How to Find Civil War Artifacts Metal Detecting in Any State

Civil War Battle Fields Metal Detecting
The author decided to “cold turkey” hunt this big soybean field near a prominent creek with known Civil War activity nearby. He and his hunt buddy immediately began finding late 1700’s and early 1800’s brass and pewter buttons all over one corner of it… the site had never been hunted before.

If you were to take a guess, what would you say is the biggest obstacle that is preventing you from finding great Civil War (or any of our other wars) properties to metal detect?

Would you say… permissions? 

Or… what about if where you are located in the U.S. where there were few or no Civil War battles fought?

Or maybe… your busy schedule limits the time that you can devote to swinging your metal detector in search of new sites?

How about, “My metal detector is not good enough to find deep relics and I cannot afford a better one”?

Well, certainly all of the things above can be obstacles to good relic hunting site location… but… none of them are the biggest obstacle that is preventing your success!

If you are not coming up with good sites to hunt for relics then the biggest reason why is…  YOU!

How do I know this and what makes me presume to tell you… whom I do not even know and have not hunted with… that you are your own worst enemy when it comes to success or failure in good site location? 

I know it because I have hunted Civil War relics for over 45 years now and have found many thousands of relics on sites scattered all over the United States.   I found them on mountains, in cow pastures, on rolling hills, in the woods, the swamps, on islands, the coastal beaches and… in the water of creeks and rivers. I found them on “virgin” sites never trod by another relic hunter and “worked-out” sites hunted hundreds of times by others before I got there.  I found them by diligent research, tips from other relic hunters and…  “cold turkey” hunting where no known Civil War sites were thought to exist… but did.   Certainly, not all my relic hunts were successful but the great majority of them did produce relics because I learned to put the odds in my favor by doing certain things others were not.

The photos above are proof that the methods for finding good Civil War Sites that I explained in this article actually work… I found all that you see in these pictures using them and… these pics represent only a small fraction of my relic and old coin finds. Note: My oldest coins have been found while Civil War Relic Hunting.

Now, as I approach my 74th birthday and face the fact that my relic hunting adventures are winding down due to increasing physical limitations an aging body brings, I am willing to share information with you who still have potentially many years of metal detecting ahead of you that will give you the kind of success that I have enjoyed for five decades.  You are no longer my “competition” for good sites… I know how to find new ones where you have never been.  If you are wise enough to consider what I am about to share with you, your increased success will become part of the “legacy” that I leave behind me when I depart this life.

Are you ready to learn new tricks from an “old dog?”  You are?  Then let’s get started!

When I was a young pup growing up, and told the old folks, “I can’t do it… its too hard!”  they would often reply in the following way, “Can’t is stuck in a mud hole!”

In case that message may not be clear to some… it means… if the word “can’t” is a frequent thought and/or expression coming from your lips whenever an obstacle to success presents itself, then you are not going to get anywhere you want to be… because… you are stuck fast in a “mental-quagmire”! 

You have already decided on a negative outcome to the task at hand and therefore have eliminated almost all chances of success before you even try.  And… even if you have tried and failed, the result is still the same…  you have accepted defeat instead of trying until victory is yours.   

When it comes to metal detecting for any type of relics/treasure these days, mental laziness on the part of the younger set is all too often the motivation behind “I can’t!”  Translated, it means that “I don’t want to do the research that will find me new, un-hunted sites to detect or explore new areas that might cause me to come home empty-handed.”  That type of detectorist is most often content to go back and hunt the old parks and sites already hunted thousands of times over a 50-year period.  When they find the extremely rare silver coin or wheat penny amongst their new money coin finds, they proudly post it on social media like it was truly a great accomplishment.  I have news for you… its not!

That also applies to those who hunt already hard hunted known Civil War camp or battle sites.  They think like one guy I watched on YouTube who hunted two days on a major Kentucky battlefield and proclaimed it a great success at the end of the video because he found 2 Minie Bullets and a Buffalo Nickel.   In my book it was certainly not!  All he could brag about was that he did not come home completely empty-handed.  Big deal!

I hunted that same battlefield recently and averaged over 30 artifacts per day.  So… you decide who had a “really great day of relic hunting.” 

A coin or two or a Civil War bullet or two for an entire day’s hunt is only slightly better than nothing, in my book.  I personally I prefer coming home completely empty-handed a dozen times or more, if that is the price I have to pay to find a new Civil War site that has never been hunted before.  Because… when I do find that lost site I am looking for, it will provide me numerous relic hunts where I will fill my pouch with relics every single time I hunt it!

Now… as I write this… I can already feel you younger hunters bristling up at my “raining on your parade.”  You will have to choose to get mad… tune out… and continue making your good finds at the rate of one or two for an entire day’s hunting or… make changes in the way you mentally approach finding metal detecting site locations and eventually locate sites that will keep you busy finding and digging good stuff all day… and for many days thereafter when you return to hunt it again… and again.

So… what are you going to do… keep reading… or tune out?  All right, then… if you are still reading this, then you are with me and I will share my secrets with you. 

I all too often hear from younger hunters lips the expression that “the glory days of metal detecting are gone for good!”  You know what…?  I heard the exact same expression back in 1972 when I started metal detecting.  If you let your mind accept that as rock solid truth, you will make it your reality when it is not!  You will end up oohing and ahhing over others great finds… calling them luck… while you remain “stuck in that mudhole” I talked about earlier in this article.  

After I became skilled with my detector… a necessity for success, yes… but not as important as your mental approach to detecting… and learned not to let my mind defeat me before I even hunted a site, I went on to frequently find over 200 Civil War artifacts a day on many sites.  On some occasions I found over 300 for a long day’s hunt!

Before we talk about how you can do the same thing on the new sites I will teach you how to find, let’s talk for a bit about hunting those “worked-out” Civil War sites.

Since a number of you are hunting Civil War sites already hunted countless times by others, be they a big camp or battle site, here is a tip to increase your success.

Refuse to let your mind tell you that you will be lucky to find a couple of artifacts for an entire day’s hunt.  Tell your mind, instead, that there are still hundreds… if not thousands… still waiting to be found and that you are going to go home with at least 20 to 30 for your time spent there. If you settle for a hamburger… you will never get steak!

In addition to that trick… which you will find works most of the time, it is logical to expect most of your targets on a heavily worked site to be deep. You need to make sure that you know what a Minie bullet or a button or a belt buckle sounds like and how it reads out digitally on your detector if it is deep otherwise you may not dig good signals that you think are junk because they do not read the same as shallow targets.   Make a test area where you bury samples of these relics at different depths and then go over and over them with your detector until you know exactly how those deep buried samples read out on your detector in both sound and digital numbers.

I once wrote an article published in a treasure magazine about the psychology of treasure hunting.  In it I pointed out that, if you let it, you mind can steal success from you before you even start swinging your detector. Let me give you an example from my own experience. 

Back in the day, as they say, I was up in Northern Virginia and a relic hunter who lived there told me that the wooded site along a Civil War railroad route where the Federal wounded from the battle of Bull Run were taken for field hospital treatment was going to be developed into a subdivision and that they were allowing detectorists to hunt it in advance of the bulldozers clearing the land. 

Figuring that this was a good opportunity I went to the site all excited about finding artifacts related to the great battle of Bull Run.  But… when I walked into the woods there, I was absolutely shocked to see dig holes left by other hunters every 2 or 3 feet all through the woods!  I had never in my life come upon a site so heavily hunted!  

I turned around in disgust and started back to my truck… and then I remembered that I had told my readers not to let their minds defeat them before they even started to hunt.  So… taking my own advice… I went back to this dug-up woods and started to metal detect.  To make a long story shorter, I started finding artifacts immediately and kept on finding them all day.  My finds included a U.S. cartridge box plate, a rare E-2C brass bridal boss (Stood for E Company, 2nd Cavalry), several nice uniform buttons, 36 dropped Sharp-Hankins carbine bullets out of someone else’s dig hole they did not check after digging one artifact out of it and… so many other good digs that my big pouch was full up to the top at the end of the day and felt like it weighed 50 lbs. with all the lead and brass in it.  That hunt turned out to be one of the greatest single-day relic hunts I ever experienced in all my years of hunting!  Look what I would have missed if I had let my initial discouragement rule my head and had left without hunting that site.

Finding New Un-Worked Civil War Camps & Battlefields

Now… let’s talk about you finding new… totally un-worked… Civil War camps and battlefields to metal detect… even if you live somewhere like California and think there are no Civil War sites there to find, because… there are!

The Civil War was huge in scope and every single state had camps and activities related to it… even all the ones in the far west.  The easy to find and easy to access Civil War sites have just about all been found… and worked… but… the good news is… there are well over a hundred thousand campsites of the Civil War soldiers… probably closer to at least two hundred thousand, actually… that have not yet even been found. There are also tens of thousands of smaller battle sites from that war that have not been found yet.  

In many cases the records of their existence got lost, burned or were never created and so they lie in every state still awaiting discovery.  Percentagewise, very few detectorists are even looking for them for two reasons… 1. The younger generation of detectorists do not like to research, with some exceptions… they just want to grab their detector and go hunt some place easy to find and easy to get to.

So… spending two or three hours of research for every hour of relic hunting in sources like what we call the “O.R.’s” (Official Records of the War of the Rebellion… i.e. the Civil War.) is not something they are willing to do.  The O.R.’s contain hundreds of thousands of leads on where to hunt Civil War Relics but many are intimidated by the vastness of so much material to dig around in or… are just plain too lazy to do the work that produces really great leads to Civil War camps and battle sites from this most important source. 

2. The second obstacle that prevents most relic hunters from finding great un-worked sites is that they are not willing to put in the leg work it takes to find them.  It may mean that you go out and look for them several different times or even a couple of dozen times without finding them.  Most detectorists these days do not have the self-discipline to do that and… keep doing it until they find the camp or battle site they are hunting for.  Their need to be digging something every ten or fifteen minutes cancels out their ever finding a Civil War camp or battle site that would give them continual good hunting and the finding of artifacts for months on end… or even years in some cases. Their only hope of finding one of these sites is not by intentional effort because they will not make that effort… but by pure dumb luck… which happens in one out of a thousand cases… like winning the lottery.  Personally, I do not like the odds offered by dumb luck and that’s why I don’t play the lotteries.  I make my own luck by diligent research and then putting in whatever amount of time and effort it takes to find the good sites.

Civil War Metal Detecting Site Leads

Before I close, I want to give you a couple of leads from the O.R.’s to show you the potential for using them to “bring back the glory days” when it comes to your relic hunting finds.

Here is the first one… it refers to Civil War actions in locations that were then in Virginia but are now part of West Virginia. A really good lead on a Civil War site is in the last paragraph of this report.

Headquarters Kanawha Brigade,
Gauley Bridge, August 27, 1861.
General W. S. Rosecrans:

Yours of 26th received. I could not say be what road Floyd’s force went, because it was impossible for me to learn. I had good officers at Hawk’s Nest and they are sure no large force or artillery went by the Sunday road, which has three outlets into the Lewisburg turnpike, all of them beyond the Hawk’s Nest, and not favorable points to hold with small bodies of men. A prisoner taken says part of the force had been near Summersville for some time-probably on the Wilderness road. Prisoners taken at different places tell about the same story. Floyd is said to have four regiments, three cannons. Wise about the same. Wise is up New River somewhere near the junction of the Wilderness road with Lewisburg turnpike. Our advance guard on the different roads to Summersville, Lewisburg, and Fayette go without tents. Our pickets on mountain paths and roads are numerous. Our working parties about 400, and the whole force is hard worked, so that we cannot throw out large bodies. Tolerably reliable information to-day came of a party trying to get a road from behind over Cotton Hill, where it commands our camp. This necessitates new work in examining the ground there and extending some of our works with reference to it. I expect some information tonight as to the present whereabouts of Floyd, and will send it early in the morning if I get it.

Colonel Tyler was encamped at the cross-roads called Cross-Lanes, a part of his force one each road. The enemy were between him and Carnifix Ferry, about two miles from him. While his men were at breakfast in the morning they outflanked him and commenced the attack on both flanks and front nearly simultaneously. The regiment did not get in good shape for defense at any time, and was soon broken up and scattered.

J. D. Cox,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Next… I am going to pull the second lead from the O.R.’s from Civil War action in California just as an example of proving there are Civil War sites waiting to be found in the western states also.

Headquarters Humboldt Military District,
Fort Guston, Cal., January 30, 1864.
Lieutenant Thomas Middleton,
Commanding Detachment, Newkirk’s Mill:

LIEUTENANT: You will please have Charley Hostler and another Indian come to my quarters just after dark this evening. Should Charley not be at home send two Indians from is ranch suitable for scouts. Also, you will take one or more friendly Indians from Charley Hostler’s party and scout on your side of the river for Indians. While absent on a scout you will have the men left at your camp remain within the stockade at the mill. If this is strictly observed, five or six men will be sufficient to protect the mill, with the assistance of the citizens there. A scouting party from this post will scout from and above Kidd’s to-night and for a day or two. I desire that the Indians reach here without being seen, and that everything be managed secretly. Please send answer by the messenger.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
S. G. Whipple,
Lieutenant Colonel First Battalion Mountaineers, California Vols., Commanding Humboldt Military District.

Note in this report that it mentions a Fort Guston and a place called Newkirk’s Mill where there was a stockade.  In addition, it also mentions the Humboldt Military District.  Further research on these three items could produce potential hunting sites for sure.   Relic Hunters in California should search the O.R.’s for leads under the heading of Operations on the Pacific Coast and will find many potential hunting sites stretching from Southern California to Ft. Vancouver on the Canadian Border above Washington State.   Much of the Civil War activity in California involved the suppression of hostile Indians who favored the South in the war.  There was much activity of Union troops in California during the war and they occupied dozens of posts throughout the state.   Those who complain that they can’t find Civil War sites to hunt in California aren’t really trying. 

And the O.R.’s are not the only resources for finding great leads to un-worked sites.  Collections of personal diaries and journals written by soldiers who served in the war abide in the collections of many university libraries.  They are hand written and may be a little difficult to read at first but with practice, you can learn to do it and find great leads that are not printed anywhere else.  Very few relic hunters know about or use this wonderful resource for leads on where to hunt.  While you cannot take these journals out of the library, usually they allow you to copy pages from them on their copy machines. 

I could write about many other books and sources of printed material that also contain leads on relic sites but… I am not going to do all your work for you.  I have pointed you in the right direction here and if you want it bad enough, you will overcome any deficiencies you have in research skills and become a researcher that turns up leads on sites that all the others have missed.  Because… that IS what it takes to personally bring back the “glory days” of relic hunting for any serious relic hunter in this current world we live in. 

That being said… there is one other sure-fire way to find unworked Civil War camps and/or small battle sites… go to areas of known Civil War activity where both sides moved back and forth during the four years of the war and walk the old roads between towns. Search all around where the creeks crossed those roads and you will find where soldiers camped without leaving any records or reports that gave the location of those camp sites.

In my area of Kentucky where I live, Civil War records of troop movements, skirmishes and camps are almost non-existent.  For that reason, many such sites have never been found.  Since virtually no one is looking for them here, the landowners have had no negative experiences with outlaw relic hunters and are very approachable and likely to grant permission to hunt their property most of the time.  Oh, sure this method will result in you coming home empty handed on more than one occasion until… you hit a previously unknown Civil War site. But… when you do… it will be a sweet, sweet experience that you will always treasure. Finding sites like that before anyone else is a relic hunter’s ultimate victory.   

Final Note

In conclusion, YOU are really the biggest obstacle between glorious success in the searching for and finding of Civil War relics or not.  Persistent skilled research and the self-discipline to endure the times when you don’t find what you are searching for will win the day over the long haul. 

It is a proven way to bring back the “glory days” of relic hunting.  The big question remaining is… are you good enough to stop making excuses for not succeeding in relic hunting and rise to the challenge to change your approach and start making great relic finds ???

There are still millions of Civil War relics out there, scattered on sites all across the United States from California to Maine. They are slowly deteriorating away and need to be found… so… take this article to heart… discipline yourself to hunt relics like the pros and get out there and get your share! 

And one last thing… fix in your brain the three “R’s” of relic hunting…  Research, Reconnoiter and Recover. The first two, done properly, will always lead to the third one.

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  1. Well written old friend! Dorian is a “Been There, Done That” detectorist. Heed what he has shared. In addition, remember that after the war, both the North and South soldiers returned home, they took their weapons of war and battle with them. That prized belt plate, powder flask, etc., was just a belt buckle to those returning. If you research where their homesites were after the war, you will be surprised how many great finds from the Civil War are present where they lived after the war.

    Thanks Dorian!

    1. For many summers I had hunted a frequently hunted site and found a few buttons perhaps a hundred balls and monies & related. It was hot out there deep in the Virginia woods. One day, it was time to leave and I was tired. I refused to turn off my detector and dragged it behind me. It sounded like a piece of iron but was a Va Militia Sword plate.

      Later, the site was producing fewer and fewer targets. I cross crossed for a couple miles. Then I got the idea….in March of 1862 (early in the war) what would I do if I was an young, enlisted soldier camped in the woods, waiting and waiting with my buddies for battle w/ a ration or two of whiskey (or not)??

      I’d horse around a little….where I was there were steep ravines between the earthworks….I got down in there with the briars and found three plates same day…two plane rectangular, one oval…so that’s what I look for theses days. Also, as mentioned above…the old roads. Recently, I was reading a history of an old house c1820 along the Augusta Road. They mentioned how the house also served as an Inn….well I guess they all did to an extent. In fact, I bet more travelers camped in the yard / fields or down buy the creek than stayed in the house. I suppose if you were traveling the Augusta (any) road you had an idea where the next house was. The article talked a little about hog and cattle drivers coming down the road…of course they’d camp at the creeks I’d imagine.

      Somewhat related….a friend has a plantation in South Carolina….I hunted there a little bit but one guy was intense and found all kinds of stuff which he gave to the owner. Although there was no activity there during War of 1812 he found a many buttons from that period. His research led him to conclude that the buttons came from surplus uniforms used to clothe slaves.

      Not every site / activity is documented. I think about water sources wherever I hunt…put yourself in their shoes.

  2. To Dennis… thanks old buddy for giving that tip about CW relics from old house sites that I forgot to put in the article. Between both of us, we old Geezers still have one full memory if we “pool our resources.” LOL : > )

  3. Thanks so much! I’ve been detecting for 5 yrs now when work allows, but I wish I could spend every day looking for relics! I’ve often wondered how these guys on YouTube find all these civil war spots. Civil war and rev war relics are my passion and greatly appreciate the tip! I’ve found a few confederate buttons on old homesites but never really tracked troop movements etc.. looking forward to start a journey ? Thanks

  4. Hi Everyone … I’m an old guy, getting ready to start searching. Just bought a 100 year old house in southern PA and will be doing a road trip to there from California soon.
    I’ll do a little test digging around my house 1st.
    I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, and now I’m retired and intend to do just that.
    Dorian, you really inspired me to think things through.

    Are the O.R records you talk about ……. are they easily found?
    I will be traveling through Tennessee and Virginia, up Shenandoah valley to Cumberland Md
    Any tips would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Stan Sweeney

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