Saturday, November 23, 2013

Diggin' in Virginia XXIV: The Excelsior Brigade

Hey everyone!!  I recently got back from 8 straight days of Civil War metal detecting - Diggin' in Virginia XXIV and XXV to be precise.  What a blast!  It was an honor and a privilege to be invited to attend both fall hunts this year.

The Pre-Hunt

The DIV event started with a pre-hunt meeting in the evening, so my friends Phil and Brian and I decided to take advantage of the daylight hours to detect a couple of sites on our own.  The first site we hit didn't produce much, just a single three ring bullet for me, but it turned out to be a cool one.  It's my first "swage base" bullet, identified by the spoke shaped indentations in the bullet's base.  The grooves were used to turn the bullet on a lathe in a unique manufacturing process.  After lunch we went off to a second site, where I did quite well on fired lead.  I managed 6 fired Confederate Gardner bullets, including another first for me, known as a "blow-through" Gardner.  A casting flaw in the bullet created weak points, causing the nose-end of the bullet to blown clean through from the force of firing.

Fired Confederate Gardner bullets, including a blow-through Gardner, from our pre-DIV dig.

After the pre- pre-hunt-meeting hunt (if you can follow that, haha!), we gathered in a Germana college lecture hall with some 200 relic hunters from all over the country to kick off DIV XXIV.  Here we had the chance to reconnect with one another, shop the various vendor tables, pick up ID badges, and learn about the two sites we were to search over the coming week.  I got to see many of the great friends I've made through DIV, many of whom I hadn't seen in person since the spring hunt.  The location of the site for DIV XXIV was a closely guarded secret, but was now finally revealed - the camp grounds of the New York Excelsior Brigade!

Image from a recruitment poster for the New York Excelsior Brigade

The Excelsior Brigade was raised in 1861 by General Daniel Sickles of New York, and was comprised of the 70th - 74th N.Y. and 120th N.Y. regiments.  The brigade saw significant combat, and General Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannonball (and earned a Congressional Medal of Honor) at the Battle of Gettysburg.  From the winter of 1863 - 1864, the Excelsior Brigade went into camp near Brandy Station, Virginia and it was here that we would spend the next three days searching for the artifacts they discarded or left behind.

Review of the 72nd - 74th New York, Excelsior Brigade
 Officers of the 70th and 72nd New York, Excelsior Brigade
Brandy Station, Virginia, October 1863
Dr. Charles K. Irwin, 72nd New York Infantry, Excelsior Brigade
Brandy Station Virginia, September 1863
Day 1

I started off on the first day of DIV XXIV by exploring the farm and trying to get a feel for the area.  I finally settled in to a little field by a creek with my friends Phil, Lanny, and Lisa, and each of us made some good finds in that spot.  Phil did quite well digging deep bullets with the GPX.  Lanny dug an amazing canteen spout, into which a particularly religious soldier carved a cross (one of my favorite finds of the entire week).  His wife Lisa made a great discovery of two kepi hat buttons in the same hole - probably the spot where a soldier's hat was left and only the brass buttons remained after 150 years.  My best personal finds in this spot included a canteen spout, a flattened eagle coat button, and a broken curb chain.  A curb chain is a short brass chain which attached to a horse bit to help control the horse, and it's something I've wanted to find for quite some time.  All in all, a fabulous day of detecting in weather that couldn't be beat.  We returned home tired and happy.

Curb chain fresh from the ground

Day 2

The vast majority of Day 2 saw me in a large field by the road.  It was obviously a camp area, and there was melted lead all over.  The field gave up quite a few bullets and some brass items, including a knapsack J hook and knapsack triangle hook.  I also found a dropped Confederate Gardner bullet near the edge of the field, which was a nice surprise.

My good friend Lanny detecting

Day 3

Day 3 started off with a bang, with several period targets in rapid succession.  I ended up spending the entire day in a very small area of the field just down the hill from the headquarters area.  The ground in this field was a lot less mineralized than in many areas around Brandy Station.  This was good news for me, as VLF detectors like mine often struggle in highly mineralized ground and eliminate any chance to discriminate good targets from iron trash.  I spent the first part of the morning picking out good-sounding targets, until I happened upon something interesting - a strip of barrel band pointing straight up at about a foot in depth.  Wooden barrels were used to transport many different types of goods, and were also often used as chimney stacks in winter camps.  When the soldiers left and the farmer reclaimed his fields for agriculture, the holes were simply filled in with all their contents.  Recognizing that I might be on to something, I called up my friend Phil to tell him of my discovery.

Opening the hole, and a piece of the barrel band that got me into it.

The Firebox

"It could just be nothing" he said.  "Definitely dig it out some more, and let me know if you start to see charcoal or ash."  I called him back shortly and said "How about a melted bullet further down?  Will that work?"  He quickly responded "I'll be right over!"

With the help of Phil and Todd, very good friends with much more hut experience than myself, we proceeded to carefully excavate.  What we discovered was a firebox, complete with brick and stone from the hearth, sections of barrel band from the chimney stack, and large pieces of animal bone from the soldier's meals.  It also included eight discarded bullets and broken fragments from several different bottles.  Three of these broken bottles had been embossed, including a mineral water and two others which are only complete enough to read "...& Co. / ... N.Y."

Finds from the fire box - barrel bands, animal bones, bricks, broken glass, and bullets.
 Several of the hearth stones from the fire box.

Finally, at the very bottom of the box where the disturbed earth gave way to the hard packed red clay, Phil's digging tool knocked away a section of the side wall to reveal the side of a glass bottle which had not seen the light of day in 150 years.  I carefully excavated the dark glass bottle to find it nearly complete - only the very top had been broken off, and this was most likely done by the soldier himself.

A Civil War bottle in the fire box.

The bottle is embossed with the words "Clarke & White / C / New York".  Clarke and White bottled mineral water from the naturally carbonated springs of Saratoga Springs, NY.  The large letter C in the center of the bottle denotes which specific spring (in this case the Congress Spring) the water was drawn from.  The water was bottled and sold for the minerals and dissolved gasses the springs contained, which were thought to have medicinal and curative properties.  I was thrilled to have recovered a New York bottle from the New York Excelsior camp.  I can't help but think of that soldier, away from home to fight in the war, receiving a bottle emblazoned with the name of his home state during that long winter of 1863-64 in Brandy Station, Virginia.  I am truly blessed to have found it, and I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to recover it.

Clarke & White, New York mineral water bottle.

Reflections on DIV XXIV

I had an incredible time at the Excelsior Brigade camp, and I know there's still a lot more relics there to find.  The highlight, of course, would have to be digging out that bottle with my friends.  I also got to see many amazing finds at the picnic on the third day, one of my favorite parts of the DIV experience.  Several of these finds were specific to the Excelsior Brigade, including Chasseur de Vincennes buttons and shako hat plates and even a gold soldier ID ring!  Congratulations to those lucky diggers.  I was quite pleased with my own finds over the three days of DIV XXIV, shown here (minus the bottle).

My finds from the hunt excluding the bottle.

I also took quite a bit of video footage from both the pre-hunt and at DIV.  I find that taking a few moments to preserve these memories on camera is incredibly rewarding, and I am pleased to be able to share them with you here.

I do hope you enjoyed reading about this phase of my trip.  To say I was exhausted would be an understatement, but I was only half way there.  Between the break day and DIV XXV, I still had 4 more days of digging to go.  Stay tuned to Detecting Saxapahaw to read about my finds over the next few days at Brandy Rock Farm!  And as always, thanks for reading and God Bless!

1 comment:

  1. Great Blog Tony, was it hard to make? DIV XXIV was a new experience for me , I dug a hut and a trash pit and found some really good relics, I'll post them later! Good seeing you and great video, I know how much time it takes to make videos.