By: Tom Williams
The morning was already warm and muggy after a hard rain the day before as we drove up the main entrance into Shiloh National Park Battlefield property with metal detectors. There was a dead silence in the air, as the woods seemed like they were mourning the screams and cries of thousands of men who lost their lives in such a horrific battle not long ago. We passed many original cannons before reaching the park ranger quarters as one could imagine the distant pounding and thunder they made during the heat of battle. We had no idea what to expect hunting such hollowed ground other than hoping to dig a lot of relics and enjoying the hunt with fellow Civil War enthusiasts. Our expectations would end up being far exceeded with many memories and two exciting days full of digging, sweating, walking, laughs, pictures and yes, a few tricks.
A call came in a week prior to the hunt from none other than Kevin Walls of the Chattanooga Area Relic and Historical Association. Kevin had invited me on several park service digs in the past but work and other responsibilities seemed to always step in the way. This time however, I wasn't going to miss it.
The second two days before the planned trip to Shiloh, I got a second call from Kevin and he needed several more volunteers. I knew that Roy Alsobrook always wanted to go and being the history buff that he is, it didn't take long before I heard h*ll yes! I then quickly started going down our club listing looking for one more experienced relic hunter who would enjoy digging relics but not minding the fact that the archeologists wanted everything, even the wheat cents pennies. Due to the short notice, I got a number of "darns" "nopes" "shoots" and "can'ts" until I got a second confirmation from Bruce Bolton. Bruce had done several digs before with the park service (but not with a metal detector) so he had some experience already. All three of us had never hunted with a metal detector on a protected National Park Battlefield property so we were in for a treat.
Upon arriving early at the park ranger quarters, we were well rested and ready for work. It didn't take long before the other hunters, archeologists and park rangers were up and ready to go. To my surprise Wayne Jenkins and Jack Masters were there as well, two more members from MTMDC! Prior to Shiloh, I had never hunted with Wayne and Jack before but knew they were long time experienced relic hunters who were about to dig their share of relics.
Instructions on the hunt followed from Kevin to remind everyone that we could hunt his land but only with permission first. Just kidding, Kevin! But seriously, he did remind us that we had to turn over everything we dug to the archeologists and park service, even pull-tabs. I still had dreams the night before of paying off John, the main archeologist, for letting me keep a rare buckle. Wishful dream'n but I'm sure other hunters had a same dream that night.
The day started off with one main group going to part of the battle site close to the Confederate Cemetery. I was in the smaller group along with Kevin Walls and two other CARHA members. Roy, Bruce, Wayne and Jack were in the main group along with the rest of the crew. At the panned dig site near the cemetery, Rolondo Garza, one of the park rangers, got his GPS machine ready to map out our finds. Another park ranger, Ashley, who was quite young and cute to say the least, was also there to observe. I almost wanted to pocket a relic just so she would arrest me! Uhhh, back to the story. There was also Rachel who bagged, logged, tagged and flagged all of our finds. She had a big job because, right after we turned out machines on and started hunting, everyone was calling for Rachel. "Over here Rachel, I got a bullet." or "Rachel come and get this large canister shot." My first legally excavated relic on Shiloh was a dropped.44 caliber Dragoon bullet. My second target, however, sounded like a buckle or spur, turned out to be a large modern brass washer. Yes even on a protected National Park terrain, there was plenty trash to dig in some areas. But for the most part, it was relics and nice relics at that. Not long after the bunch had dug a bunch of buck-n-balls, artillery frags, and other various mini balls, I heard Kevin cussing up a storm. Turned out he had dug his first seated liberty dime dated 1842 and in very nice condition. After snapping a few shots with the camera, Rachel took it from Kevin just as easy as when she stuck the flag where the coin was found. That was the first painful experience of the day but definitely not the last. Rolando got a call from the main group and someone had dug a complete 12-pound cannon ball w/Boreman time fuse. Hmmm, I wonder who it could be? That's right the Master!
We hooked up with the main group for lunch but not before driving up the road and seeing all of the flags in the woods. Each flag represented a relic that one of the hunters in the main group had dug. There were hundreds of them, some in concentrated areas and others spread through out the trees. It was interesting to see the finds marked in this manner and it gave you a different prospective on relic hunting. Just imagine if one of us flagged all of our finds on the first Civil War camp we ever found. You could stand back and look at the concentration of flags that represent a number of dropped mini balls and a few buttons underneath a big tree over looking a nice slopping hill and vision a number of tired and hungry soldiers cooking up a meal. You could then look over to the edge of the creek where a concentration of flags represented various horse implements, a spur and a carbine sling buckle and vision a few cavalrymen watering their horses. Of course, on this day however, the flags represented mostly artillery fragments, fired mini balls and cannon balls that more than likely took many soldiers lives, who fell in the thick of battle.
The cannon ball w/Boreman fuse was dug by non other than "The Master", Jack Masters. Wayne had dug his share of relics as well. There was also a Louisiana button, a few general service buttons and some other nice relics found by all the members in the main group. Bruce and Roy dig a ton of dropped and fired mini balls and a few buttons. We were having a blast. At lunch, we all talked about the fun of digging up relics that were not very deep and even lying on the ground in some cases. All of us agreed giving up the finds was not that hard at all. We just loved the thrill of digging on such a historical site (it was a good coping mechanism since out digging pouches hadn't seen a relic all day).
After lunch, we resumed the hunt in a field that had been plowed for many years. With no shade in the 90° heat, hunting through high grass and not finding many relics, it was like hunting a farm in Shelbyville that had been pounded by every relic hunting grandmother in the state of Tennessee! There was only one good relic found in the field, a solid 6-pound cannon ball dug by Dale, one of the Chattanooga club members, and it was fun to see him pull it out of the earth. As soon as we entered through a tree line into the woods, it was like walking into a virgin campground. Everyone hit their knees like a religious ceremony and started digging. After finding the first five or six .69 caliber three ringers in a two foot radius, I paused to listen to all of the "hacking" going on and chuckled because it sounded like lumber jacks on a caffeine high! The roots were thick but so were the bullets and large iron grape shot. Kevin had been working on one hole right next to me for about ten minutes and it turned he found a number of dropped .58's in the came hole. My machine was busy going off every time the loop was set on the ground so I didn't stick around to see how many bullets came out of the hole. When the archeologist told us to stop, Roy was still digging away and everyone had paused to watch. He had dug down about fifteen inches and something large and green was staring back from the bottom of the hole. He had to work on digging carefully around it and it seemed like an hour had gone by with anticipation. Everyone couldn't wait to see what it was. Could it be whole powder flask or a large sheet brass buckle or maybe a sword guard? Finally, after a hard fifteen minutes of digging, Roy unleashed the mystery. It was a large UBO, or "Unidentified Brass Object." Everyone congratulated him anyway for the nice effort.
At the end of the day, everyone was exhausted yet still fueled with excitement about what interesting finds Sunday would produce. Some of us joined the archeologists and a few park rangers at a local Mexican restaurant where we loaded up on carbs to burn for the next day.
Sunday morning everyone was sore but ready to hunt again. This time we started at the famous Pittsburgh Landing along the Tennessee River that was a strategic supply route for thousands of Union troops through out the Shiloh campaign. I can imagine everyone had high expectations at first, because of the location we were hunting. Not long after tuning the machines, we were amidst a field of pull-tabs and bottle tops. As we started to hunt up a field slop, the trash signals got fewer and fewer and then everyone heard the first precious words "bullet!" The relics were not surfacing very often but every now and then you would hear "scabbard tip!" or "dropped enfield!" I was still empty handed after thirty minutes of hard hunting until a deep faint whisper came across the White's Eagle like a ghostly voice saying "I'm right here stupid, dig me!" The signal read about 75 on the scale, which meant a deep coin. But when I used the trigger to pinpoint the signal, it sounded much larger. After removing about six inches of dark rich soil, I ran the loop over the hole praying for a good signal and boom, a big smooth signal yelled through the headphones. I looked on the screen of my Eagle and this time lucky number 86 appeared. Digging down in the hole through the loose dirt with my hand at about a depth of nine inches, I could feel three small lumps with my fingertips. With another few swipes of the hand, I could see three familiar hooks staring back at me. They were the "puppy paw" variety, which meant the older version of the 1830's to 40's. "No way, a buckle!!!" I yelled. Then I thought to myself, "What the heck am I doing!?" I could have slipped it in the bag and ran for it! Iím an average swimmer and maybe the currant would push me far enough down the Tennessee River that I could hitch hike back to Murfreesboro. But shock had overcome my ability to move the legs. Plus, Tom, the bagger and tagger that had been assigned to watch and record everything I dug, was a big guy and looked well trained in martial arts. Carefully removing the plate from the hole revealed the big letters "US". The buckle was in perfect shape. After a few pictures and congrats were taken, John the main archeologist dropped it in a bag and took it away. Even though I have been lucky in the past to dig a number of US plates, it had been years since finding one in such perfect shape, let alone on such a historical site. I didn't know John that well but begging him for mercy sounded pretty good at the time. Maybe even offering my laundry services for a year if he let me keep it. But I held on to my integrity and let the perfect buckle go.
Our second hunt of the day, we started next to the famous "Bloody Pond" where many soldiers took their last drink of water and wrote their last few words to loved ones on what ever they could find. Again, all of us were on our knees digging up shell fragments and mini balls right in front and all around the original cannons. There were all sorts of flags being put up around and near the pond. Bruce dug a nice carved dice made from a mini ball and Roy dug a nice button. The neat part about this particular hunt was location. Many tourists visiting the park had pulled up and parked along side the road wondering what all the flags were about and why so many weed eaters were being used to cut the grass. I dug up a number of bullets and shell fragments while kids of all ages and their parents watched in excitement and wonder. I let the children be the first ones to touch the relics fresh out of the ground. They would ask me "what is this to" or "what is it made out of" and so on. One family had gone into the woods to watch a complete 12-pound cannon ball being dug. It must have made a lasting impression on a lot of the young ones and probably produced a few future relic hunters!
On the last hunt, everyone dug a number of bullets, a few buttons, shell fragments and so on at another part of the battle where heavy fighting occurred. I had the pleasure of hunting right next to Wayne and Jack who were digging a number of mini balls. I witnessed Jack dig a unique relic right near one of the original cannons. After Jack dug it up, it didn't take long before he recognized what it was: a sheet lead device folded over to hold gunflint before it was tightened into the hammer. It even had a fancy design to it, cool! This is a rare find and I've never found one myself even with over twelve years of serious relic hunting. Another scabbard tip was found and a few other neat odds and ends to finish the day.
Everyone invited on the dig was on the honor system and I couldn't think of another more trustworthy group of relic hunters. A lot of great pictures were taken of various relics dug, a wonderful team of park rangers and archeologists and a serious group of Tennessee Relic hunters. What a team effort! It just goes to show you historically opposing groups on the activity of relic hunting and combining their knowledge and passion for the field of Civil War preservation to produce great things. I was honored to be a part of such a historical event and couldn't thank Kevin Walls enough for inviting me along. It is also good to see a few other MTMDC club members volunteer to take time out of their busy schedules to be of great service and promote our hobby. We need more positive publicity on our great hobby of metal detecting especially now. Volunteering our knowledge, time and effort to these organizations to help preserve our history is so important for future relic hunters to come. What we do now will predict how and where our children will be able to hunt in the future. But that's only my opinion!
WebMaster Jack Masters Note: The National Park Service requested help in determining samples of relics in the area where several roads in the Shiloh National Battlefield Park were to be widened. On July the 13th and 14th, 2002 several of us had the pleasure to, in conjunction with the National Park Service Archeologists, help in this project. When relics were recovered each was bagged and tagged on the spot with help from the Park Archeologists. Each signal was later identified by GPS coordinates so later study could determine troop placement and movements during the battle among other studies. Several members from the Chattanooga Area Relic And Historical Association as well as the Middle Tennessee Metal Detecting Club had the pleasure of helping with this project. Thanks to Kevin Walls, Ronnie Dugger and Jack Masters for the images of the activity posted below and especially to Kevin who is WebMaster of the Chattanooga club and was responsible for their in depth web presentation above. Think you would enjoy the National Park Service page concerning the Shiloh Mounds Archeological Testing Project - Shiloh National Military Park. These folks do a great job and several of the SEAC Archeologists participated in the metal detecting project.