Monday, December 14, 2015

DIV XXXII Part II - Once in a Lifetime Paper Cartridge Recovery!

I last left you in suspense with one final dig of my DIV wrapup from Cole's Hill remaining.  It was just before lunch on the final day.  I had already had an amazing weekend of finds and friends, but I was still looking for that one special centerpiece.  I was continuing to find deep bullets in the swale at the base of Hansbrough Ridge, when one of those deep signals kept on going down and down.  At the bottom of the hole I finally found my first target - a Sharps bullet.  But I knew there had to be more than just the one bullet based on the signal on the detector, so I checked the hole to reveal another beautiful low tone.

I used the pinpointer to locate the next target, another Sharps.  When I pulled the bullet from the hole, I noticed something remarkable.  Still in the ground was the original paper cartridge!  I was able to carefully excavate the cartridge and powder charge to reassemble with the bullet.  I was still getting more signals, and one by one I slowly removed more complete paper Sharps cartridges from the earth.

Besides the first bullet, which was not complete, I recovered nine more bullets with the paper cartridge and gunpowder and six percussion caps.  Sharps cartridges were generally sold in boxes of ten, so it is highly likely that this was a discarded full box of ammunition.

So how did the paper cartridges remain intact for more than a century and a half underground?  As it turns out, these were no ordinary cartridges.  Civil War small arms used a number of different designs for cartridge construction, the majority of which included a paper wrapped bullet and powder charge.  The technology of war was rapidly advancing, however, leading to a number of new experimental "patent" cartridges by makers like Hazard, Sage, Barthalow, Potter, and Johnston and Dow.

Many of these patent cartridges were made of highly combustable nitrated paper or linen.  They were designed to load more efficiently and burn cleaner.  In addition, a nitrated collodion coating provided a certain amount of waterproofing versus a traditional paper cartridge.  Despite favorable reviews, these experimental cartridges never fully caught on with the ordinance department.

The waterproof cartridges, plus the extreme depth of the hole they were found in and the Virginia clay helped preserve these complete cartridges intact.  These waterproof patent cartridges do occasionally turn up in trash pits, huts, and trench lines, but are quite a rare find indeed.  The majority of those recovered are 58 caliber three ring minie balls.  Civil War bullet expert and author Jim Thomas identified my bullets as Johnston and Dow patent cartridges for the Sharps carbine.  Although the Sharps was one of the most commonly used carbines of the War, with over 40 million rounds produced, only a small percentage of those were waterproof patent cartridges.  And of those, a much smaller fraction still were preserved intact without being destroyed by time, the elements, or human farming or development.  Needless to say, this is truly another find of a lifetime.

For me, that's the magical thing about this hobby.  We get to connect with the past in such a tangible way, and make once-in-a-lifetime finds over and over again!  While no two are quite the same, I will cherish these memories forever.  Thanks for reading, happy hunting, and God bless.  Stay tuned for a big news update from Detecting Saxapahaw this Christmas!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

DIV XXXII - Homecoming Hunt at Cole's Hill Part I

I once again returned to Culpeper, VA for the fall invitational Diggin' in Virginia hunt in November.  For me, this particular hunt had a special significance - we were going back to Cole's Hill.  You see, it was in these same fields four years prior that I attended my first DIV event, #19, and I haven't missed one since.  It was in a small field beside Hansbrough ridge that I made my single greatest Civil War recovery, the Virginia belt plate.  It was there in Stevensburg that I truly felt I could count myself a "relic hunter", and focused my efforts on searching for the artifacts of the War between the States.  And it was there - in the hotel, in the carpool, at the pre-hunt meeting, at the barbeque, and among the hills and fields - that I met friends who changed my life.  Many of those same friends would join me now, four years later, for another chance to save some history on Cole's Hill.

My quantity of finds increased pretty dramatically since the last time I hunted here, and I can certainly attribute that to my trusty GPX4800.  Don't get me wrong, I clearly did well with the duct-tape-dfx, but having the right tools to cut through the mineralized red clay made a world of difference.

On the first day we decided to try out the new front fields.  The finds were there, but seemed to be scattered about.  I eventually found myself wandering back to the " old" new field from DIV 19, and found a fair number of Sharps bullets.  While I turned left, most of my friends turned right, and it paid off.  Brian quickly pouched a US box plate, and my friend Phil recovered the holy grail of Relic hunting - a soldier's ID disc!

Day two saw me in the field by the pond, near where the Virginia buckle was found.  I did get into a small patch loaded with bullets, and spent half a day cleaning up a living room sized area of deep lead.  This included several excellent carved and half-melted bullets, which I love to find even more than drops.  They provide such tangible evidence of camp life and the men who were there.  My favorite of these lead pieces is a soldier-made four hole button, carved from lead.  I can just imagine him whittling it down to replace a lost trouser button.

Also in this area, I found my best brass relic from the hunt.  This is the back end of a spur, worn on the heels of the boot to command a horse to move while mounted.  Thanks to the "ID me" relic identification page on Facebook, we found this example of an identical spur from the Mount Vernon collection, listing a production date of 1795-1850.  This would not have been a regulation issue spur, but rather a civilian model that could easily have been purchased by a Confederate or Federal officer or cavalryman.

The second half of day two I traveled to the apex of Cole's Hill.  What a view!  Can you imagine waking up to that every morning?  I also recovered a few minie balls here but failed to find that elusive dug in hut.

On day three I worked a small swale near the old pond, and continued to pull out deep bullets, button backs, a j hook, and four large brass studs.  I noticed that the latter produced a double-hit much like a nail, but with zero blanking.  I wonder what other targets might be missed by skipping those non-blanking double hits.

It was here, just before lunch, that I got a deep bullet signal that lead me to the best find of the hunt, and one I'm not likely to repeat.  But I'm going to leave you in suspense for now (if you didn't already see it on a relic forum).  Check back in for more pictures and a detailed account.  Thanks for reading, happy hunting and God bless!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cavalry Finds Part II: The mystery of the melted brass

I'm back for the second half of this two-part wrap-up of the Federal cavalry camp I detected recently with my good friends Keith and Tracy.  I talked about the bullet finds last time.  Now it's time to get to the my favorite stuff - big, green, Civil War brass artifacts!

I'll start with a brief nod to this cool bayonet scabbard tip, recovered in two pieces nearby one another.  I've talked about them in the past, so I won't spend much time on it, but you can check out an image of a non-dug scabbard in one of my previous entries here.  It should be noted that, because the cavalry soldiers would have been carring sabers, this bayonet tip most likely came from a soldier in a known infantry camp nearby.  I did also find one lonely three ring minie ball close by that also probably came from that nearby infantry.

One of my favorite finds from this camp is an item diggers and collectors often refer to as a batwing (for obvious reasons), although this was not a period term.  This large brass piece is a strap end from a carbine sling, a wide leather belt clipped to a cavalryman's firearm.  The belt prevented the soldier from dropping his rifle when not in use.

The complete carbine sling consisted of the brass strap end, a wide brass sling buckle, and an iron swivel to attach to the rifle.  I searched vigorously for the other parts to no avail.  I do, however, have a Gaylord/Shepard carbine sling buckle in my collection - recovered right here in Saxapahaw!  I found that one before I started this blog, but I posted a picture in a previous entry found here.  Above I have also included images of a non-dug sling, and below a cavalry soldier with the sling parts clearly visible.

Last but not least, I present my deepest recovery in that field.  We could see the characteristic green oxidation patina of brass in the bottom of the hole, but I think we were all surprised by what we saw as it came to light.  Instead of an easily identifiable relic, what emerged from the hole was this odd chunk of brass, heavily melted and distorted in a fire.  So what the heck is it?

I had an idea, but it wasn't until I got home and compared it to a non-melted example that I could confirm my hypothesis.  What you see below is the melted brass relic on top of a sword belt plate I dug back at DIV XXI.  A small part of the border of the plate and a protruding section of the belt loop are all that remain to identify this as about the worst looking Civil War buckle imaginable.

But a Relic is a Relic, and this one provided more questions than answers.  How did it get so heavily destroyed?  Would a War era camp fire burn hot enough to do this kind of damage?  Why was it melted in the first place?  I didn't have the answers, so I contacted an expert - Gary Williams of Hanover Brass foundry.  Few people (if any) know more about Civil War buckles and their construction.  Here is what Mr. Williams had to say:

Tony,  I have dug melted brass items from fire pits. Depends on what they use to build the fire and how long it burns. Yes I  think your buckle was destroyed in a fire pit and they just for some reason left buckles and all the other relics in pits , etc. You dig many relics and wonder why they would just leave it. One big reason was dead soldiers had no use for whatever.  regards GW

So it is clear that what I have is the heavily destroyed remains of a cavalry buckle, most likely melted in a fire in the camp.  As for why it ended up in that state, there are perhaps plenty of theories, some a sobering reminder of the reality of war and the remnants that we uncover so many years later.  This metal mystery, it would seem, will remain unsolved.