonlit evenings, and I wondered if some of them still rode- ghostly riders followed by the cadenced tread of spectral infantry. Of a rainy evening, was it the distant thunder heard, or that lone artillery piece of Fleetwood Hill firing off its remaining rounds throughout the ages? It is part-and-parcel for writers to conjure such images... it is our stock in trade; but if those silent sentinels of ancient oak and sycamore could speak, the tales they would tell of earthbound combatants eternally reenacting the bloody events of June 9, 1863. Incurable romantic? Perhaps.

Like those who had gone before us, we came to those fields from different trades and different states. Their mission had been to preserve the Union... or States' Rights. Our common purpose was to dig and preserve the relics of Brandy Station. We came to those fields armed with an assortment of metal detectors and digging tools... they had entered the pages of history bearing Springfields and Enfields. Any injury or wounds we received during the three-day hunt could easily be remedied with the simple application of a Band-Aid- there would be no broken and torn bodies remaining on the field when our activities were completed. We came to those fields as friends, from the North and the South, with a common goal, and would leave as such.

It couldn't have been more different 143 years ago.

The Battle of Brandy Station has the distinction of being the largest cavalry engagement ever fought on the North American continent, with almost 19,000 mounted troops engaged in combat.

Following victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia seemed unbeatable, but such victories took their toll in the form of broken and worn-out equipment and ever-dwindling food stores. Lee's army was massed in and around Culpeper, Virginia, in preparation to take the war north into Pennsylvania, where he could resupply his hungry and ill-equipped troops with food, fresh horses, and new equipment.

On the opposite shore of the Rappahannock River, and unknown to the Confederate forces, were 10,000 cavalry troopers under the command of General Alfred Pleasonton. Union intelligence reported Confederate cavalry movements on the other side of the river. Not knowing the full strength of his adversary, Pleasonton decided to split his force in half. Crossing at Beverly's Ford and Kelly's Ford, he would be able to launch a pincer attack- catching General J.E.B. Stuart's 9,000 mounted troops in the middle.

The battle raged for the better part of 12 hours and was indecisive; and while the Union cavalry eventually recrossed the Rappahannock, they proved for the first time in the war that they could match the horsemanship of the Confederate cavalry units.

Each relic hunter on the field that first day of the hunt had his own images of that battle running through his head, in an attempt to rethink troop movements and find areas where there would be relics aplenty. For those of us who came from out of state, our first lessons would be in Virginia geology rather than history. To say that the ground was highly mineralized and "hot," would be an understatement of monumental proportions. In all my years of relic hunting I had never experienced mineralization that would throw off your ground-balance after running a search pattern for only 20'! In addition to the iron-rich soil, we should also factor in numerous "hot rocks," countless nails, and small bits of iron trash. For many of us, the first lesson we had to learn was the re-learning of our detectors. It was a challenge, but all would rise to meet it!

With over 400 acres to search, we all headed out in our separate ways- some to the harvested bean fields, others to the cornfields- and it wasn't long before reports of interesting finds being made were relayed from one relic hunter to another. Bullets and buttons were common finds, as were the countless knapsack hooks being recovered, but suddenly it seemed that box plates, "US" belt plates, and Eagle crossbelt plates also began coming from the ground with an ever-increasing frequency.

On my way back to the main tent to get some bottled water, I met up with my buddy, Robert "Bebo" Compton, Jr. Bebo had been working a small section of cornfield, and from the surface of the ground you could tell that he was on a mission that might wear out his digging tool before the weekend was over. I asked how he was doing and if he was finding anything.

Within the first few hours of the hunt, Confederate buttons began making their way into the light of day... Block I's and A's... state buttons from the South... and buttons from every state in the Union. It was an amazing site to behold!

While the majority of the plates recovered were from the Union forces, there were some notable exceptions, such as the beautiful Georgia box plate found by Dave Vander-Haeghe, or the magnificent Mississippi officer's sword belt plate found by Jeff D'Angelo. There was no shortage of Confederate frame buckles or "clipped corner" plates, either.

One of the nicest finds was made in the last hours of the hunt, when Tony Banas recovered a silver ID tag belonging to a member of the 77th New York State Volunteers. It was certainly a bit of "turn around" luck for Tony, as his car had broken down an hour outside of Ohio, and he had to rent a car to make it down to Virginia. From the smile on Tony's face, you could tell that thoughts of his previous car problems had vanished with the recovery of that interesting relic!

Spurs and broken spur fragments... pieces of cavalry sabers... artillery projectiles... pipes and bottles from trash pits... thousands of bullets and buttons... over a hundred various military plates... cooking ware and utensils... all were on display during the last day of the hunt. There were enough relics recovered to fill a small museum, and enough work to keep conservators busy for years to come!

...and I wonder about those moonlit campfire discussions that followed our "invasion" of Brandy Station. I am sure the evening winds carried a ghostly laughter through the sycamores and the oaks.














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