WV Civil War buffs unearth history with aid of metal detectors

What history buff hasn’t dreamed of digging up a cache of lost Confederate gold? Or stumbling upon old pirate treasure washed up on the beach after a storm?

It’s a dream retired teacher E.J. Smith of Charleston and his wife, Viktoriya, are actively pursuing through metal detecting. Although long a dabbler in the hobby, Smith recently upgraded his equipment and has spent the summer detecting for Civil War relics on private property along Kanawha Boulevard.

The project has produced some interesting finds, and Smith is eager to keep exploring.

“All my life, like any young lad, I dreamed of finding treasures,” Smith says. “Today, the technology has gotten much better than even 10 years ago, and it’s more affordable.”

Smith’s first forays into hunting with his new gear was at the beach. Walking along the surf, tweaking the dials on his Minelab Equinox, he felt like a kid again.

“I’d forgotten about the beach for 20 years and actually hated it when my family wanted to go. After I got into metal detecting, I liked going to the beach again. We went twice this year. I had a blast finding coins and even some jewelry while walking the shores at Jacksonville and Virginia Beach. We’ll probably go to Myrtle [Beach] next year. The high-volume beaches are better; you find more things.”

Battlefield Charleston

Back in his home state, Smith began searching for places to detect. He realized there was no better place in the area than Charleston.

“Not only does Charleston have a lot of 1800-era homes, but there was actually a battle that took place here,” he says.

Smith is referring to the Battle of Charleston, fought on Sept. 13, 1862. Confederate Gen. William Loring and 5,000 men drove off a small garrison of Union soldiers and held the town for six weeks. Loring withdrew under threat of a larger army entering the area. The town was retaken by Union forces without a fight.

The main battle occurred in the East End where the Capitol now stands, and along what is now Kanawha Boulevard, Virginia Street and Quarrier Street, according to Smith.

Fast-forward 157 years, and Smith is spending a weekday afternoon hunting in a backyard on the East End. Wearing wireless headphones pairing him with the “brains” of his detector, he listens intently to the signals it makes as he swings the pancake-shaped coil in slow, methodical arcs.

Nearby, Viktoriya stands ready with a narrow-bladed shovel, hand trowel and other tools.

“It’s always interesting to see what he’s going to find,” she says.

Laying out on the hood of Smith’s Jeep is a display of some of the artifacts he’s excavated.

Smith has found several bullets called Minie balls, named after the bullet’s developer, Claude-Etienne Minie (Americans pronounced the name as “minnie,” hence the bullet is sometimes referred to as a “minnie ball,” with variant spellings being common). Despite being referred to as a ball, these bullets have a conical shape with rifling (grooves) along the bottom.

This type of spin-stabilized bullet was made for the new Springfield rifled muskets being equipped to Union soldiers. Known for its accuracy and reliability, the Springfield would become the most widely used U.S. Army weapon during the Civil War.

In 1862, many Confederate soldiers were still using smoothbore muskets. Smith holds up a small, round, lead ball from one of his digs.

“The round ball is what the CSA used a lot. This type of ammunition was not very accurate,” he says.

The Smiths are hunting at the property of Nick and Linda Johnson on Virginia Street. The tornado that hit Charleston in June took out some trees in the Smiths’ backyard and tore up the ground.

“I called E.J. and said, ‘Come and see what you can find,’” Nick Johnson says. “Watching him dig gives a retired lawyer something to do.”

The Johnsons’ house dates back to the early 1900s. “It was built by the widow of Henry Clay Dickinson, a lawyer who fought on the side of the Confederacy,” Johnson says.

After the war, Dickinson was president of Kanawha Valley Bank (founded by his father) and also served as mayor of Charleston. He died in 1871 and is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery.

Smith has found several relics on Johnson’s property, including a piece of metal Smith thinks might be a piece of a harmonica reed.

“A harmonica was the only thing soldiers had to entertain themselves during down time. You’ll often find them on battlefields,” he says.

He also found a piece of metal gilded in gold. “I looked at it under a microscope to be sure it was gold,” Smith says. He conjectures it could be from a button or medal issued to troops.

During his summer project, Smith has hunted, with permission, on the nearby properties of the Children’s Home Society, Forbes Law Offices and KVC West Virginia. “We couldn’t do this without the owners’ help and cooperation,” he says.

Smith’s digging technique is delicate. When he gets a signal on a target he wants to investigate, he excavates a narrow, square hole and doesn’t cut the grass sod on all sides. When he’s done, he replaces the dirt and flips the sod back over the hole.

“Some people are afraid we will destroy their lawns, but we are very careful,” he says. “We try to make it completely undetectable. If you look at the lawns we have hunted on so far, you will be hard pressed to see where we have dug a single hole.”

Antietam fields

Ian Workman of Shepherdstown started collecting Civil War artifacts in the fifth grade. He lived about four miles from the deadliest battlefield of the war.

“Around here, you can’t really escape the Civil War. Antietam was so close,” Workman said.

The Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, has the grim distinction of being the bloodiest day in U.S. history. The final tally was 22,717 soldiers dead, wounded or missing.

“Growing up, we’d go to yard sales in Sharpsburg, and people would always have Civil War stuff. You didn’t used to need a metal detector. In the ’40s and ’50s, you could walk plowed fields and pick relics up off the ground.”

Eventually, Workman learned to excavate history on his own. “I had family and friends that metal detected, and they took me out. I thought it was neat. I’d find something and think, ‘I’m the first person to touch this in 140 years.’”

While Workman lived close to Antietam National Battlefield, he couldn’t hunt there. “It’s a federal offense to detect in a national park,” he said. “But you could hunt around it, if you had permission.”

Since Workman grew up in the area, he could usually get permission. There was also a skirmish outside Shepherdstown in 1864, and he did a lot of hunting there. “I dug lots of bullets, shrapnel and other items off the battlefield at Shepherdstown. That was back when no one cared about it.”

His favorite find? “I found a Confederacy CS tongue. It’s half of a two-piece belt buckle. I’d hit a pocket of carbine bullets in about four inches of dirt. I was digging for the bullets, and the buckle fell out of the dirt. I couldn’t believe it.”

When he got out of college, he needed money and sold it. “Maybe I’ll come across it again some day,” he mused.

Workman cites the late William “Bill” Gavin of Charles Town as being his mentor and inspiration. Gavin pioneered the civilian use of metal detectors. An Army veteran, he combined his expertise in World War II mine-detector technology with his knowledge of Civil War troop movements. He established the Rectory Museum at Harpers Ferry in the 1970s and was the author of several books on Civil War accoutrements.

“Because he was ex-military, he went to all the battlefields before anyone else had detectors, or even knew about them. He found thousands of relics,” Workman said.

Workman’s passion for military collectibles led him to become a dealer. He goes to military shows and sells relics on his website, American Civil War Relics & Military Antiques (americancivilwarrelics.com).

The 35th State Relic Hunters

Brian Abbott of Parkersburg’s metal detecting began in 1972 as a side activity to his being a Civil War reenactor. His explanation for his love of the hobby is a simple one: “It’s fun to dig up history.”

Abbott and some of his digging friends have contributed artifacts for display at Fort Boreman Historical Park in Parkersburg. The area became a hub for Union troop movements during the war.

Fort Boreman was built on a hill overlooking the town in 1863 by the 11th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The fort’s main purpose was to guard the northwestern branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It was named after Arthur Boreman, the Parkersburg resident who become the first governor of the state.

In addition to digging extensively in the Parkersburg area, Abbott has hunted in the southern part of the state, including Fayette, Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties.

“I like preserving history, and if anything happens to me, my relics are all going to proper places, like historical societies and museums,” he said.

A find doesn’t have to date back to the war to be interesting. All relics have a story, and some leave behind tantalizing clues. “I found a woman’s locket that had three wheat pennies and a silver dime in it. Back at the turn of the century, women would keep pennies in their lockets for boys, and dimes for girls. So, whoever owned the locket had three boys and one girl.”

To chronicle their digging adventures, Abbott and his group of detecting friends have a YouTube channel, the “35th State Relic Hunters.” He uploads videos of the group’s live digs. In one video, Abbott helps a digger from an Alabama digging club, the “Dirt Pirates,” find his first Civil War bullet.

One of Abbott’s friends, Jeff Cook of Gallipolis, Ohio, is in some of those videos. Cook has spent many hours digging in the grassy fields around Point Pleasant.

While there were no major clashes (the Battle of Point Pleasant predated the Civil War), there were numerous raids in the area, including Jenkins’ Raid in 1863, where Confederate Gen. Albert Gallatin Jenkins — whose home was at Greenbottom — used his cavalry to harass Union troops, burn cornfields and raze buildings.

The local history made Cook a lifelong Civil War devotee. “The war was brother against brother, on our soil, camped in our backyard. Nothing compares to it. I used to do reenacting — about 100 pounds ago — and met Brian. After he showed me some bullets he’d found, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Cook said.

The strike that sealed it for Cook wasn’t a chest full of gold, but something a bit more mundane: eating utensils. “My best find was at a Confederate artillery camp in Randolph County. Right off the bat, I found two forks. From there on, I was hooked.”

Cook’s collection includes more than 300 bullets, pieces of shrapnel, musket tools, lots of flat buttons and a handful of eagle buttons (uniform buttons with an eagle stamped on front).

“I’ve got one artillery shell, but I bought it,” Cook said. “It was found in the ’80s on a battlefield in central West Virginia.”

While life events kept Cook from hunting for a time, recently he’s teamed up again with Abbott, and they are planning more hunts and videos.

More than a pastime

Back in Charleston, Smith is still searching.

It’s not all he does. On weekends, Smith — a certified firearms instructor — teaches classes on gun safety at his home. He’s also a woodworker. But his preferred pastime these days is to be out getting his fingers dirty.

A well-preserved wheat penny dated 1862. A gold pendant that could be from a woman’s choker necklace. He takes them home, cleans them, adds them to the case he built recently to display his collection.

The case doesn’t yet contain any real treasure, but he’s not complaining. “To me, those conical bullets are of more value than some little piece of gold,” Smith says.

This seems to be a common attitude for the niche hobbyist. Their search for relics is a pursuit they approach with reverence.

Cook has a favorite quote he likes to share that, for him, reflects what he feels in the field. It’s from a speech by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain delivered in 1888 at the dedication of a monument at Gettysburg:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays ... reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream ...”

Robert Saunders can be reached at bob.saunders@wvgazettemail.com. To contact E.J. Smith, email ejsmith000@aol.com or call 304-744-6567.

Funerals for Monday, January 20, 2020

Coles, Kermit - Noon, Nitro Church of God, Nitro.

Craft, Kim - 11 a.m., Whatcoat United Methodist Church, White Sulphur Springs.

Cutlip, Ruby - 1 p.m., Greene - Robertson Funeral Home, Sutton.

Lawson, Edward - 7 p.m., Lincoln Drive Community Church, South Charleston.

Legg, Wanda - 11 a.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Miller, Charles - 3 p.m., Tyler Mountain Funeral Home, Cross Lanes.

Mitchell, Joshua - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Scott, Linda - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Tincher, Joe - 1 p.m., Lantz Funeral Home, Alderson.

Wilcox, Brandon - 7 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.