Successful Civil War Relic Hunting a Primer for Beginners – Part 1

Sooner or later, a lot of beginner metal detectorists see artifacts from the Civil War found by other metal detectorists and, as a result, find themselves also wanting to search for and recover some of those amazing relics from a most traumatic period of our history when the United States went to war with ourselves.

The main problem with hunting for and, more importantly, recovering great Civil War relics these days is that the beginner often has no accurate picture of what it takes to be successful in that area of detecting at this present time. Though they may be having some success at finding coins in yards, parks, and old house sites, Civil War Relic Hunting is a much more demanding detecting activity in terms of skill with your detector, researching for places to hunt Civil War relics, and educating oneself to the MANY different kinds of metal artifacts lost by soldiers during the war and how they respond to your detector when you put your search coil on top of one. You also have to learn to spot clues to great potential hunting sites and become somewhat of a history detective. I will explain more about that as we go along here.

A Small Sample of Dorian Cook’s the Authors Metal Detecting Finds

Civil War relic hunting is a constantly evolving activity of metal detecting due to improvements in equipment and the fact that so many detectorists are getting involved in it.

Let me give you some examples of what I am talking about: Before, metal detectors made their appearance during World War 2 as mine detectors first and treasure locators. After the war, it was still possible to walk the battlefields of the Civil War and the entrenchments and eyeball a lot of great artifacts lying right in plain sight. I heard stories back in the 70s of guys finding 20 or more of the coveted soldier belt and cartridge box plates (Belt Buckles) in a single day of walking the camps and battlefields of the war back in the 30s before the big war. By the time the 50’s rolled around, some of those battlefields were becoming National Parks and off limits to relic hunting. Most of the easily eyeballed relics had been found, and only occasionally would any be spotted while walking the Civil War sites.

The big war being over, however, metallic mine detectors inevitably became government surplus, and enterprising relic hunters realized that awkward and heavy as they were, they would open a whole new chapter in Civil War relic hunting, and they did indeed! True, they did not discriminate, but Civil War relics beneath the surface of the ground were so thick on the sites open to relic hunting that, once again, this first generation of metal detectorists could find 20 or more belt plates in a single day hunting on many of the bigger sites.

As finds with metal detectors received more and more attention from the media during the 50s and into the 60s, some saw potential finding of treasure in the manufacturing and selling of metal detectors that were lighter and more powerful and operated on easily obtained and relatively inexpensive lightweight batteries. The first of these new detectors had no ability to discriminate, but there were relatively few detectorists to search the millions of potential treasure and relic sites across the U.S. So almost everyone who got involved in metal detecting with detectors not anywhere near so technically advanced as they are now, did very well just by continuing to metal detect and dig most of the signals they got. Inevitably, the amount of easy-to-find relics on these legally accessed sites decreased by the millions.

Now fast forward to today; millions of people have and use metal detectors. Virtually ALL remaining easily accessed sites with potential for old coin and relic hunting has been hit hard. Now, many detectorists are thrilled to find just one silver coin for a day outing with their detector. Back in the 70s, if we came home with less than a dozen silver coins for our detecting efforts and a lot more other old coins with them, we were disappointed.

So how about it should the new standard for Civil War relic hunting success that we “oooh and ahhhh” over be the YouTube hero who hunts on some Civil War battlefield for three days and finds two fired bullets and a buffalo nickel and thinks he has had a real successful Civil War relic hunt? I think not! That is not a successful Civil War relic hunt in my book, even at this late date in relic hunting history!

On the other hand, what about the YouTube heroes who find dozens of rare buttons and buckles and other artifacts every single time they go detecting in all their videos?  Should they be the standard of success when it comes to relic hunting? Absolutely not! No one, no matter how experienced at relic hunting, goes out every time and hits the relic jackpot like these hunters try to make you believe they do. Don’t let them scam you with their clever, realistic-looking deceptive videos. They are all about getting subscribers and making money from their channels, not being honest with their finds. Not all but the vast majority of their finds are staged. You might as well be watching a Hollywood movie production or a so-called reality show!

I recently spent most of a week taking a couple of stars of a popular treasure hunting reality show that aired on the discovery channel on a real Civil War treasure hunt. They confidentially shared with me how much of what their audiences saw had been scripted in advance and staged before filming, and it was most of each show.

Yes, there still are unworked Civil War sites out there that can be found and that WILL produce dozens or even hundreds of great artifacts for those who find and hunt them every time they work the site, sometimes for as long as two years or more, depending on how big the battle or camp was. Before we are through, I am going to tell you how to find them in this three-part article.

I might even be reluctant to write this article if I still had the youth and physical condition for another dozen or so years of relic hunting, but at 75, I am nearing the end of my run, so sharing any of my secrets is not going to result in any of you recovering Civil War artifacts that I might have found. I won’t be revealing my current Civil War relic-hunting sites yet, anyway. I just might get another year or two to hunt them before I hang up my detector for good due to the limitations of advancing age.

What I am going to attempt to do, is show you what it will take in order for you, as a beginner, to become a really successful Civil War relic hunter in 2023. Any of you old veterans in relic hunting might also want to read on, as you might get a tip or two out of this that you can use to your advantage also.

Civil War Facts

The Civil War was a lot bigger than you currently think it was. For example: At the four-day battle of Murfreesboro, TN, also called Stones & River, the Union Army supply quartermasters report says he issued 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition to the Union soldiers for their rifles and pistols and 20,000 artillery shells and cannonballs to the artillery. And that does not take into account the MILLIONS of bullets and thousands of shells that the Rebs fired back at them!

That battlefield covered square miles in scope, and I would venture to say that as much as the huntable areas have been hunted over the past 50 years, there are still millions of artifacts to be found there.

There were over 22,000 known skirmishes and battles during the Civil War, and there were other thousands of small skirmishes that never got reported, and their locations remain lost to knowledge to this day! Landowners, hunters, farmers, etc., walk over the top of many of those sites every day, having no idea that Civil War activity took place under their very feet or tractors.

These sites have never had a metal detector over top of them yet. Now add to that fact the reality that there were hundreds of thousands of Civil War Camps. Some were there for the whole war, some for a winter, some for a few months, a few weeks, or a few days. Tens of thousands of these camps have yet to be found. Many of the unfound ones are mentioned by name in Civil War correspondence, soldiers’ journals and diaries, and reports, but no indications are given as to where they actually were beyond a general area.

Example of Soldiers Writing Pointing to a Camp

We stopped for the night near a small creek in Lewis County, and the Captain decided to rest our horses for two more days before we moved on to Bowling Green. There was evidence that this spot had been used by the Rebs for several months before we arrived there.

Above is a great lead to a likely un-hunted Civil War campsite, but this one would take a lot of walking any old road-beds in that county that would have led in the direction of Bowling Green and investigating every place a road crossed a small creek. Would you be willing to do that to find an unworked Civil War camp? I would, and have, and I have found several undetected relic sites that way.

Case In Point: When I first bought my Appalachian Mountains acreage, I traced a good running stream of spring water backup the mountain face I owned to where it bubbled up from deep under the mountain. There were no visible signs around the spring that indicated people had ever spent time there except a curious mound of dirt about 15 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 18 inches high very nearby. At the time, I thought it might be one of the Native Indian graves common to this area, but those almost always are covered with a pile of stones. This one was not. It had a huge Poplar Tree growing right out of the middle of it, which indicated it was quite old, whatever its origin. So, wanting a good supply of spring water that I could pipe to my house, I rented a tractor with a backhoe on it and went to work digging my spring pond. As it turned out, I had only taken a couple of scoops of muddy dirt out of the ground when I saw rusty metal exposed in the dirt I had dumped to one side. I got off and examined the piece of metal and discovered that it was a fairly large, old piece of a cast iron Dutch Oven pot that had been seriously broken. Immediately the relic hunter in me says to myself, “Someone was using this spring before you got here”. I went to the house and got my metal detector, and set out to solve the mystery.

Quickly I discovered there were metal signals scattered all over the area I had cleared around the pond site. I decided to check for non-ferrous signals first and dig them before the ones indicating iron. Within minutes I had a Union Soldier Civil War uniform eagle button from a sleeve cuff! Fired pistol bullets of several sizes followed that find, as well as some older flat buttons of the type commonly used on the pieced-together outfits of Confederate Infantry Soldiers who did not have regular uniforms. I began to see pieces of very old broken glass medicine and whiskey bottles and ceramic plates sticking out of the ground here and there. When I started to dig some of the iron signals, I found square nails of the type commonly found in Civil War camps everywhere. I also found a lot more pieces of cast iron cookware, but everyone showed signs of having been broken violently. I found military-type two-prong forks and knives used to eat with, and they two had been deliberately bent and broken. I was able to recover 90% of the pieces from the cast iron top of a big pot that had also been broken. Two of the pieces gave me the date on them of Nov. 15, 1863, and told me they were made by the F.P. Davis Co. in Cincinnati. That day I had discovered the campsite of a group of maybe 5 or 6 Confederate Deserters who had turned into criminals that robbed and murdered local farmers. Their camp had been detected by Union Cavalry looking for them, and a surprise attack with pistols, only no rifles, apparently resulted in the Bushwhacker’s deaths. The mound I had found there is no doubt their mass grave. The Yankee cavalry broke up all the ex-Rebs camp gear so that no other bushwhackers could make use of it. One accidental discovery of a rusty piece of metal led to my discovery of an unknown small camp and battle site from the Civil War. Even years later, I still find artifacts every time I go up on the mountain there with my detector. And that discovery clued me in on the fact that there had been Civil War activity in my valley that is not mentioned in any history books of the area or in any military reports that I could discover. So clued-in, I have since found other Civil War sites nearby and expect to continue to do so, all unknown to any other relic hunters. See the pictures below to view the site I found, and some of the artifacts recovered so far.

Some of the Items Found Metal Detecting at the “Bushwhackers” Camp

If you are going to find any of these unworked sites, a lot of legwork will be necessary because finding anything in print that gives clues to their exact whereabouts is extremely difficult at best and impossible at worst. But that is the good news. That is why the camp is still unfound. If it were easy to find, it would have been before now. We who hunt for these unworked sites have to accept the reality that we will come back empty-handed perhaps several times before we find that unworked site that gives a great relic hunting experience. Ask yourself if you are willing to do that, and if not, stick to the hunted-to-death Civil War sites and be content to dig a fired bullet or two for an entire day’s hunt.

If you are a really new detectorist, hold off on Civil War relic hunting until you get at least 100 hours of use time on your metal detector. Otherwise, should you happen to find a great site to hunt, you will miss a lot of good artifacts there simply because you do not yet really understand and use your detector’s full capabilities. Also, make sure your detector is up to the challenges of covering a lot of ground and detect small signals deeply. A $60 Walmart Special metal detector is not what you want to search for relics. Obtain some brass buttons the size of Civil War uniform buttons and some big bullets the size of Civil War bullets and bury them carefully at different marked depths (2, 4″, 6″ 8″, and 10″) in the soil where no other metal signals are present. Practice familiarizing yourself with the response on your metal detector when you swing over them both the sound and the VDI digital read-out number. Also, get a brass belt buckle the size of a Civil War buckle and bury it first at 6″, then 12″, and get real familiar with how it reads on your detector. A relatively shallow belt plate will sound like a flattened aluminum can, so always dig such a signal on a Civil War site.

Spend time on bad weather days familiarizing yourself with the many types of different Civil War artifacts that can be seen by googling Civil War Artifacts Images. There were over 1200 different types of bullets used in the war for over 1200 different rifles and pistols. They are all very collectible and command retail values from $5 to over $500 each, depending on their rarity and use in the war. There were hundreds of different belts and cartridge box plates. Learn what the most common ones look like. Consider that invariably, beginner relic hunters will find what they think are pieces of junk iron or scrap copper or brass only to discover after they throw them away that they were, in fact, Civil War artifacts. As a beginner, never throw away anything found in a camp or battlefield that you cannot positively identify on the spot. Take it home, put it out there for I.D, you can always pitch it later.

Unlike the coins you find, certain Civil War relics will require extra preservation efforts once excavated from the soil to preserve them from corrosion upon exposure to the air and humidity. Iron artifacts, if just cleaned and put in a display case, will likely continue to rust away if not first preserved correctly. You can find info on how to do that online. Civil war brass uniform buttons were made in hundreds of different types and are highly desirable finds. However, they are subject to corrosion damage caused by highly acid soils and farm chemicals and fertilizers. Always have a small container filled with cotton balls or other soft material for cushioning button finds or you may not get them home intact. Handle them VERY gently, and NEVER put a button in a container or your pouch with bullets around it or you may well destroy it before you get it home. And yes, I know all these tips are not telling you how to find these great relics be patient; that is coming. I first want you, the beginner, to have an overview of what you are about to undertake in becoming a Civil War relic hunter.

Take into consideration that commonly known Civil War locations are very hard to get permissions these days because the landowners have been bugged to death by both permission seekers and outlaw relic hunters that have trespassed on their property. I focus instead on areas where there has not been much known Civil War activity so the landowners have not been harassed by detectorists, legal or not. Where I live now is such an area. There are few records of Civil War activity here in my county, yet I found a Confederate Bushwhacker camp on my mountain that had been attacked and its occupants killed and buried on the site when I dug my spring pond up on the mountain, it had never been detected, and I now have a display case of artifacts I have found so far there. Right across the road from my front gate, I found a Union cavalry camp up on that mountain. Around here, if you ask 10 landowners for permission to detect, you will average 8 or 9 yes’s. Sure, Civil War sites are more difficult to find here than somewhere like Virginia, where so much fighting and camping occurred, but here, I do NOT have thousands of other relic hunters competing with me for the sites here. I may be the only person in the whole county hunting for Civil War sites here. Are you getting the picture I am painting for you?

On another old farm where I was doing some tree work for the owner, a nearby resident stopped to talk and told me that in the big field behind me, which was on the farm I was working on, his grandfather told him that the Confederate Soldiers had camped in it and got their water from the small creek flowing nearby. There was MUCH Civil War activity in Kentucky, but certain areas are like the land that time forgot. You cannot find records of what happened there during the war, but you know that when they fought battles at three towns that form a rough triangle all around you, there had to be troops moving back and forth on the roads through your area and camping along those roads where the creeks cross them. Right, where I live, the mountains are full of good springs of water, so I know from that fact the soldiers did not have to camp by the creeks. They could camp up in the mountains, where they had better defensive positions in case they were attacked. You have to learn to THINK like a Civil War officer in charge of a unit of whatever size. Where would you camp your unit if you were passing through the area? Learning to do this will definitely help you narrow down the likely spots where you can find relics in previously unknown sites.

Civil War Relic Hunting With a Metal Detector Takes Patience

Civil War relic hunting is not for those who get impatient and leave a site if they have not found something good in the first fifteen minutes of their detecting. All of us who have had great success in relic hunting over many decades have come home empty-handed on quite a few occasions. But when we hit a good site that no one else has, we are in relic hunters’ heaven. You can be, too if you become an Unknown Civil War site hunter that will not quit until you find one.

Maps Should Be No Later Than 1870 in Origin

And while we are talking about finding campsites along roads to be a successful relic hunter in the coming year, you need to get good at finding old maps of areas you want to target for your searches. They should be no later than 1870 in origin. Learn to make overlays of the same areas by obtaining a modern map drawn to the same scale and then having a printer or copy center copy it onto clear material so you can overlay it over the old map to see how much the road locations have changed since the Civil War. An old original sunken roadbed at any given spot might be within a few yards of the modern road or it might be over there on the other side of that pasture, a half mile away. Overlaying a modern map over an old one or vice versa. Can make a huge difference in narrowing down the area you want to search.

Visual Tips to Finding Unworked, Unknown Civil War Sites.

We, veteran relic hunters, have a few tricks of the trade we use to find unworked, unknown Civil War sites. Let me illustrate one of my own to you in a make-believe conversation between you and me: We are walking along an old road and come to a wooded hill near a stream running across the road. I point to the hillside and say, “Go up that hill a little ways and see what is there.” So, we do, and as we are standing there looking uphill, I point to some large holes in the ground scattered across the hillside and say, “What do you think caused those holes in the hillside?”. You answer, “Oh, I don’t know. It looks like there were trees uprooted in some past storm”. I say, “Go pace off the footage between those first two.” You do and holler back to me, “Looks like about 70‘ say, “Okay, now pace off the distance between the second one and that 3rd one over farther“. You do, and call back, “It’s 70′ also.” I say “Okay, now look up the hill and see that second row of holes going across the hillside. Measure from where you are standing to the next row and then between two of the holes in that row.” You do and say to me, “Amazing, both measurements are 70′ and there is another row of holes up above the second row going across the hillside. They look like they are the same distance apart”, also. I say, “Very good now notice that ALL of them have a pile of dirt on the downhill side. If they were caused by uprooting, and some might have some dirt on the downhill side but not all that impossible as is for them all to be in rows and exactly the same distance apart.” What we are looking at are Civil War Rifle Pits in which sentries were once posted to guard a Cavalry camp higher up on the hill, probably at the top. You say, “How do you know that it was a cavalry camp?” I reply, “See that narrow sunken trail about four feet wide on the right side of the rifle pits going up the hill along the edge of that gully? That was made by many horses going up and down that hillside in that spot. It is too narrow to have been a wagon road. And, so, before we even ascend the mountain to find the camp, the rifle pits and the horse trail have confirmed for us that a camp HAS to be up there.” Beginner relic hunters have to learn tricks like this if they are going to be successful in locating unknown and unworked Civil War sites. What I just relayed to you is based on a true story of how I found a Yankee cavalry camp that had never been hunted.

Try to Connect With Veteran Civil War Relic Hunters

Articles like this one can certainly help with your relic hunting education, but that is not the best way to learn those tricks. Try to team up with one or more old geezer relic hunters that will be glad to take you under their wing and teach you all they have learned about finding great sites to hunt.

Final Thoughts

I have given you more than enough to think about here in Part 1 to help you decide whether this next evolution of Civil War relic hunting, the search for unknown sites, is your cup of tea, so to speak.

In Part 2 of this article, I will show you how to find references to and make a list of very obscure Civil War campsites and skirmish sites to begin searching for that still have a high probability of not having been found yet. And keep in mind this will not be X marks the spot. It will be a primer on how to develop good leads on possible sites that others have missed. It will then be up to you to do the legwork to locate them.

Authors Note: I use winter weather days when outside activities are not possible to write most of my articles, so Part 2 will be written when the next winter storm blows through.

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