24 March 2011

Metal Detecting Post #22 - Civil War History In 3D

As frequent readers of this blog know, I took up the avocation of metal detecting last September. It dovetails perfectly with my passion for Civil War history and the kid in me that still gets thrilled at the thought of discovering lost treasure or uncovering secrets buried for over 150 years.Though I've owned a used metal detector for several years, I had never really done any serious hunting with it until last September. About a month later, I purchased a new unit with more modern computer technology enabling me to better determine what's in the ground under my coil. This newer model, along with some other tools, has allowed me to make some very interesting Civil War related recoveries here in the Shenandoah Valley. One example is the mini-ball shown here. I dug this relic last week in a farm field near a battlefield here in the Valley. It was about 6-7 inches underground. After some online research and help from other collectors, I'm fairly confident that this is a Confederate Sharps Carbine .52 calibre (Sharps "long" carbine). According to one source: 

"These bullets are referenced in Mason & McKee series #464 / 465 [Civil War Projectiles reference book] and are referred to as Richmond Labs carbine bullets.  This was the Confederate bullet, made specifically for the Richmond Carbine or could be used with captured Sharps carbines. These Confederate bullets  are a good bit more scarce than the two ring Gardner Confederate bullets."

This particular field has been farmed for decades and was actually part of an area where several hundred Confederate Cavalry and mounted infantry rode across as they retreated and provided some rear guard action. Since these men would have been carrying carbines, the find makes perfect sense. I've also dug several Hotchkiss shell fragments at this location, including a complete sabot. I've also found several 19th century flat buttons (metal) and a few coins dating to the 19th century, as well as wheat pennies dating from the early 20th century to the 1940's. The latest coin, dug just a few feet from this bullet, was an 1881 Indian Head penny. It is quite amazing to realize the history that often lies, unbeknown to us, just a few inches below our feet. 

While I've been a student of the War Between the States since I was in elementary school, that interest has often been two dimensional - reading books and letters about and from the era. Of course, one could argue having three great-great grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy, as well as being born on a battlefield, adds another dimension. While there is certainly some truth in that, nothing quite compares to bringing one of these CW relics out of the ground and exposing it to light for the first time in 150 years. Holding that relic in your hand, knowing that the last human to touch it was a Civil War soldier is, most definitely, a three dimensional experience. This bullet find, along with a few others from the same field, mean even more to me since one of my great-great grandfathers was wounded very near to this same spot.

Metal detecting, as it relates to history, has opened up a whole new world to me in regards to a broader knowledge of the war, as well as potential writing opportunities. I only regret I waited until I was 52 years old to get involved. That involvement has included doing a couple of videos (with another in production), joining some online forums, going on an organized, three-day hunt on private property near Brandy Station next week, and subscribing to several magazines which cater to detectorists. 

Both American Digger and WET Magazine are written for a more popular audience while NST is more "scholarly", though still written in a popular style. While I truly enjoy all three magazines, I'll have to confess that NST is my favorite. It is published in Orange, Virginia.

North South Trader’s Civil War is a bimonthly magazine for collectors, researchers, relic hunters, and historians of the War Between the States. Each heavily illustrated issue contains a host of articles about a wide variety of artifacts from uniforms and weaponry to belt plates and buttons. We also offer regular features on events in the field, reproduction and fake alerts, artifact identification, and recently excavated finds. Our format is lively, informative, and readable.
If you’re a collector or have an interest in the history and the surviving artifacts of the greatest conflict in American history, you won’t want to miss an issue of this award-winning publication!

Dedicated to the study and preservation of Civil War artifacts since 1973.
In their most recent issue, NST featured a fascinating article about one of the true "pioneer collectors" in Civil War relic hunting - Mr. George E. Whiting. Mr. Whiting lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia - about 30 miles South of my home. He's 91 and considered an expert on Civil War artillery projectiles and is an active supporter of the Virginia Military Institute museum. He is known to be quite the throwback to an earlier era - a classic Southern gentleman. (Yes, that is a compliment.) He had the habit of digging for relics in a coat and tie. Mr. Whiting started metal detecting in the 1950's with a surplus WWII mine detector. Just the battery pack weighed 40 pounds!

One of the things that came through to me, even in the interview, was the wisdom and wealth of knowledge Mr. Whiting possesses. Besides a shared love of Civil War history and relic hunting, I share his opinion on something else. Mr. Whiting was asked by the interviewer (a public school teacher), whether he had any concerns regarding the "general lack of interest in history today" - particularly as that concern relates to the Sesquicentennial. Mr. Whiting replied:

I'm pessmistic and optimistic at the same time. Most young people don't know a thing about history and aren't willing to learn. Academia certainly isn't going to teach them what they really ought to know when it comes to history, be it Virginia history or something beyond our borders. Everything relating to the Late Unpleasantness is deemphasized. When you get into the institutions of higher learning and the group of people who were instrumental in bringing down the US government during the Vietnam War, with the resulting loss of millions of people's lives worldwide, especially in Laos and Cambodia--they're very proud of that--the American Civil War just isn't important.

Ah, the wisdom of old age.

And with that I'll sign off until Saturday as I'll be heading to Lynchburg (via Piney River) tomorrow afternoon to attend the supper kick-off for Liberty University's 15th annual Civil War seminar. I'll be donating a relic for an auction which will be for the benefit of the National Civil War Chaplains Museum. The relic? A piece of burnt brick I picked up near a dumpster at Stonewall Jackson's Lexington Presbyterian Church. The brick was discarded after the church caught fire in 2000. Be careful what you throw away. One man's trash is another man's treasure. ;o)


13thBama said...

Nice work! Being that it is from a carbine, doesn't that generally indicate that it was a cavalryman that dropped it?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

13B - you are correct sir! I should have included that fact in the post. This particular field was actually part of an area where several hundred Confederate Cavalry and mounted infantry rode across as they retreated and provided some rear guard action.

I'll update the post to reflect this later today. Thanks for reminding me.

Lindsay Horne said...

How fascinating...my grandfather was an avid relic hunter resulting in hundreds of treasures that I was lucky enough to learn a little about as a kid. As a result, I will ever be a student of Civil War history and will definitely pass that on to my two sons. I just regret that I was so young when he died, how fascinating our conversations would have been had I been older.

Here is a question I wanted to pose to you a while back - in three weeks I am starting my yearly Civil War unit for my 6th graders. Of course, I must follow along with the state's determination of what is most important about the War Between the States (hopefully my sarcasm is not lost on you) but I do have a little wiggle room and would like your opinion on something else that is also a must to include. I am most interested in keeping it specifically related to Virginia's involvement in the war and we are in the New Kent/Eastern Henrico area where we are lucky enough to have many battlefield sites but unlucky in that we do not have opportunities for field trips.

In your opinion, what else would be a fun, interesting thing to include for my students?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Lindsay. Thank you. I, too, lament not having more detailed conversations w/my grandparents while they were still around. What a lost treasure of information and knowledge we lose with each passing generation!

I would recommend inviting some local reenactors in to the classroom to answer questions about every day life for the common soldier. You might also consider contacting a local metal detecting/relic hunting club and ask them to bring some of their finds to share with the class. The students might be quite amazed at what lies just a few inches below their small feet!

Lindsay Horne said...

That is a great idea - there is nothing like seeing the real thing and kids love it. We do run into financial burdens because many reenactors do charge (Colonial Williamsburg comes to mind) but there may be some out there that don't.

Thanks for your input :)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Lindsay - since you're fairly close to Richmond, you might also contact the Museum of the Confederacy. They may have someone willing to come out and speak to your class.

Brian Harvey (Goonie) said...

Nice write up Richard. I'm also a relic hunter from Lynchburg Va. and love the stories of the Civil War. Mr. Whiting sounds like a super interesting man. I often camp up at Piney River. Let me know if you ever want to go swing the coils.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Brian. Thanks for the comment. Piney River is a nice area. I drive through there several times a year.