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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Diggin' In Virginia XXVIII

Some Day 2 finds and the area they came from
Back to Beauregard
If you drive past the Beauregard Farm in Brandy Station Virginia, there's nothing to indicate the incredible events that its gently rolling fields have witnessed.  I've touched on that history before and won't cover it again in this post but suffice to say, there's more to Beauregard than meets the eye—its hidden history makes it uniquely important.

Beauregard is my favorite site of any of the DIVs I've been fortunate enough to attend since my first DIV at Coles Hill in 2010. That's due in part to the sheer extent of the property.  You can sit down, take a sip of water from your canteen, and gaze out over a vast landscape that, in its essentials, is little changed from 1863.  Sure, the Flat Run has been dammed up, some roads are paved and there are more trees now than then, but the key topographic features absolutely (for me at least) have that unique Brandy Station feel that is also evinced from period photos.  And some period structures remain, too.  The Barbour house, from which Lee observed the Battle of Brandy Station, stands today amidst ancient oaks that themselves witnessed innumerable scenes of struggle.  It's a moving experience to recover a relic within sight of that home knowing that the soldier who dropped it also looked upon the very same building.

Barbour House dubbed "Beauregard" in honor of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, CSA
So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I set out for DIV XXVIII.  It was at my favorite site, the weather promised to be exceptional, and I felt a keen sense of gratitude toward the organizers, John and Rose Kendrick, for honoring me with an invitation.  Knowing the site from having been there twice before, I derived a hunt plan.  I marked on a map where I would start and where I would go next if the first choice wasn't producing.  I spent hours on this until I had what I felt was a completely rational plan which I printed out and packed with all of my other gear.

This year, I had the pleasure once again of riding to Virginia with old friends Dwight and Keith.  It's always an enjoyable experience as we devote the 4 or so hours to talking about our favorite topics:  The Civil War, metal detecting, and relics.  But this time it was made even more enjoyable by a visit to the White Oak Civil War museum in Falmouth.  This museum deserves a future post and if you are a relic hunter, you owe it to yourself to visit in person.

At the pre-hunt meeting, there came the moment of truth anticipated by all who have attended a previous DIV -- The Distribution of the Map.  This is a printed document showing the hunt boundaries and territories open for hunting.  There are always rumors prior to every DIV.  Maybe that bean field that wasn't open for hunting the last time will be huntable this time.  Remember that spot with the tall grass where those South Carolina buttons were found?  I hear that's been mowed, etc., etc.  There are typically audible gasps and sounds of stifled delight from the largely camou-clad crowd as they absorb every particular detail of The Map.
Pre-hunt meeting about to commence
This time there was news from John.  Another site was open to hunt in addition to the previous Beauregard acreage..  It was quite a drive from the main site but by most accounts its mysteries had never been plumbed by a pulse induction machine.  This was serious indeed.

The possibilities posed by a new site kicked off a process of consideration in my own head that lasted the rest of the evening.  It went something like this:  At the first Spillman DIV, a heretofore undiscovered i.e., un-hunted cavalry camp was found.  A ludicrous number of plates was recovered.  I heard (I wasn't there, alas but had to be present for the birth of my son.  Yes, it was a difficult choice.) that seven plates were found lined up under an oak tree.  The relics in both quality and quantity were the type of thing you see in a Howard Crouch book.  They were that good -- I mean we're talking big pieces of Civil War brass.  So, the precedent was there, tantalizingly clear.  The opportunity to hunt a new site might provide a Spillman-esque experience.  How could one rationally pass that up?

By the time I woke up, I decided that I would go to the "new site" and start the hunt there instead of in the field around Beauregard.  My exquisitely architected plan was out the window but, I told myself, it was out the window for a perfectly rational reason.

And then, after breakfast, after driving to Beauregard, and after John's morning talk, I had a change of heart.  Literally as we were walking back to the truck, I decided I would stay and hunt near the Barbour house at the spot I'd designated on my original plan as point "A."  The other guys looked at me like I was crazy (I'm accustomed to this by now) and I hurriedly got my pack, detector, and my shovel out of the truck so they could speed off to the new site and I could hoof it to point "A."

Here's what ultimately swayed me.  I work in a super competitive, high stress, ridiculously fast-paced (one of the corporate buzzwords is "speed-of-light") job.  I came to Beauregard to commune with the past, not compete with other relic hunters.  I wanted the savor the experience of finding relics of the Civil War.  I craved silence and the sounds of Virginia, not EMI from some guy walking up on me with their PI machine.  I wanted the antipode of my every day.

So I strapped on my pack and started walking to point "A," my breath streaming over my shoulder in puffs like a steam engine.  In mere minutes I was alone and the sun was beginning its ascent, bathing the hills in light that looked like something out of a dream or perhaps a memory, its edges worn smooth by time.  Maybe the soldiers who fought here as young men while reflecting in later years on those days remembered the hills of Beauregard looking like this.

Dreamlike scenery on Day 1
I reached the spot where, at the last Beuaregard DIV, I'd recovered dozens of relics including massive .69 caliber minies.  There was no one, I mean no one, in sight.  I was completely and utterly alone with Beauregard and the echoes of the men who had camped in this place in 1863.  I turned on the GPX 4800 --it seemed almost too good to be true--and I started slowly walking down the gradual slope toward Flat Run and over what I knew to be the center of the camp.

The camp
I think it might have been 5 seconds.  Maybe 10 at most.  But almost instantaneously I heard the unmistakable sound in my Grey Ghosts of a bullet.  I pushed the blade of my shovel into the soil which was covered by a close-cropped growth of rye, dug a mid-sized hole, and out popped a .69 caliber round ball.

I looked at it laying there and, instead of grabbing it, I tried to take it in.  A flock of at least 100 geese was flying over my head and I had the most intense sensation of The Past I think I have ever felt.  My decision to come to this place had been the right one.  No, I hadn't found a Kearny Cross or a plate, but as Howard Crouch wrote, quoting Steve Henry, a past president of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association, "I don't collect relics, I collect history."

My first find of DIV XXVIII
For the next three hours or so, I had the entire hillside to myself.  I ended up digging exactly one dozen  .69 minies, an unidentified brass buckle, 19 .30 caliber buckshot (from buck and ball loads), several rivets, a J-hook, and various other pieces of knapsack hardware.

The first of several .69 miniés
.69 minié in situ
Another huge bullet out of the ground
One other relic is a bit of a mystery but it looks to me like a soldier may have been trying to fabricate a Sixth Corps badge.  Here's a picture of the disk with the shape of a cross stamped into it.  Hard to say, but Beauregard was part of the extended winter camp for the US 6th AC.

6th Corps Badge Attempt?
Eventually, I learned a lesson.  If you whip out a camera and start taking pictures of whatever's lying in the bottom of your hole at DIV, it's the equivalent of blood in water to a shark.  I was in the middle of taking some photos of bullets in situ for the blog and so I could re-live their discovery, when I happened to look up.  By this time, around noon, I'd been digging in my spot for about five, blissful, uninterrupted hours.  But eventually, folks began to show up on the surrounding hills.  Whenever I'd start to dig, I would see them peering intently in my direction to see if I was finding anything.  If I put something in my finds box, it resulted in at least a 25 yard closer trans-location of the encroaching hunters on my position.  As I repeatedly recovered bullets and what not, the pack closed on my position and by now was maintaining a still respectful 50 yard distance.

Just me and the past ...
But the camera broke the camel's back.  When I started taking pictures of the mysterious treasures in my hole, it was like a lunch whistle blew on a construction site.  The entire pack of detectors simultaneously turned in my direction and started sweeping and marching rapidly in my direction.  They closed to about 15 yards, saw my concentrated dig holes, and started swinging over them.  My serenity, alas, was gone.  That was okay, there was more to find at Beauregard and anyway most of these folks were swinging VLF machines.  I wished them good luck, showed them a few of my finds, collected my pack, and moved on to point "B" on my hunt plan.

This location had yielded some nice CS bullets and buttons in previous hunts and abutted the Spillman farm.  But a thick layer of corn husks on the ground made hunting here quite difficult.  I spent a couple of hours and found little more than a big chunk of melted lead.  But I closed out the day with a satisfyingly full pouch of relics.

Day 1 Finds
Day 2
I started out the second day in a location that hadn't been part of my plan and ended up repeating the experience from the day before with little to show for miles of walking and hours of swinging.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  I learned that important lesson for the hundredth time that day-- if a location is producing, hunt it hard instead of wandering in search of the grail.  So I returned to my original spot, now with considerably more dig holes not of my making, and hunkered down to see what else could be slumbering in the sacred soil.

It was another stunningly beautiful, short sleeves day. I began detecting in the same vicinity as I'd been the previous morning and the finds kept coming even though there was quite a crowd there now.  My first relic was yet another .69 minie but this one had been carved.  Eventually, I moved out of the concentrated ".69 camp" (I think there at least 5 areas at Beauregard called that) and into a different camp where the only bullets were standard .58 "3 ringers."

Carved .60 minié
Within an hour, I had a few bullets, some more buck and ball loads, and two general service eagle buttons in my pouch.  The area began to attract more and more hunters, probably folks who had been to the "new site" the day before and deemed it unproductive (something which wasn't true, incidentally).

In spite of the crowd, I was still able to pull quite a few nice brass pieces out of this spot including a saber belt grommet with leather still attached, and an Eagle staff officer's button.

Day 2 Finds

Staff Officer's Button
Day 3
I decided to proceed with my original plan and headed to my third point of interest.  This was an area near where several Shaler sectional bullets had been found at previous DIVs.  Quite a few folks had been there the first day and my goal wasn't Shalers so much as Gardners.  It was a bit of a hike from where I was dropped off but after an exhilarating walk on a beautiful day I turned the 4800 on and, about 10 yards from the road, dug a nice dropped 3 ringer followed by an Eagle button and a Type 2 Williams bullet.  By the time I'd hunted my way to the hillside that was my preferred location, I noticed another person was already there.  From his technique it was obvious that he was an experienced detector and his densely clustered dig holes attested to his success in the area.

We each maintained a respectful distance from each other, allowing us to hear the elusive deep signals otherwise drowned out by EMI.  He continued to search the hillside while I detected the hill crest.  Eventually, I got a piercingly loud brass signal.  I dug, dug some more, then more, then even more.  Finally, I found the target -- a New York button, lacking the back but with quite a lot of gilt still left.  It was right on the top of that hill, about 15" or so deep.  It sounded like it had been 2" deep!  I was taking some pictures when the other fellow came over, introduced himself, and we compared finds.  Sure enough, he'd been digging Gardner bullets whereas I, a mere thirty yards away, was finding only Yankee stuff.

New York Button
Eventually, it dawned on me that I was not just thirsty but genuinely dehydrated.  I'd packed a lot of water but had already gone through it all.  The amount of deep holes I was digging combined with the warm weather had parched me pretty thoroughly.  So I started the long hike back to the DIV HQ at the Barbour House to get some lunch and libation.

As it turned out, I was at probably the farthest point on the map from the HQ and it took me a long time, even at my customary brisk walk, to get there.  Shortly before I arrived, the pickups parked around HQ all started driving away en masse.  This didn't bode well —it meant that lunch was over and folks were headed back out to get in the last hours of digging for this DIV.

Finally, I got there only to discover that the hot dogs were gone.  I can't describe to you the profound sadness this caused me.  But one of the committee members, I failed to get her name but she reminded me of many of my wonderful, doting female relatives who cared for me while growing up in the South, noticed my predicament.  She brought me several cans of Sprite and it was like nectar —never had a soda tasted so good.  Then she gave me several slices of pound cake and I sat down right there in the middle of the now empty parking lot without even bothering to take my pack off, and ate every last morsel of that heavenly cake.  Thank you to my benefactress!

I was now fully restored and ready to get back to relic hunting.  But where to go?  I decided the field at hand was hard to beat so I strode out into a setting that looked more like a golf course than a hay and dairy farm much less a Civil War encampment, to see what I could find.

Before long, I got a round ball.  Then a carved bullet.  And then, a very faint signal.

Big hole, little bullet
There's no doubt that this was my deepest relic ever.  I started hunting slowly and ... yes, another whisper.  Again, another bullet, this time a Sharps.

Sharps sees light again on a beautiful day
I hunkered down and started finding more Sharps bullets including two, incredibly deep Ringtail Sharps.  They came out of the ground more lead-colored grey than white.  I think the depth and the clay helped prevent the typical oxidation that bullets in soil undergo.

This turned out to be an excellent spot.  I went on to find many more bullets including a Washington arsenal .58 "3 ringer" and a brass ring with a small precious stone in it.  This being the last few hours of DIV XXVIII, I wanted to capture some of the images for perpetuity and of course it was like ringing a dinner bell and one guy was so "hungry" he came right on over to within 20 feet of me and just about blew my ears off with quavering EMI.

It was okay.  I was at Beauregard, at DIV, digging relics that had been in the ground since 1863.  The sun was shining and I had just enough enough Sprite and cake to feed an army.

Finds arranged by Day. From top down: 1, 2, and 3.
Summary
DIV XXVIII was undoubtedly my favorite DIV.  From start to finish in its entirety it was dream-like.  Yes, I found a lot of relics and I was happy with that.  I think that my detecting abilities have dramatically improved and I'm now consistently digging relics that previously I would have missed.  That's a great feeling.  But the best part of this DIV for me was the extraordinarily rare privilege to really experience a connection with the past.  That's what drives relic hunting for me, it's why I spend umpteen hours and $ and brave poison ivy, ticks, electric fences, you-name-it, on this pursuit.  There is just nothing like the mystical experience of standing outside of time, if only for a few seconds, and seeing life as it was in the 1860s for these men caught up in the immense, tragic struggle of the American Civil War.

I can't think John and Rose Kendrick enough for the incredible opportunity to attend DIV and for their stewardship of these historical sites.  I'm grateful for the friendships, camaraderie and "war stories" shared with other DIV'ers and hopefully I'll get to experience more of that, not to mention Sprite, cake, and relics.

Washington Arsenal minié with star in base

Brass ring with gem (probably sapphire)

Assorted Sharps bullets from Day 3

All of the bullets from DIV XXVIII
A happy finds box

Various brass relics

Mystery buckle out of the ground

The concluding moments of DIV XXVIII



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