"They're not havin' much luck, the word's come back."
"There's an awful lot of firin' goin' on ahead, Sergeant, isn't there?" said the young private, an unusual pitch accompanying his quick and nervous movements.
"'Bout as much as would be warranted, I 'spect, young William. 'But 'tain't movin'... the sounds should be more distant... the lads are stalled an' can't get through." It was a quick appraisal made by one who was no stranger to the fields of blood and honor. "We'll be movin' up shortly, I 'spect."
"Won't they be bringing up the cannons, Sergeant, if the regulars can't push them back?" inquired the youth.
"Aye, and you'd make a fine officer, y'would, young William, but I 'spect not. The cannon are yet unloaded, and besides we've plenty young lads from Bristol to Birmingham to throw against their lines."
"But that doesn't make much sense, does it, Sergeant?" asked the puzzled William.
"Sense?" began the Sergeant, his fingers scratching across a stubbled chin, as his lips parted in a smile filled with irony. "Tis sense you be lookin' for, lad, never take up soldierin' for a living. Grab your musket, William, we're movin' out!"
"Throwing ourselves against their lines with the rest?"
"Naw, lad, I 'spect a wee bit o' flankin' the cap'n has in mind," replied the sergeant, noting the first movements of the forward ranks. "Stick beside me, lad, and we'll make an officer of ye yet!"
I could almost picture the previous scenario as I walked among the trees, cloaked in the stillness of a woodland dawn. It was so eerily quiet that it seemed the scampering squirrels wore leaden boots, and the finches carried megaphones in their flight. I guess it must always be that way... when you're walking across ground on which other men have died.
It took a couple of hundred years for that section of forest to regain her pristine nature, but it was all an illusion. Two hundred winter snows had attempted to cleanse her... two hundred autumns had attempted to cloak her... and yet the evidence of previous carnage was still locked in the soil. Not even two hundred springs could rinse the blood from the ground, nor two hundred summers bake away those phantom mists of awful conflict.
I stood there, surrounded by the sounds of the woods, my boots bathed in early morning sunlight, on sacred ground, like some pilgrim to an ancient shrine, and I could almost remember what it had been like those long years ago. Just beyond the curtain of time and mortal senses were the whistling balls of lead... the coarse oaths... the harsh orders... the anguished cries. The hideous shrillness of musketballs ricocheting off ragged stone walls, and the still more hideous thud of their meeting flesh and bone, were memories of another time- but the same place.
From comparing a modern topographic map with a contemporary map drawn by engineers during the latter portion of the 18th century, I could trace the line of battle and the site where the frontal assaults had taken place. And while the numerous accounts of the battle failed to mention any type of flanking action, you didn't have to be a West Point graduate to see that such a maneuver was possible, and could have been successful. The simple fact that a flanking action wasn't mentioned led me to believe that either my gut instincts were wrong... or I was going to find a killing field.
I could see the high ground ahead of me as I came upon a small valley in the woods. The ground rose a good 75' above me and formed a large tableland. It was the area where the main attacks had taken place. I headed east, keeping the high ground off my right shoulder. Bordering my left were a series of small hills that might offer some negligible amount of cover if a flanking party was discovered. The valley down which I was traveling, between the high ridge and the small hills, was no more than 100' wide. Under combat conditions, I would have felt as if I was walking into the jaws of a bear trap... very little brush... few trees... right out in the open... few places to run... fewer places to hide... and very little chance of returning effective fire!
Since I was initially checking out a theory, I didn't begin the search by running any kind of pattern. Instead, I extended my detector's lower pole assembly to the max and made the widest swath I could with the 9" coil. I was following what appeared to be a deer trail down the center of the valley. Running my detector with minimum discrimination and as much sensitivity as conditions would allow, I hadn't progressed more than 50' before the detector sent a signal running through my headset.
It took a little while to pinpoint that initial target due to its size, but after a couple of minutes I had a hint that I might be on the right path with a little piece of slightly flattened buckshot in the palm of my hand. Ten feet farther east, and the first musketball came of light. After that, the frequency of signals began to increase, and the distance between targets shortened.
I would dig one target, and once I had recovered it, I would swing my coil in all directions from that point, usually getting another signal somewhere nearby. I continued this technique for a while, but soon found that it caused me to stray from my original course down the center of the valley. It seemed like a good time to begin setting up some kind of search pattern.
I set the distance of each eastward length of the search pattern by a large oak tree. The returning leg of the search pattern would end where I had scuffed an area free of leaves with my boots. My limits to the left would be the base of the small hills, while to my right, the rocky rise to the heights.
I began the first leg of the search at the base of the hills and found that the target signals at the farthest extend of my swing would probably drag me to the top of the hill if I did not adhere strictly to the search pattern I had originally planned. There would be time enough to search the tops of the hills later. I did note, however, that the musketballs I was recovering in this area were really smashed and torn apart. In some cases, I was recovering only slivers of lead. Looking at the almost bare hill and its covering of numerous rocks gave evidence to the cause of the ravaged musketballs I was unearthing. I had yet to find a target that wasn't lead!
As I began to feel an increasing weight in my collecting bag- which, if the truth be known, is a completely wonderful feeling- I continued to speculate on the lack of other types of targets. Don't read me wrong on this point... I love pulling lead from the ground, but after the first couple of dozen musketballs, I was seeking to add a little bit of variety to this love affair with history!
The first non-lead recovery was a hollow pewter button, iron shanked and double vented on the back, typical of some French & Indian War era military buttons. More musketballs followed, and then the tip of a First Model Brown Bess ramrod with some of the original wood remaining in the brass tip.
With my detector's discrimination set at its lowest, iron targets were not to be ignored. Some of the fragments I pinpointed could have been the remains of Colonial tinned canteens or drinking cups, but they were so far deteriorated as to make proper identification impossible. I could only tell from a couple of small sections that contained the tinned seams of the sheet metal that they were probably from the Colonial period.
Heavier iron fared a lot better in the acidic soil. An intact Colonial pocket knife was recovered, and on a later trip to the site, the remains of a soldier's "possibles bag," containing an assortment of Colonial era fishing hooks... no doubt used to supplement the soldier's diet with fish from the nearby lake.
In the coming months I was to make many trips into that "valley of death." The buttons I was destined to find were primarily British, as were the half dozen ramrod tips. Very few musketballs that might have been used in a .75 caliber Brown Bess were found, and those that were, indicated that they had mostly been dropped and not fired. The overwhelming number of musketballs, both the ones close enough to being round to be measured, and those which had to be weighed, indicated that they had been fired by the slightly lighter .69 caliber muskets of the French... and there sure was a lot of them!
Although I didn't get to run any search patterns on or around the small hills on the northern limits of "the valley," subsequent searches indicated that they had probably been used for cover when the ambush took place. The withering fire from the heights above had been absorbed for a period of time, but those British troops were unable to remain for long in the hurricane of lead thrown down on them. They had cut between and around the hills for the small sanctuary offered by the mounds, their valiant flanking efforts- their final fate- yet another unwritten footnote in the history of our nation.
And I wonder about the fate of that fictional rough-mannered, soft-hearted sergeant, and his youthful charge, Private William. Did their real-life counterparts ever find their way back from the valley? Were they among the survivors, or simply listed by name and number in the casualty lists, their final resting place in a strange wilderness land so very far from home?
Sometimes I think history contains a lot more questions than answers!