As seen in the April 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine
Of Old Dogs And New Tricks
By: Ed Fedory
"You can't teach an old dog new tricks!"
The inventiveness of Civil War soldiers was amazing! This log and canvas construction was excavated on the interior and offered a comparably cozy shelter for wintering troops.
I took a short break after that initial recovery and examined the coin. It was a one real dated 1740, and I could easily see that it had been lost without having been in circulation for a long period of time. The pillars and banners stood out clearly, as did the boldness of the date and crown. Since then, I have found quite a number of early Colonial silver coins, some bigger, some in amazingly better condition, but that first one was a benchmark of sorts, and will always hold a special place in my memories.
Complete with log chimney and brick fire pit, these huts became winter homes for soldiers on both sides of the conflict. In the spring, the tents were stripped down and the logs pushed into the hole, the discarded remains of winter habitation remaining for future relic hunters.
It was a phrase which would run through my mind a hundred times during the course of that October weekend in Virginia. The surrounding countryside looked very familiar, similar to upstate New York, but without the mountains, and a heck of a lot more cars- but this Yankee knew for certain, as soon as he opened his mouth and listened with both ears, that he was a little out of his element.
Stepping down into a reconstructed hut was an interesting experience after having spent a day digging relics from the remains of an original hut. These reconstructed huts were found on the grounds of the White Oak Museum, located in Falmouth, Virginia.
Prior to the trip we were told to bring large digging tools, and that certain areas in which we would be hunting contained highly mineralized soil... and every so often the terms "digging huts" and "hut diggin'" were mentioned. I will admit I was pretty clueless... heck, the only "hut" I knew anything about sold pizzas!
Found in most denominations, cobs such as these are striking witness to the lack of technology in coin production in the Spanish colonies. Cut from the end of a bar of silver, hand struck, and shaved to the proper weight, these coins are found on most Colonial sites.
Today, we are constantly bombarded with phrases about "thinking outside the box." Personally, I never gave it much thought- few of us who have passed that half-century mark do. We're kind of set in our ways, and the rut we dug so long ago has grown pretty comfortable... but from what I witnessed, if you don't plan on making some major changes in your thinking and digging, you're going to wind up with a very sore back and an empty collecting bag!
Mark was able to recover quite a number of relics from his hut site. In fact, it seemed that almost every other shovelful of earth held something of interest.
Any of the targets I dug that first day were deep... very deep. There were very few surface indicators to give evidence that we were walking over what had once been a Union Army encampment.
Mark's better finds that weekend included an 1852 $10 gold piece, an eagle breast plate, and a Union officer's sword belt plate!
Occasionally, I would pass another relic hunter, and we'd chat for a second before continuing with our search. One fellow mentioned that someone had recovered a Virginia staff button a few minutes earlier. Another relic hunter told a story of a $10 gold piece having been recovered from a hut site. The finds they related were nice ones, no doubt, but there was that word again... huts. I quickly realized that rather than aimlessly roam the woods, picking up the infrequent target, I desperately needed to gather some sorely needed information about this hut thing!
A variety of glassware was recovered from a number of huts, offering a glimpse into the life of the common solider. From inkwells came letters to distant loved ones, far removed from the busting shells and hail of lead.
The man doing the digging looked very familiar, and so did the woman who was holding his recovered relics. Then their names hit me like a bolt from the blue... Mark Swann was doing the digging, and his wife, Reba, was holding the recoveries. I had worked with Mark and Reba on several earlier relic hunting stories, and I knew in a second that if I was going to learn anything about digging Civil War era huts, this would be the place to start!
Other hut sites yielded "US" belt plates, numerous Minie balls, and an assortment of related relics left by troops moving on to fields of battle.
Digging a hut site is one thing, but finding the site of a former hut is quite another story. As we watched Ed and George, it seemed that detected iron indicators and a fair amount of reading the land, not to mention some sort of magical intuitive sense, was at work during the process of locating a site for Charlie and me to dig. I guess that's got to be the real definition of "Southern hospitality"... when a couple of Virginia relic hunters will help a couple of New York relic hunters locate a good site. Either that, or we all knew, for sure, that The War was over. I think we were only called Yankees a couple of dozen times, or so!