A little over forty-four years ago, I found my very first Civil War battle artifacts with a metal detector on the Perryville, Kentucky battlefield. While that day’s results were not much to brag about, as I only found one fired 3-ring Minie Ball and one iron canister shot fired out of a Confederate cannon for my efforts, it was the beginning of a life-long adventure… one that would be filled with thousands of hours of research, searching for… discovering… and recovery of… over 14,000 Civil War artifacts on over 130 different battle and campsites scattered over most of the states that were involved in the war.
I realize that there are others out there who have been far more successful at Civil War relic hunting than myself, having found three or four times as much as I have. In fact, I know of one man in Virginia that dug over 60,000 dropped bullets out of camps in the county in Virginia where he lived.
That being said, however, I will point out that most of those who excelled me in the numbers of relics found were in close proximity to good Civil War hunting sites… many of which had never been worked until they found them.
By contrast, over the past four decades, I have been much more than just a relic hunter, hunting treasure in its many forms in 42 states and 6 countries. So, for someone who only hunted for Civil War relics about 25% of his time spent metal detecting, I think I have done pretty well in that regard. But… what is more noteworthy about my relic hunting success is the fact that 85% of the time, my Civil War relics were found on battle and campsites hunted by dozens… if not hundreds… of other people before I ever got there!
I routinely went into Civil War sites pointed out to me by other very successful hunters who considered them not worth hunting anymore and I often came out with over 100 artifacts for a day’s hunt on many of these sites. I rarely found less than 25 artifacts for a day’s hunt on these “worked-out” sites so you can begin to see why I am not intimidated at all by a site that is supposed to be “worked-out.”
Over those many years of relic hunting previously hunted sites, I suppose I found some… or at least one… of most of the metal items that the soldiers used in camp and carried into battle with them. Many thousands of fired and “dropped” bullets of the numerous types used by either side in the war were among my recoveries. In addition, I found cannonballs and unexploded artillery shells, bayonets, rifles and rifle and pistol parts, coins, belt buckles, breast and cartridge box plates, brass and pewter uniform buttons and insignia and so forth, bottles, pocket knives, and side knives, camp tools and items, horse gear and even an entire exploded brass cannon barrel from a very famous Civil War Confederate cannon.
As fate would have it, however, it would be almost exactly 40 long years before I would return to the Perryville battlefield again to hunt for its “hidden treasures” missed by other hunters. This time, however, I was destined to be significantly more successful than just the meager two artifacts I found on my first hunt there.
I would like to share the story of my return to the Perryville battlefield with our readers and show you the success that I had there in hope that it will inspire you to also… not… be intimidated to avoid or not spend much effort to hunt sites you know have been hunted by many others.
The battle of Perryville was Kentucky’s largest during the Civil War, with over 100,000 soldiers present and more than half of them engaged in fierce combat… a good bit of it “hand-to-hand.” Unfortunately, this great battle kind of got “shoved to the back” in historical significance due to the fact that it occurred at about the same time as the well-known and much written about a major battle fought at Antietam, Maryland by Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Nonetheless, Perryville was one of the top twenty biggest battles fought anywhere during the entire Civil War. Thousands of soldiers died there and more thousands were wounded and the accounts of surviving veterans all seem to agree that it was as brutal and desperate as any they fought in during the entire war.
Today a large part of the battlefield (over 1000 acres) is a Kentucky State Park. Fueled by the “passion” of a civil war enthusiast park manager and the strong support of outside battlefield-preservation organizations, the battlefield has been turned into the most outstanding state-owned-battlefield park of the entire Civil War. Recently, it was the only one, not owned by the Federal government, to make the Top Ten Civil War Battlefields list in the U.S. The battlefield, itself, has been largely restored to the way it looked at the time of the battle, thanks to the unrelenting efforts and leadership of its park manager (and that project is still ongoing).
The downside of all this, however, is that as the park has continued to gobble up more and more private land on which the battle was fought over the past 20 years, with the help of various private battlefield preservation agencies, it has become much more difficult to find land on the battlefield where permission to hunt may be obtained (Metal detecting is not allowed in any Kentucky State Park.). Sadly, the owners of almost all the potential hunting properties remaining have had negative experiences with trespassers that have made many of them unreceptive to being approached for permission to metal detect on their land.
On the battlefield, itself, on state park property, is a famous landmark known at the time of the battle as “The Open Knob” (now commonly called “Parson’s Ridge” due to Union Captain Parson’s eight cannon battery that made a heroic stand there). This little hilltop was literally painted red with the blood of men and horses before several regiments of veteran Tennessee Rebels (and a Georgia regiment) under General George Maney finally captured it, along with seven of Parson’s cannons, in hand-to-hand fighting, while suffering heavy losses in the process.
Up until a couple of summers ago, I believed that the park owned ALL of the Open Knob and since they strictly prohibit the use of metal detectors I never expected to have an opportunity to search for artifacts on this famous part of the battlefield. How it came about was unlikely and strange… and a great lesson in “Never say never!”
As it happened, I had a friend who was a pastor of a congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio and he had acquired a new church building so I decided to pay him a visit to congratulate him. After the service, as I was talking to an acquaintance, this big burly guy with a shaved head and a droopy “Viking” mustache walked up to me and said, “Do you by any chance use a metal detector, and are you interested in the Civil War?” “Why yes, big guy… I have done some detecting here and there and I write books about the Civil War in Kentucky. What have you got in mind,” I replied?
“Well, I have permission to hunt several hundred acres of the Perryville Battlefield that includes about half of Parson’s Ridge (The Open Knob!) and almost all of Peter’s Hill (another Perryville “hot spot” where the battle actually started.) and I am looking for a hunting partner. Would you be interested,” he said?
“Would I be interested? (EEEEEEEEE- HAH… big Rebel Yell !!!!!) Hey… does a bear live in the woods, amigo? Yes, I would… can we go tomorrow?” Well, no… we could not. In fact, it would be a disappointing four more LONG months before he FINALLY called and extended me the actual invitation to go to Perryville that I was beginning to think would never come.
The part of the Open Knob we would be searching for was a cow pasture belonging to a kindly widow lady who had let anyone who wanted to hunt there for the previous 35 years. So… it had been previously hunted hundreds of times by other persons seeking artifacts from the battle… many of them very accomplished detectorists. That meant that we would be looking, in effect, for their “left-overs.” Please note the widow lady has passed away and the property was donated to the state park.
The fact that this was considered to be a heavily “worked-out” area held no discouragement for me because I knew from my research that the fighting had been really intense here. The huge amount of cannon projectiles and bullets expended around the Open Knob, as both sides tried viciously to kill each other, was such that there was no doubt in my mind there still had to be hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts waiting to be found by intrepid hunters with better equipment than had been available in years past and… most importantly… better detecting skills than the great majority of those who had hunted there before me.
“The Viking,” as I will call my new partner since he wishes to remain anonymous, had hunted this ground several times before with a very expensive foreign-made metal detector but had only been detecting about 2 years. He was typically finding only two to four bullets for a day’s hunt on the Open Knob property and believed, erroneously, it was because the site was, indeed, “worked out.” He told me not to expect to find any more than that and I assured him that I would be finding a lot more than that… setting my goal at 20 artifacts for our first day’s hunt together on this site. He just looked at me… gave out a big belly laugh… and told me that I was crazy.
To help in our search, I stopped first at the excellent Perryville Battlefield Park museum and bought a book in the gift shop, authored by the then park manager, Kurt Holman. This book showed, imposed on satellite images of the battlefield as it is today, the positions that all the units on both sides occupied every fifteen minutes of the battle from 12 noon to 7 PM on October 8th, 1862. Because of the detailed work the author had done, I could figure angles of rifle and cannon fire, pick out the most likely spots to make finds, and… actually have a good chance of associating any artifacts found with a particular unit engaged in the battle on that part of the field.
Once we arrived at the approximately 15-acre pasture covering the valley and hillside that made up almost all of the northside of the Open Knob, my partner chose the ridge along the right (west) side of the pasture to hunt and I chose the left with the steeply sloping valley between us. I made this choice because the modern fence line on that (east) side followed the course of the rail and stone fence that the advancing Tennessee Rebels of Maney’s Brigade had taken shelter behind as they came under heavy fire. I then, as usual, allowed myself the first two hours to just get the “feel of the site” and the existing soil conditions, as well as to get used to my new AT Pro metal detector just recently acquired.
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I have to admit, however, that those first two hours on the Open Knob were largely spent “gawking” at the historical ground all around me where the incredibly brave and determined Tennessee & Georgia veterans of the “Civil War Hell” known as Shiloh shot down hundreds of their foes and then left many of their own dead scattered all over the ground I was walking on. They first repelled a Yankee bayonet charge from an eager but green Illinois regiment, then charged the summit of the Open Knob themselves, got pinned down on the open pasture slope, and then in desperation, continued their charge and finally took it from the Yankee defenders there in desperate hand-to-hand fighting.
The first hour was almost like I was dreaming it all… I could hardly believe, after all the years that had passed that I was finally looking for artifacts on the Open Knob at Perryville! When they started to come out of the ground, before the first hour of detecting was over, I knew I was not dreaming!
I don’t suppose there are many other relic hunters who can say that they dug their first Civil War bullet on a particular battlefield but then did not find their second one on that same field until forty years later! And just like that first bullet, the second one was also a fired common three-ring “minie.” Based on where I found it, this one was probably fired by some skirmisher from the 33rd Ohio regiment at the advancing 9th Tennessee Confederates as he slowly retreated back to his regiment’s main battle line across the Open Knob.
My next find, which came just ten minutes later proved to be a really good one. Far from being a fired common bullet, it was a “dropped” (never fired) .54 Caliber “Ringtail… or Tie Ring…” Sharps, cavalry carbine bullet. The only cavalry that is shown in this area on the battle maps was Wharton’s Texas Cavalry, who made a brief appearance there at the beginning of the fight, so it’s a good guess that one of his men lost this one.
As I pondered why this unknown trooper might have lost this important piece of ammunition, I continued searching around the big tree where I found the Sharps. In less than five minutes I got a solid big-iron reading on my Garrett AT Pro close to the old fence line about 8’ from where the Confederate bullet was found. A few inches down I uncovered a big piece of shrapnel from a Union 10 lb. Parrot artillery shell. Now I had a clue as to what possibly caused the Rebel horseman the loss of one or more of his special bullets (I had no way of knowing how many like it might have been found there previously by other hunters). An artillery shell had exploded right over the spot I was hunting and it could easily have caused the soldier’s horse to rear unexpectedly, throwing him off. Or… he or his horse could have been hit by some of the shrapnel, causing the same result.
The bullet, or bullets, in his cartridge box, could then easily have spilled out in his fall from the horse and lost in the chaos of battle. My next find on further down the fence line, where it sloped down into the valley, was
another fired 3-ring Minie Ball, but this one had been field-cast in a two-piece bullet mold rather than those used by the Union army that were machined in factories and showed no such mold marks on them. It was most likely fired by a soldier in the 27th Tennessee Regiment at a retreating Yankee skirmisher in the 33rd Ohio.
Fired and dropped bullets continued to come out of the ground I was hunting throughout the afternoon and later when a setting sun finally brought an end to that first day’s hunt on the Open Knob, I tallied, not my goal of 20 or more artifact finds… but not far from it… eighteen against “The Viking’s” four fired bullets. This had been my first Civil War artifact hunt with my Garrett AT Pro and though I was still learning this detector’s capabilities, I felt it had performed well against my partner’s expensive French-made detector. He simply could not believe the number of relic finds I had made on that first Open Knob hunt and I heard about it all the way home.
The next hunt on our Open Knob permission, a week later, saw me really start to get the “measure” of the site and my new detector, as well, and I had what I felt was a “banner day” with 22 artifact finds. This time I concentrated more on the part of the Knob that was closest to the pasture fence line that marked the boundary between the widow’s property and the State Park. This area was no more than 150’ from the Civil War Cannon on park property marking the spot where Parson’s eight big guns had been positioned. I found a lot of fired double-ought buckshot and several .69 Caliber round balls that were probably fired by General Maney’s Rebels from the 41st Georgia at Union defenders of the 105th Illinois Regiment. “Buck-and-Ball” loads consisting of one .69-Caliber round ball and three double-ought (00) buckshot were commonly used by several Confederate regiments at Perryville throughout the battle, but only the 41st Georgia appears to have used those loads against the part of the Open Knob I was hunting. I also found several dropped .69 round balls in the area showing that the 41st had advanced to that point and then “gone-to-ground” seeking cover from the intense fire of the Yankee defenders from both the 105th’s rifles and Parson’s cannons trying to “hold the line” on the summit of the Open Knob. This battle was still somewhat early in the war and the 105th Illinois was equipped with clumsy “Prussian” muskets that were not very accurate and slow-loading. They fired big .69 Caliber 3-ring minies… which I found several of. My partner did better this time out, with a total of eight bullets and a piece of 6 lb. explosive cannonball shrapnel, most likely fired by Turner’s Mississippi Battery positioned on the first ridge north of the Knob.
The third hunt on the Open Knob also went well with my found artifacts totaling over 30 and my partner’s about a dozen. He was learning by watching me hunt and was finally starting to believe that there were still many artifacts to be found on this part of the battlefield. Not letting your mind defeat you by believing that a site is “worked-out” is as important to success as having a good detector and knowing how to use it to its maximum capability.
On this hunt I recovered a perfect 1½” cast iron Union Canister shot fired at the 41’st Georgia Regiment advancing out of the valley up the steepest part of the slope surrounding the Open Knob. These “miniature cannonballs” (measuring about 1& ½” in diameter) were packed 75 to a can-shaped shell and were fired by the crews manning a cannon battery whenever an imminent threat of the enemy capturing their big guns was present. These turned the cannons into big “shotguns” that wreaked bloody havoc on massed advancing troops. I also recovered pieces of artillery shell iron shrapnel from three different types of shells, giving an indication of how severe the cannon fire and been there.
The best finds of all four days hunting on the Open Knob came on what would prove to be my last hunting day there. Among the 38 artifacts, I would recover on this final hunt, I found a hand-forged iron “vent pick” that was used to clean out the “touch hole” at the back of a cannon tube when it became fouled with fired black powder residue. When this happened, the cannon could not be fired until the touch hole was opened again so it could receive the friction primer that was used to fire a shell. In this case, the vent pick was found down at the bottom of the valley exactly where the battle maps showed Turner’s Mississippi Battery had been positioned with their cannons at one point in this part of the battle. Upon the slope above I also recovered a 2” iron canister shot with mold marks on it… a sure sign it was fired by the Rebels… and almost certainly came from the same battery. Pieces of shell shrapnel were also found in that area.
The four fired .57 Caliber “no-ring” Enfield Rifle bullets, I found, called “Georgia Slicks,” were likely fired by the 9th Tennessee Regiment (which was noted in the records as being equipped with “good Enfield Rifles”) at the 123rd Illinois Regiment when it made a badly executed bayonet charge down off the summit of the Open Knob to try to dislodge Maney’s soldiers from their strong position behind the rail and stone fence. The 123rd was “shot-to-pieces” and lost 25% of the regiment in that charge (A full-strength Union regiment was about 1000 men).
I found “brass” on this hunt also. Recovered were three fired brass percussion caps from the upper side of that part of the Open Knob but the most dramatic find was a Union soldier’s general service coat button up on the ridgeline on the west side of the valley. The two-piece button was unique in that while the front of it was completely intact, it looked like the brass loop on the back by which it was attached to the uniform had been violently torn out. My partner, shortly thereafter, discovered a badly mangled similar button just a few feet from where I found mine. The 105th Illinois was the only Federal unit to have been positioned in this area so that it is highly possible that these two buttons came from a soldier of that regiment hit by shell shrapnel.
To sum it all up, my partner and I found over 130 artifacts during our “glorious 4-day assault” on the Open Knob and I got to add another relic hunting victory to my detecting experiences that I had waited forty years for!
So, bring on those “hunted-out” detecting sites and I will have a blast finding all those artifacts that are supposed to have already been dug long ago!