Wednesday, April 2, 2014

DIV XXVII: Brandy Rock Farm Part 2

The signal that got me down into the ash layer of the fire pit on the first day at Brandy Rock Farm is still a mystery object.  It’s a large, flat, and iron, but beyond that I have no idea what it is!  Any help would be greatly appreciated!  What I do know is that it gave a good signal, and upon digging it out the black charcoal of a Civil War soldier’s fire could be clearly seen.

I found the charcoal layer by detecting this iron...... thing?

I continued to expand the fire pit, following the ash layer and checking the side walls with my pinpointer as I went along for metal targets.  The dark charcoal layer was easy to follow, and the brown disturbed earth showed an excellent contrast to the hard clay walls surrounding the pit.  In addition to the mystery iron object, I recovered an iron knife, parts of a horse shoe, and three iron four-hole buttons.  The brass finds from the pit included a J hook, a knapsack triangle hook, two large belt studs, a poncho or tent grommet, and a coat size button back.  The pit also contained a large number of broken glass shards, and I was able to reconstruct most of a bottle of John Gibson Sons Co’S / Choice Old / Bourbon Whiskey.  What I particularly love about this bottle is how it is twisted and contorted by the heat of the soldier’s fire!

Reconstructed bourbon whiskey bottle melted from the fire.

The real find of the hut, though, is what detectorists refer to as a “pocket spill”.  It’s a term usually used by coin-shooter looking for fairly modern coins, and refers to a small collection of coins found together.  It’s not every day you run across a pocket spill from a Civil War soldier, though!  This one consisted of three coins.  The first is an Indian Head penny.  The date is unreadable, but it certainly predates 1864 when the thickness of the penny was reduced to what we see today.  The other two coins are a bit different, and certainly rank among my favorite finds of my detecting career.

Brass and copper finds from the hut.

At the onset of the war, private citizens began hoarding money for fear of economic turmoil.  This began with gold and silver coins, and moved on to the hoarding of copper coins as well.  This led to a shortage of coins in circulation, which was clearly a problem for businesses.  As a result, some businesses took to minting their own coins, getting around counterfeiting laws by omitting any denomination and minting them as “patriotic tokens”, typically with pro-Union slogans or images.  These non-currency coins ran afoul of the United States government who outlawed the practice in 1864.  The two coins I found in my pit are patriotic Civil War tokens, minted with the same dimensions as a penny.  One side of the coin reads “Pittsburgh Dry Goods Groceries Hardware & Notions”.  The other side shows the image of a thistle plant with the slogan “United We Stand, Divided We Fall”.  There are few detecting finds which embody the American Civil War to such an extent, and I fell blessed to have recovered them.

The hut coin spill.
The same token in non-dug conditions seen here.

Thank you so much to John and Rose and the entire DIV committee for the invitation and for putting on such a well run event.  And thanks to you, my readers, for making it all the way through my long-winded posts!  Hopefully I will have an opportunity to do some more digging soon, but with Spring ramping up work around the farm, well… I’ll see what I can do!

All my finds from the Brandy Rock fire pit!

DIV XXVII: Brandy Rock Farm Part 1

I really can’t say enough what a special place Brandy Rock Farm is, and how privileged I feel to have been able to attend two DIV events on this historic property.  Brandy Rock was the home of the Union 6th Corps during the winter of 1863 to 1864.  The hunt started with a heavy blanket of snow over the fields, left over from the snow during the Spillman Farm hunt two days prior.  Warmer temperatures came in and melted the snow quickly, leaving everything coated in a sticky reddish-brown mud on day one.  Yuck!
Brandy Rock in the mud!

My finds were less numerous than they have been in the past, but DIV XXVII was one of the most fun times I’ve had in this hobby.  I tried to start in a known Confederate area with my friend Keith, but quickly abandoned that tactic, as the targets were simply too deep under the snow and grass for my VLF machine to hear.  Instead I went back where I left off at the end of the last Brandy Rock hunt – the field by the headquarters tent.  It didn’t take long before I found myself in a shallow fire pit with a very strong ash line.  I spent much of the day exploring the fire pit, following the charcoal line and checking for signals.  I’ll tell you more about those finds further along, but I recovered some of my favorite relics of my detecting career in that soldier’s fire.

Phil on "Wisconsin Hill"
My good friend Phil got into several pits in the area near headquarters.  One of the highlights of my hunt was watching him pull bullet after bullet from the bottom of a two foot hole.  The total was 20 three ring bullets exactly, along with neatly stacked percussion caps.  Congrats again, that was a great find!  Later, Phil also pulled an iron tube-like object out of another deep hole on the same hill.  He showed it to me, commenting that it looked like a scabbard of some kind, and wanted to know if I had the desire to dig up the bottom piece several feet in the ground.  Now that was a deep hole!  Of course I jumped on the chance, and sure enough I recovered the iron scabbard drag at the bottom.  I expanded the hole outward, and recovered several iron buckles and a knapsack hook, but not much else before reaching hard packed clay on all sides.  I was also gifted a pile of broken glass from another one of Phil’s huts, which I was able to reassemble into a mostly complete Dyottville Glassworks Co. Phil. Patent whiskey bottle.  Thanks again, Phil!

Sword scabbard and reconstructed whiskey bottle

Surface hunting in that same area yielded several more bullets, knapsack parts, and three coat buttons – two eagle I infantry coat buttons and one New York coat button.  On day two, I went with my friends Phil, Todd, and Brian to detect near Farley House.  Built in 1790, Farley was occupied by both armies and used as the headquarters for the Union 6th Corps winter encampment.  Phil found quite a few bullets in this field, but my finds were less plentiful – one small pistol bullet and a large grapeshot or canister shot for a cannon.  Brian and Todd both found canister shot balls of the same caliber, so there clearly must have been artillery near by.  Todd had the best find in the field near Farley, a Richmond cavalry spur.  It really gave me chills to be searching for artifacts so close to such a historic piece of architecture, walking around close to where the famous picture of General Sedgwick on the Farley house steps was taken.  Even without a lot of finds, taking the time to appreciate that location was definitely worth it.  On the third day I went up to “Wisconsin Hill” with this same group of friends, and here I recovered one bullet and an iron sling attachment for a rifle.  I also got into a pit loaded with some of the darkest charcoal I’ve run across, and iron signals galore, but after much effort (and moving many HUGE stones to get to the ash layer underneath), the only thing I got for my trouble was square nails and mud!  You can’t win em all!
Todd detecting in front of Farley House

Oh right, the pit on day one!  This post has gotten long enough, so I’ll just have to leave you in suspense!

My finds from Brandy Rock Farm, not including the fire pit.

DIV XXVI: Spillman Farm

The Spring 2014 Diggin in Virginia invitational hunts kicked off with three days at the Spillman Farm in Brandy Station, Virginia.  The Battle of Brandy Station comprised the largest cavalry engagement of the war, and the rolling hills surrounding the town served as home to the Union army during the winter of 1863 to 1864.  To say that March weather in Virginia is unpredictable would be an understatement of the highest order.  Despite being held in the last week of the month, DIV XXVI was greeted with a snowstorm on the second day that made detecting more than a little difficult.  Cold winds continued on the third day, and the melting snow turned everything into a muddy, soupy mess.  Still, we diggers persevered, and I saw some incredible recoveries made despite the inclement weather.

Snow at Spillman Farm

My finds for the hunt were modest compared to some of my previous DIV hunts.  This was partly due to the weather, but I also devoted quite a bit of my detecting time to hunting for shells.  I removed a lot of big farm iron from the heavily shelled field on “Site 2”, and while I did find quite a few shell fragments, the unexploded ordinance eluded me.  My good friend Todd, on the other hand, was more successful, recovering a 12 pounder spherical shell in the big field on “Site 1”.  Congratulations, Todd!

Todd and his cannonball

I did find several bullets, including three ring Minie balls, Sharps carbine, and a round ball which was probably shrapnel from inside an exploding shell.  My best bullet is a fairly rare CS Richmond Merrill bullet.  My button recoveries included a very nice condition general service eagle coat button, as well as a civilian flat button and cufflink or period or pre-war design.  My heart-breaker for the hunt was the back of a two piece button, which doesn’t appear to be a standard Union back, recovered in the front field where many Confederate buttons have been found in the past.  Unfortunately the front of the button was lost or destroyed before I got to it, so we’ll never know what it might have been!

CS Richmond Merrill Carbine bullet on the left.

Most of my iron finds were shell fragments from Parrott and 12 pound spherical shells, but I did find a few other interesting iron relics.  These include half of a soldier’s heel plate, an iron barrel band from a rifle, and the pull chain from a soldier’s canteen stopper.  The large medallion in the center of my finds picture was by far the best sounding signal of the entire hunt on my VLF machine.  I knew it was shallow, but I was really hoping for a big brass relic.  Unfortunately it turned out to be a medal commemorating the 1999 reenactment of the Battle of Brandy Station!  Oh well, better luck next time!!
My Spillman Farm recoveries.

Despite the snow and wind, despite the cold and the wet, DIV XXVI was a blast!  I had a great time seeing many of my digging friends, and finding some relics together.  The harsh weather conditions for the end of March did serve to make us all think about the living conditions of the men who left those artifacts behind.  Those brave soldiers lived, worked, and trained during the cold winter months in those same snow-covered fields.  They endured the wind, rain, snow, and mud day in and day out, many without adequate clothing or even shoes.  Inadequate sanitation and close quarters led to widespread disease.  Mud-soaked roads made transportation of supplies challenging.  Those men endured all of these conditions to fight for what they believed in.  Although it made metal detecting a challenge, I think all the participants of DIV XXVI found a dose of perspective at this year’s event.   

 Original sketch of a Union winter camp in the snow by Edwin Forbes

Wow, it's been a while!

I can't believe it's been so long since my last update!  Trust me, it's not because I haven't wanted to.  For those curious, I took on a second job to help pay off my student loans, and the schedule has been a bit intense.  Between all the work and the crazy weather we've had this winter, I've barely had time to stop and take a breath, let alone a day of detecting.

I did get out last month, though - first for a day of detecting in Fredericksburg, VA followed by the "Diggin' in Virginia" Spring 2014 invitational hunts.  Fredericksburg is the home of Mary Washington College, my alma mater, so detecting nearby was something of a homecoming.  I had the pleasure of meeting two new friends, Dustin and Rod, in the search for relics.  Dustin is not new to detecting, but recently returned to the hobby after a hiatus.  Rod graciously allowed us to detect his historic property, and came along for his first time using a detector.

General William Averell

The property was associated with the camps of General Averell's Federal Cavalry in the winter of 1862 - 1863.  The Army of the Potomac was still reeling from a crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and harsh weather made campaigning impossible.  Captain William Hyndman of the 4th PA Cavalry described the winter in haunting fashion.  He writes:
All the long, cold winter of 1862 and '63, we did picket duty, almost continually, in the vicinity of Hartwood Church, a distance of eight miles from camp.  We were generally three days out and three in, in the meantime making scouts and reconnaissances.  Each was seldom in camp more than a day at a time.  We had a long and exposed line to guard, and had to scout the country in the vicinity of our forces, in order to guard against raids and surprises by any large body of the enemy.

While performing this duty on the picket line, which was in many respects a perilous one, we were exposed to the inclemencies of a long, dreary, and bitterly cold winter, in a country which displayed only far stretches of dense pine forests, and bleak, open glades and fields, almost uninhabited and unclaimed.  Here lonely and alone, we paced the frozen ground with no companionship but that of our carbine, sabre, and pipe - the latter being require to yield its utmost of comfort and delight.  How often then, as the sombre, leaden pall of clouds would move up the skies, darkening the chill though pleasant sunlight from the scene, and letting fall the first light sprinkles of the snow, to be thickened and whirled in icy mists about the face and over the whitening woods and meadows, have our thoughts reverted to the happy hearth at home, at which the loved ones were gathered and, perhaps, reflecting in turn upon our own trials and perils on the field of battle.

Fortunately the weather for our hunt was not nearly so unpleasant.  The rain showers held off, and we were able to recover a few cavalry relics along the bank of a shallow creek.  Dustin recovered a coat button back, several pack grommets, and a massive piece of melted "camp lead".  Rod recovered a dropped Sharps carbine bullet, his first CW relic with a detector.  Congrats, Rod - once you've found that first bullet, you're hooked! 

Dustin examines his button back fresh from the ground.

My finds included two cavalry bullets, a Sharps carbine and a Barthalow pattern pistol bullet.  I found part of a third bullet as well - a small carved sliver of a three ring Minie ball.  For brass, I recovered a knapsack J hook and a coat button, and large brass ring (not pictured) which was probably horse tack related.  The J hook has a longer, thinner, and more pointed wire than I am used to seeing on most typical J hooks.  Any thoughts or opinions on that piece are welcomed. 

My finds for the day.

The button is my favorite find of the day, even though it's in quite rough shape.  I incorrectly identified it in the field as a General Service eagle coat button.  I got a surprise when I was cleaning it up at home, though - inside the shield on the eagle's chest is a letter "C", denoting it as a cavalry button.  It's my first "eagle-C", and I'm thrilled to have found it at a site so conclusively tied to Averell's cavalry in the winter of 1862-63.