Monday, December 12, 2011

Detecting Bentonville

Mower's charge at the Battle of Bentonville
A couple of weeks ago, thanks to my friends Tony and John, I was able to do something I'd dreamed about since moving back to NC — relic hunt at Bentonville.

Bentonville was the last battle of the Civil War in the Old North State, the denouement of Sherman's Carolina's Campaign, and prelude to Johnston's surrender of 80,000 Confederate troops to Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham three and a half weeks later.  It was a battle where an overconfident Sherman committed tactical and strategic mistakes causing him to understate Bentonville's significance in his Memoirs and characterize it as a mere skirmish, devoting only 4 pages to the battle, and leading subsequent historians to also gloss over a ferocious, historic battle fought by approximately 60,000 Union and 20,000 Confederate troops.

Sherman went so far as to downplay Johnston's own account of the battle writing, "After the first attack on Carlin's division, I doubt if the fighting was as desperate as described by him [Johnston]."  This was modus operandi for Sherman.  The Carolinas Campaign undoubtedly catalyzed the end of the War and was a masterful achievement of organization and logistics on Sherman's part.  But throughout his career, Sherman's track record when it came to fighting against organized armies, even those as young as Johnston's at Bentonville, was less stellar than his attacks on citizenry and property.  I'll cover this topic in more detail in a future blog post.

On the day we hunted, the weather was perfect and we all ended up in shirt sleeves.  The land in Bentonville is flat and the soil is extremely sandy.  A shovel dropped blade first into a plowed field will penetrate a good 5" into the soft ground.  Surrounded by stands of cotton under a huge expanse of blue skies, we made our way into a field where, in March 1865, the left wing of the Union army had their main encampment.

The site soon began to yield treasures unseen since those three days of fighting.  The first good signal I got on my e-Trac detector was a Williams Cleaner bullet.  This was followed by another that retained its zinc washer.
The zinc washer at the base of a Williams Cleaner was designed to expand upon firing and it literally scraped the bore clean of black powder build up.  Black powder fouling was a constant issue for combatants throughout the War.  Cleaner bullets were issued to Union troops in the ratio of one cleaner to every 15 or so normal bullets.   These particular bullets appear to be Williams Cleaner-pistol carbine Type III variants with a .575 diameter.

My next find was a brass cap box finial.

Finials such as this one were mounted on the base of a leather case that each soldier wore and which contained his supply of percussion caps.   The finial served as part of the closing mechanism of the box flap, designed to protect the caps from water damage.  Here's a photo from a non-dug box showing how it would have appeared to the soldier who used it.

My best find of the day, yet another first for me, was a brass artillery fuse.

This particular fuse was from a 3" Hotchkiss shell.  Union artillery had retreated to a position near where it was found on day 3 of the battle.  It's fairly remarkable that, since March 21 1865, no one had come across this rather large relic especially given the benign soil conditions of Bentonville.  But it's especially gratifying to be able to discover and preserve a relic with such a specific and certain provenance as this.
Cross-section of a Hotchkiss shell showing fuse

Given the condition of this fuse, it's difficult to say whether it came from an exploded shell or whether it was dropped and subsequently damaged.  The 3" Hotchkiss was the most common Union projectile, but it was a widespread practice during the War for Confederate troops to recover and use unexpended rounds from the field.

Here's the day's finds.  Not too bad considering the field had been extensively hunted for years.

Special thanks to the gracious landowner who made it possible for us to discover, preserve, and share these relics—all that remain of those 3 tempestuous days in March when so many Americans died for their cause.
For a recent analysis, I highly recommend Mark L. Bradley's, "Last Stand in the Carolinas:  The Battle of Bentonville."

Sunday, December 11, 2011


After the DIV XIX article I got a few comments from folks wanting to see all of my DIV finds including the Eagle breastplate after it had been cleaned.  So here's the result of 3 days relic hunting in Culpeper (click on images to open zoomed view in a new window).

DIV XIX Relics
Here's a closeup of one of my favorite finds and another "first" for me —the carved bullet. It's amazing to think of a soldier playing chess with this in camp below Hansbrough ridge during the winter of 1863.

And finally, here's a photo of the Eagle Breastplate after cleaning.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Diggin' In Virgina XIX

Diggin' in Virginia XIX was my third opportunity to attend one of John and Rose Kendrick's amazing DIV events.  If you're unfamiliar with DIV and want to learn more about it, visit the DIV home on
The first DIV I was fortunate enough to attend was held at Cole's Hill in Culpeper, VA.  Cole's Hill was the site of a large Union Army encampment during the winter of 1863.  Many of the troops stationed there would go on to fight Lee's army at Gettysburg.  But before that harrowing experience, they had to endure the challenges of surviving Northern Virginia winter.

Cole's Hill in 1863 (note the tents and huts literally covering the hill)
They accomplished this by constructing huts and tents on the defensible high ground of Cole's Hill.   Imagine being able to walk that same hill today.  Now imagine being able to metal detect it and you'll begin to understand why DIV is truly an incredible experience.
This year at DIV XIX we returned once more to Cole's Hill but extensive acreage to the south including Hansbrough Ridge was added to the hunt area along with several fields that had never been open to organized detecting with pulse induction machines.
The soil in Culpeper is notorious among metal detectorists as being "hot."  It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the dirt is literally iron and it presents a real challenge to VLF metal detectors, most of which can't differentiate metallic targets from the soil itself.  As a result of these conditions, and in spite of decades of relic hunting, there remain amazing relics that await discovery today by those with modern metal detectors.

Typical Culpeper red dirt. Northern tip of Hansbrough Ridge in background.
This was the first DIV where I was able to use my new Minelab GPX 4800.  In fact, I had less than 12 hours total on the machine prior to DIV so I was a tad concerned about how I'd fare.  Even so, I was excited to have a machine that I knew was capable of significant depth even in mineralized soil and which also had an iron discriminate feature, something that my previous PI machine (a White's TDI Pro) did not.
Shortly after starting to hunt on the first day, I got what I call the "dig me now!" signal.  It's an unmistakable and very loud tone that starts out low, raises to a peak as you move the coil over the target, and then drops back down to a lower pitch.  There was no signal blanking meaning that the target wasn't iron.  So I proceeded to dig.  And dig.  And dig.  After several shovel fulls of Virginia's "sacred soil," I finally had the target out of the hole.  It turned out to be a fairly battered Eagle uniform button.  Here's the hole it came out of and where it had lain for the past 150 years.
Not a bad start and my first button find with the GPX.  Not long afterwards, a gentleman approached me.  It turned out to be Kevin Hoagland, Minelab's Director of Education.  He asked how I was doing and if there were any questions I had about my GPX.  I was really impressed that Minelab had an actual representative at DIV and Kevin is a great ambassador on behalf of the company and their products.  The evening before, he gave a GPX seminar to any DIV attendee who wanted to attend.  There were about 50 folks in the audience and I'm fairly certain that every one of them wanted the same thing:  The golden settings for their GPX!
That's not what they got at the seminar.  And I think it speaks highly of Kevin Hoagland and Minelab that they didn't just hand out photocopies of recommended soil timings for the Culpeper area.  That would have been easy.  Instead, for about an hour and a half, Kevin gave a Powerpoint presentation that explained soil timings and taught how to find the ideal settings for any area you might be hunting.  Even though I'd read the GPX owner's manual several times and scoured forums for any tidbit of helpful information I could find, I learned several key things in Kevin's talk.  They deserve their own separate blog post.

Minelab's Kevin Hoagland explains soil timings and the GPX
And now, here was Kevin walking around DIV, finding folks with GPX detectors, and giving them hands-on tips in the field.  That's really an unprecedented amount of customer support and, given the dedication of DIV attendees, a smart investment by Minelab.
The most memorable quote from Kevin's GPX presentation was, "Culpeper soil is bad, but it's not Minelab bad."  I chuckled when he said it and thought it was good marketing, but it turned out to be true.
Fast forward to lunch time on the first day at DIV.  Other than the Eagle button and a Confederate Gardner bullet, I hadn't found too much.  I sat down on a knoll to eat a leisurely lunch while gazing out over the rolling hills of Virginia.  A friend of mine, Culpeper local and longtime relic-hunter Frank, called and informed me that he could meet us at a location where they'd found some good relics at a previous DIV.  So I headed to that site, turned on my machine, and started to hunt.

And immediately, I started getting a lot of good signals.  In rapid succession, I dug a few Williams cleaner bullets, some button backs, and a carved button.  This locale, situated below the heights of Hansbrough Ridge alongside a stream-bed, had apparently been a campsite—covered by tents, abuzz with martial activity, punctuated by the sounds of camp life, bugles, and occasionally, musket fire or the formidable but exhilarating "whoomp" of artillery.  But for the hidden relics, one would never know that that world, so distant in time, had existed right where we stood.  All that could be heard was the wind, the warbling hum of metal detector threshold, and the buzz of conversation.  All that could be seen was rows of tilled field warming in the Virginia sun.

Gone with the wind ...
I was starting to get the hang of the GPX and began to understand its language and tones when I got another good signal.  Hoping for another bullet, I dug a 10" plug and ran the coil over it.  Nothing.  I held the coil over the hole and got an even louder tone with zero blanking.  Whatever was still in there was deep and unmistakeably  good.
Two more shovels full of dirt and I had the target out of the ground and the second I laid my eyes on it I realized that I'd just found my first plate.  I picked it up, took off my glove, and held something that was last touched by a soldier in the Civil War, standing on this very spot.

Eagle Breast Plate seconds after recovery
Curious, I placed my Predator Tools Big Red shovel into the hole.  The blade on this formidable digging tool measures 13.5" indicating that the hole was about 15" deep.  Not only was this the deepest relic I'd ever found, but it was also the most significant.  Thanks to DIV and Minelab, I was able to touch a piece of history unseen for 150 years, save it from further deterioration, and share it with others.  That's what this blog is all about — thanks for stopping by.

Big Red shovel in the hole where the breastplate had lain for 150 years

A handful of history

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Welcome to Touch the Past

Welcome to Touch the Past, a blog dedicated to the use of 21st century technology —metal detectors, GPS, satellite imagery, etc. —to find and preserve remnants of the past.

I hope this blog inspires readers to explore history in books, by visits to sites, and by supporting the relic hunting hobby — either by participating in it themselves or by granting permission to history-minded detectorists who ask permission to hunt on their lands.  Enjoy the site and please share your own experiences, tips, questions, or comments.

Thanks for visiting.