Most of the sites that I have hunted for relics, to the untrained eye, look like nothing more than some woods, farmland, and cow pastures. Sure, today that's what they're used for. But 150 years ago, some of these sites were home to the camps of thousands of soldiers. Imagine, looking back in time, and seeing rows of tents and quartering facilities, soldiers walking around or sitting by a campfire, the sound of horse hooves and clamor all around. What may seem to be "just a field" can actually hold some bearing in history, and some valuable treasures.
Let me detail one of my best recoveries so far. Back in March of this year, I traveled to Culpeper, Virginia to take part in DIV XXIX. The hunt site was definitely off the beaten path, tucked away in the woods and briar. The site itself was an old cow pasture. Not much to the naked eye. Part of the property was being taken over by vines and woods and the other parts were left for the cattle. We had about 800 acres to cover. Within those 800 acres, about 150 years ago, Union soldiers set up camp for a few weeks. There were regiments from Vermont, Massachusetts, and a very special regiment from New York called Chasseurs. The Chasseurs were part of the Excelsior Brigade, comprised of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, 74th, and 120th New York infantries. What made the Chasseurs stand out in the war wasn't particularly their combat, but their uniforms. The uniform consisted of a large shako with a heavy brass front plate, an elegant piped coat with distinctive, silver colored, cast pewter eagle buttons; white gloves, gaiters, and a French-inspired rifleman’s buckle. They were very flashy soldiers, but in the context of war, that's not always a good thing. Many of the soldiers expressed discontent with their uniforms, with all the unnecessary attachments weighing them down, especially when you consider the rest of the supplies they had to carry. It wasn't uncommon for soldiers to toss belt plates, pins, or even buttons into trash pits to lighten their loads. A hundred and fifty years later, we were there to dig those artifacts up.
The first of three days was rather slow for me. I started out in the woods near the property line, finding only a few bullets and a button. Some few fortunate diggers found some state buttons, a couple coins, and a lot of bullets in my general vicinity. Some guys even opened up a trash pit and recovered some bottles! But besides a few decent finds, relics were few and far between for the majority of the group.
Dawn broke on Day 2, and I tried my luck again at my spot. Nothing. I spent a couple hours searching only finding iron. I walked across the property to another field, hoping to find some elusive relics. It wasn't before too long as I was detecting around an old tree that I found a bullet, then another, and then another. I hit a bullet cache. And the best part, no one else was in the field with me. I decided to take it slow from there and hunt tediously around that area. In the matter of a couple hours, I found seven bullets, two General Service Eagle coat buttons, a flat button, and a knapsack hook.
Soon enough, I was running out of signals. So, I walked a few paces North away from the tree along the fence line. Suddenly, I heard a very faint tone on my detector. It definitely wasn't ground noise. I decided to start digging, thinking it would only be a deep bullet. About a foot down, the sound only got a little louder, meaning this thing was deep, deeper than I thought. Fifteen inches: not much louder. Twenty inches: louder, but I was nowhere close to it yet. Even after two feet down, the target was still in the hole. I honestly thought it was a false signal (which can sometimes happen or the target was stuck in the sidewall. Then I noticed some discoloration in the bottom of the hole. Instead of the iron-rich Virginia clay I'm used to seeing, there was a grayish sediment layered on the bottom. I soon discovered it was ash and realized I was in a pit.
I decided to proceed slowly from there, not wanting to damage any potential bottles or other artifacts that may have been down there. Brushing away the ash, there was some iron fragment and pieces of barrel banding. By this time, the hole was about two and a half feet deep, so big my entire arm could fit inside it. Not to mention I took me over an hour to dig it this far so whatever was down there had to be worth it. I was lying on my stomach, extending my arm down in the hole, brushing away the muck when I saw green--the unmistakable sign of oxidized brass. Anything brass from the Civil War Era is generally a good find, and I was very excited to see what this thing was. I wasn't small for sure, since it gave me a signal from nearly three feet down. I carefully reached down and slowly dug the artifact out. I lifted it out, brushed the dirt off, and couldn't believe my eyes. I had found one of the most desired relics possible: a Chasseur hat plate!
How my machine detected that relic, I'll never know. All I knew at that moment was that I was holding a very important piece of history in my hand. Pretty soon, my hooting and hollering drew a small crowd of fellow diggers wanting to get a peek at what I pulled out of the Earth. They were all just as excited as I was. One fella told me that less than fifty of these are known to exist, most of which were in poor shape. Mine, on the other hand, is about 95% together and completely flat, not bent out of shape like some others. It was definitely the find of the hunt, and the find of a lifetime!
I ended the hunt with over a dozen bullets, a few buttons, and other camp items (most of which came from the pit) and of course, the Chasseur hat plate. To this day, I am still in disbelief that this relic came into my possession. It just goes to show that these relics can potentially be anywhere, you just have to know where to look, even if it is "just another field."
For more on the Chasseurs, visit this site: http://www.virginiarelics.com/chasseur.htm