By Sid Witherington
Special to The Germantown News
My article this month is about one of my favorite finds with a metal detector. I have always been interested in history.
I am sure the holidays I spent in my youth at my grandmother’s house – built in 1832 – helped cultivate that interest. This old home had a cannonball in the wall from a Civil War skirmish in the front yard.
The preacher from my church in Munford, Tenn., who used to take me hunting for Indian artifacts in the fields around the Mississippi River in West Tennessee also spurred my interest.
The fossil hunts to Coon’s Creek north of Shiloh digging pre-historic sea creatures from a horizontal layer above the creek (which were millions of years old) were also fond memories.
The most interesting historical memories I have are of the family trips we took when I was young to Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown, and all the Civil War battlefields in Virginia.
Probably another reason for my interest in the Civil War was that I had several relatives who fought for the south and I have 12 letters written from the battlefield from them.
When I read these letters I have a personal emotional connection with this period in American history unlike any other.
This love of the Civil War has aided me in doing extensive research on the period which I have put to valuable use in finding Civil War artifacts.
To date, I have found dozens of untouched Civil War camps in the West Tennessee and Mississippi area.
With 136 belt plates to my credit, I understand research is a key to finding large numbers of Civil War artifacts, but sometimes more vague forces may be at work, such as “luck” or “fate”.
One such instance occurred when Marty Oates and I went relic hunting to the nearby city of Collierville.
We went to an old house where U.S. Grant had stayed several times during his occupation of Memphis before his Vicksburg campaign.
The site had, in the past, produced over 500 bullets, buckles both Union and Confederate, gun parts, coins, buttons including rare Mississippi buttons, and many other Civil War artifacts.
Collierville may not be familiar to most Civil War enthusiasts, but it was the site of numerous camps and a battle in 1863 in which General William T. Sherman almost got captured before his famous march to the sea.
A force of 2,500 confederate cavalry attacked the town just as a train carrying Sherman rolled into town.
The Confederates captured the train and almost got Sherman. Though the Southerners did not capture the general, they did capture his sword, uniform, and his favorite horse, “Dolly.” Because of all the Civil War activity in the area, Collierville is a fertile ground for Civil War relic hunters.
We looked at the old house for an hour, finding several bullets and buttons and an “H” hat letter before we departed eastward for greener pastures and lunch.
After a hearty lunch of barbecue and potato logs at a local cafe/gas station, we drove east to the community of Piperton – a few miles from Collierville.
Piperton was also an area of Civil War and pre-Civil War activity. For example, on January 28, 2001, a fellow relic hunter and I found three belt plates in one day. I found a breastplate and a “U.S.” buckle. Kelly Nichols found a “U.S.” box plate.
On May 14, 2005, I found an 1804 two-rial Spanish coin. Across the road from this site were a confederate camp which produced a Mississippi “I” button, a block “I” button, a snake tongue, two eagle breastplates, a two-cent piece, and several Civil War camp-related items.
My rarest find from Piperton was an extremely rare Republic of Texas Marine button.
There are only a few of these known to exist and, in 2013, this artifact won me a place in “Top-Ten Finds of the Year” in the world’s leading treasure hunter magazine, Western & Eastern Treasures Magazine.
Knowing this area had been productive in the past, we turned onto an old road that Marty said was on an old Civil War map of the area.
We found a nice open pasture that led to the railroad and an old stone trestle on what used to be the Memphis & Charleston Railroad (an important link during the Civil War).
Neither of us had ever hunted this area before and it was lucky for us that the owner was on the property loading farm equipment into the back of a pickup truck.
We approached him and asked if he would mind us running metal detectors on it. He stated he had just sold the property and was carrying off some of his farm equipment but he would not mind if we looked.
While we were getting our metal detectors out of the back of Marty’s truck, I noticed the farmer was moving some of the ancient rusted watering troughs and flipping them over to remove the water so he could cart them off later.
We hunted down the pasture that was the size of a football field for about thirty minutes with no results. We were going to leave at this point when I found a shot .58 caliber three-ring bullet.
This was not that exciting considering that a dropped bullet may indicate a campsite more than a fired one would.
We concentrated on this area, which was not more than twenty yards from the truck and started finding numerous artifacts.
We found several eagles, coins and buttons, ten bullets, knapsack studs, a large brass buckle, Civil War lamp parts, a small piece of bar lead marked St. Louis Shot Tower, a cover to a pocket watch, scrap brass, and the ever-present horseshoes and melted lead.
I decided to hunt closer to the road but this was difficult because of a barbed-wire fence around the pasture. I then moved several feet from the fence and moved toward the railroad.
As I moved down the pasture, I noticed one of the old rusted iron watering troughs upside down.
The farmer had it moved over about three feet to dump the water out of it. Where the trough had been was a nice flat dirt area that had not been exposed for 50 years.
I thought maybe there would be something where the trough had been so I ran my metal detector over the bare area.
I got a good signal which normally would encourage me to dig at that spot, but I was not sure if I was reading a good target or the nearby water trough so I passed on by and moved farther away with no success.
Fifteen minutes later, I decided to go back and dig the target anyway–partly because I hadn’t found anything else and partly because Marty was approaching that area and might dig it. Marty and I are good friends but I am a very competitive person.
I pinpointed the target as best I could. The target was five and a half inches deep, the depth of almost all of the artifacts in this area, and I carefully removed the dirt with my sharpshooter shovel, the standard relic hunting digging tool in the Mid-South.
To my surprise, out camy my first intact Civil War pistol. It was a boot pistol and all brass except for the trigger and hammer which had been iron and were rusted off.
Fate played a role in the pistol find because if I had asked on the property before that day, the old watering trough would have been directly over the pistol. A few days later, we contacted the new owner of the land and asked if we could metal detect it again and he flatly refused.
My window of opportunity which I could have detected the pistol was a few hours out of 157 years.
The best Marty and I can figure is that this was probably a big camp that had been hunted hard before or a small untouched picket post near the trestle.
The secrets of this camp will for now remain a mystery waiting for someone in the future to solve.