Friday, August 31, 2007

V. Digging adventures 3

Our county was home to several tribes of Indians for centuries, and was settled by Europeans over three hundred years ago. So there’s lots of history here. There’s hardly a square inch of land that hasn’t seen some type of human activity. I’ve hunted deep woods in Warren County where there was no indication there had ever been anyone there before me, only to find square nails by the score. So we’re not limited by hunting spots; it’s just a matter of finding a vacant lot or a likely hilltop, getting permission, and going to it. If a spot is attractive to us, chances are it was coveted as well by others long ago. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do his research in order to locate old house sites, ball fields, fairgrounds, old schoolhouses, camps and skirmishes related to the war, etc., for research can give one a big advantage if he’s to make the big discoveries. But, no mistake about it, relics are just about everywhere in this part of the country. I dug a Confederate belt plate in the backyard of my Drummond Street home several years ago. How’s that for proof?
And this: a vacant lot along Cherry Street that I hunted several years ago. There was nothing about the lot to suggest that there were relics of the war, but there’s always the possibility of finding a good coin around the site of an old house. So I contacted the president of the bank that owned the lot and received permission to hunt it. To my surprise I found the lot was apparently a part of a cavalry camp, for bullets and buttons and even a US oval buckle and a martingale turned up. [A martingale is (generally) a heart-shaped decorated lead-filled brass plate that was fitted to the center-chest portion of the harness of a horse – they’re quite collectible].
Another example that comes to mind concerns a Mississippi River landing on the Louisiana shore near Vicksburg that during the war had houses and settlers. Cotton and other goods were ferried across the river to and from Vicksburg from the landing. A couple of my buddies and I had always considered the landing a very attractive possible location for Union troops, both army and navy. With a little research we found the published diary of an officer of the Union army in which he described how he and his men had set up a 20-pounder Parrott rifle nearby and had fired at the Confederates from this emplacement. The Confederate forces, of course, fired back.
After obtaining permission to hunt the area, my hunting buddies and I loaded our gear into a boat, motored over to the Louisiana shore, and proceeded with the search. We had hunted for over an hour before anything of significance was found. I had made my way atop a small mound of vine-covered dirt when my detector whined in a good way, letting me know there was a “good,” though small, signal a few inches down. A shovel-full of dirt later I was delighted to pluck an 1856 half dime from the loosened soil. That half dime proved that a human had spent at least a moment of time about 125 years before right where I was standing. I yelled at my buddies, who were quick to take advantage (once a “find” is made and the finder is dumb enough to announce it, everybody within hearing distance quits whatever they are doing so that they can congregate and share the “good spot”). As they approached, one of them stopped, and with a look of surprise on his face, squealed, “Malcolm! You know what you’re standing on?” I looked around, and to my own surprise, I saw what he meant: I was standing on a small half-moon ridge that had been the breastwork of an artillery fortification. We had found the union officer’s artillery emplacement, and it had changed little since the war.
Now the fun really began, for the hunt became very productive. We began to find large 9” and 10” spherical shells all around the “fort,” these being shells fired from a Confederate artillery position far across the Mississippi. For the Civil War relic hunter, there’s no sound that can compare to the wide, smooth, bloated, spherical signal he hears when he’s located a large buried projectile. For those of you who are dumb enough to waste your time playing golf, hearing that beautiful signal must feel to the relic hunter something like a hole-in-one experience for you. One grows to love it. Our group had a terrific time that day.
Once we had several shells located and uncovered, the problem became “how do we get them out of the holes and lug the things a quarter mile to the boat?” The 10” shells were so heavy we couldn’t pull them from the holes, much less tote them a quarter mile. No bright ideas came forward until a member of our party hit upon a brilliant plan, to wit, we could use a pair of jeans! The simple process would be to reach down in the hole, slide the waist of the jeans under and over the ball, tighten the waistline with the belt, and yank the ball from the hole by the legs of the jeans. We all knew it would work, so now we needed a volunteer. At this point the size and strength of the various members of our party was of significant bearing on modesty and humiliation. Who would be willing to give up their jeans and walk out in their undies?
The puniest member of our party was finally captured and relieved of his pants. We promised that we would return his jeans after the last trip to our boat and before the possibility that he would be observed by some member of the boating public. This seemed to placate him somewhat, and his pants were put to work immediately.
The scheme worked as well as we had hoped. Soon we had several balls stacked alongside the fort. But these shells were very heavy, and we found after hauling one back to the boat, one member of our party holding one pant leg, another the other, that the awkwardness and effort required were more than we were willing to endure. We decided to stash the remainder of our treasure and return later, better prepared to transport them.
The next day we returned with an extra pair of old pants and a padded double eight-foot two-by-four for use in transporting the balls between two shoulders. Soon we relieved the Yankee fort of much of its Confederate treasure. In our several trips to the landing we brought out more than a dozen 9” and 10” cannon balls fired by the Confederates from their fortifications across the river. Fortunately, some photos of that adventure survived.
Installation of the cannon-ball extractor
Operation of the cannon-ball extractor
And finally... I was one happy digger
Years later, as construction of one of Vicksburg’s casinos progressed, I located on a hillside above the old river bed one of the 20-pounder Parrott shells that had been fired by the Union rifles some 130 years before.

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