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Where the Blue and the Gray once clashed, a different kind of battle now rages.
By Laura LangPhotographs by Darrow Montgomery
These are not good times to be a Civil War relic hunter, especially if you happen to live in Fredericksburg, Va., or anywhere nearby. I learn this on a Friday morning in June, while following 36-year-old Rich Moter down an old dirt road just outside the city.
From my vantage point, I can easily see the license plate on Moter’s black pickup, which he borrowed from his father because he was worried that his own truck wouldn’t make it through the mud. Borrowing his dad’s car was a necessary evil, it turns out.
That’s because the license plate on the truck reads “TK HTR,” which stands for “turkey hunter,” as Moter later explains, annoyed at his father’s abbreviations. At least it’s better than the plate on his dad’s other vehicle, Moter tells me. That one says “DK HTR,” which stands for “duck hunter.” “I keep telling him how stupid it is, because everyone will think it means ‘dick hater,’” Moter says.
Moter is a Fredericksburg native who moved to Richmond in the ’80s to study art. “And the other part of the time, I was following the Grateful Dead,” he says. Dressed in shorts and a black T-shirt, his long hair gathered in the back with a series of hair bands, Moter is a younger, Deadhead version of most of his relic-hunter counterparts, generally older men who fill their free time searching fields and woods with metal detectors to find bullets or buttons or camp tinsbasically anything from the Civil War. It’s a hobby that’s especially popular in the Fredericksburg area, which was home to four major battles and hundreds of campsites for both the blue and gray armies.
The road we’re on, for instance, leads to a stretch of open fields and woodlands that most locals call Potomac Run Farm, which is being cleared to make way for a 50-house subdivision. Right now, the place is nothing more than piles of dirt surrounded by tufts of trees. But about 140 years ago, these were the grounds for hundreds of campsites for Union soldiers under Gen. William Woods Averell’s command. It’s where they slept and ate and prepared for battles and dreamed about going home. It’s also where they dropped bullets and belt bucklesjust the sorts of relics Moter hopes to find.
But getting to the site isn’t easy, and not just because of the mud. Some of the longtime residents along these back roads aren’t thrilled about newcomers to the area. Moter says that the last time he drove out this way, a guy threatened to use his tractor to push Moter’s truck off his land if he found it anywhere on his property.
We get the same sort of welcome wagonor lack thereofthis time around. Moter has permission to hunt for relics out on the construction site. But getting to that area requires snaking along a gravel road that leads through a yard belonging to a woman everyone calls Sissy. Sissy, from the looks of it, doesn’t welcome relic hunters. Posted on a tree in front of her yellow house is a sign that reads “NO METAL DETECTING. DON’T ASK!SIS”
We’re about midway through Sissy’s yard, trying to figure out what to do with my Toyota, which we’re certain won’t make it through the mud, when a scraggly-haired lady, dressed in shorts and a flannel shirt, comes bounding out of the house. “Go out in the field with the rest of them!” she yells, shooing us away. “I ought to call the police on you.”
Moter, responding more fearfully than I expected, quickly leads us back to our vehicles. We hightail it out of the yard, park my car a few houses down, and then head just as quickly back through Sissy’s yard and out to the building site. “She’s the other crazy lady,” Moter says of Sissy, pointing out that she’s the second resident to threaten him, after the tractor-driving neighbor. “I heard she comes out and shoots at people with her shotgun.”
If you’re a relic hunter and you live in Fredericksburg, then getting past agitated landowners is a breeze compared with the real challenge: finding any decent land left for hunting. Once a small, quaint town surrounded by miles of rolling farmland and untouched woodsland that was the setting for some of the bloodiest Civil War battlesthe Fredericksburg area today is being gobbled up by urban sprawl, turning into a booming bedroom community for people who work in Northern Virginia and the District, which lies about 50 miles to the northeast.
As more people move to the area, dedicated relic hunters find themselves competing not only with each other, but with developers eager to bulldoze the land to make way for shopping centers or housing subdivisions. Call it the latest victim of sprawl: not just the land, but the history that goes along with it.
Moter, for one, knows about this phenomenon firsthand. He grew up in a housing subdivision set on a former Civil War battlefield, a neighborhood called Westwood that Moter says was built in the ’60sright on ground where soldiers once struggled during the Battle of Smith Run, in 1863. Moter recalls stumbling across Civil War artifacts as he walked home from school and digging around in the open areas surrounding his house. But the arrival of Moter’s family and his neighbors attracted new amenities to the area, and Moter recalls that the open areas that surrounded his house were soon replaced by two big shopping malls.
“It’s the most sickeningly developed area,” Moter says.
Moter has a good feeling about today, though. He’s lucky because he’s teamed up with a friend and the friend’s father, Jack Edlund, who received permission from the developer of the site to come in and unearth artifacts before construction workers pave it over. They take turns searching. Edlund will join Moter later today. Then, they plan to catalog the relics in the Old Stone Warehouse, an 1813 structure in downtown Fredericksburg that Edlund rents and operates as a museum to local history.
The developer’s permission is a lucky break, better than what happens at most sites. Truth be told, relic hunters don’t have a great rep around Fredericksburg, or most places. They’re generally seen as scavengers who trespass on private property or dig pits on National Park Service landa crime that carries stiff penalties. Moter admits that there have been some hunters who have committed such offenses, but he insists that they are the exception. Most of them see their pastime as a noble task; they’re preserving history that would otherwise disintegrate underground.
Even though Moter is new to relic huntinghe’s been using a metal detector less than a yearhe’s feeling positive today. “I’m a novice at this,” says Moter. “But I’m real dedicated to it, so I find a lot of it.”
Moter’s digging partner, Charlie Dikea guy he calls “one of the best of the contemporary relic hunters in this area”hasn’t shown today, so Moter has an extra metal detector, and he gives me a quick lesson. Holding the Fisher 1266-X, a bronze-colored contraption that Edlund says retails for $479, in my hand, I run through the start-up tasks Moter assigns me: Turn it on, of course, check the volume and the batteries, and adjust the knobs to pick up the correct readings. Moter plants the headphones over my ears and instructs me to listen for a long, buzzing sound he describes as “a good whomp.”
“That’s basically it,” he says.
An hour later, we’ve unearthed a modern-day shell casing, an unidentified piece of lead, an iron spike, and an unused bullet from a .44-caliber pistolmost likely dropped on the ground by a Union soldier who had camped there. Not bad, agrees Moter, but he’s certain there’s more to be found. Taking a break, he pulls out a cigarette and surveys the land around us, suddenly turning introspective. He stares, as if trying to envision the rows of canvas tents and the crackling campfires with soldiers huddled around them, sharing stories or playing cards and trying to stay as relaxed as one can in the middle of a war.
“These relics will all be lost if we don’t find them. It’s a damn shame to see this,” he says somberly, dropping the cigarette and motioning to a bulldozer that shoves dirt into piles as we watch. “We probably wouldn’t be able to do this if they weren’t digging it up. But at the same time, we’re not able to do a thorough job.”
If there were a way to evaluate the mental health of a geographical region, you might say that the Fredericksburg area has an identity crisis. Located halfway between D.C. and Richmond, it’s too far away to be part of the character of either metropolitan region and too close to avoid being overshadowed. For travelers on their way to either the capital of the country or the capital of the Old South, Fredericksburg is often nothing more than a stop along I-95.
The area does draw visitors in search of George Washington’s boyhood farm, located just outside of Fredericksburg. Some come to enjoy the woodlands or fish and raft in the Rappahannock River.
And many others flock to the host of Civil War-related sites, from battlefields and museums to the peculiar grave site of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s amputated arm. It rests on a hill overlooking the fields to the west of Fredericksburg, not too far from where Jackson was mistakenly shot by a fellow Confederate soldier. A doctor removed the badly injured arm to try to save the beloved general, but Jackson died one week later. A block of gray stone, about two feet tall, marks the grave. It reads:
Arm of Stonewall Jackson
May 3, 1863
But for some, particularly newcomers to Fredericksburg, those sorts of attractions aren’t enough. They’d like to make Fredericksburg a thriving destination of a more modern sort, complete with all the retail amenities of a metropolitan area. One of the more recent slogans for the city, for instance, was “Shoppe ‘Til You Droppe”an attempt to blend that historical appeal with a more retail-oriented image.
In fact, if you’re heading south out of Washington to Fredericksburg on I-95, the first glimpse you get of the city is a large plastic sign that towers over the trees and reads “Central Park.” It is not, as its developers might have you believe, a bucolic natural oasis in the middle of a thriving metropolis, as in New York, but more like the opposite.
A brainchild of the Silver Companies, a Fredericksburg-based developer, the area is a cluster of family-style restaurants, a Wawa convenience store, and some big-box retail stores, all grouped together to resemble some sort of retail park land. The place has become a perfect symbol of the newer Fredericksburg: a prefab shopper’s world that’s somehow seen as superior to the historic land beneath it. The Silver Companies are finalizing plans for a second mammoth project, an area north of the retail park that would include a visitor’s center and a massive golf course. The project is called “Celebrate Virginia!” but many in Fredericksburg simply refer to it as “Central Park II.”
Look past the new construction and you can still catch glimpses of the Old South, evidence that Fredericksburg refuses to surrender its Civil War past. Silver historical markers line the roads and denote famous battles or notable characters from the Civil War. The Blue and Gray Parkway serves as one of the major arteries in town. Several stores specialize in selling antiques from the 1860s. There are two local Civil War Round Tables, groups of history buffs who meet for dinner or lecturesone of them for men only. The Fredericksburg chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy meets regularly and just succeeded in raising money to restore a pair of trousers worn by Stonewall Jackson; they’re pooling money to restore the coat next. Locals refer to the battles as simply “the war,” as if no other fighting had occurred before or since. And in certain eating establishments around townsuch as the Battlefield Restaurant, a boxy brick place located on a turn in Lafayette Boulevard known locally as “dead man’s curve”you might find old-timers still ruminating on how the South was wronged.
On the southeastern edge of Fredericksburg, set far back from Route 3, one of the busy thoroughfares, is Chatham Manor, a lovely 200-year-old Georgian mansion that served as headquarters for Union soldiers during the Civil War. It’s now headquarters for a different kind of warrior: Sandy Rives, dressed in neither blue nor gray but a bland brown Park Service uniform, who is fighting to protect some of Fredericksburg’s last remaining open spaces.
Rives has some expansive battleground caught in the crossfire. As superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Rives oversees not merely one preserved park areaas do most superintendentsbut four, covering a total area of 8,500 acres in and around Fredericksburg. Each of the four park sites served as a setting for one of the major battles that took place in central Virginia during the war.
In addition, Rives serves as representative to a foundation established to oversee several Civil War battlefields in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, about 60 miles west of Fredericksburg, orphan areas with no official Park Service oversight.
Rives’ thoughts these days are consumed by the constant threats to the battlefields under his oversight. The land is valuable for more than its history.
The 2000 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau don’t show a significant change in the population of Fredericksburg proper since the last tally was taken, in 1990: The city counts just under 20,000 people as residents, an increase of only 1.3 percent from 10 years ago. But census data from the surrounding counties show that new residents have flocked to the area over the past decade. Spotsylvania County, which stretches out south and west of Fredericksburg, grew from 57,403 residents in 1990 to 90,395 in 2000, according to census information. And to the north and east, adjacent Stafford County expanded from a population of 61,236 to 92,446.
The influx of new residents will likely only continue over the next few years. In June, the Virginia Department of Transportation conducted public hearings for the controversial Outer Connector, a highway that would loop out from I-95 and circle Fredericksburgmuch like D.C.’s Beltway. Proponents say that the new road would improve travel in and around Fredericksburg and shorten commutes to Washington. But others worry the massive project would only bring more traffic to the area. Portions of the project could run right through several historic battle sites.
The intense development pressure in the Fredericksburg area has already caught the attention of preservation groups outside the city. In 1998, the D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Chancellorsville battle siteone of the four under Rives’ purviewon its list of the 11 most endangered battlefields nationwide. The same site found itself on a similar list released in February by the Civil War Preservation Trust, another D.C.-based nonprofit, which included the Chancellorsville area as one of the 25 most threatened by development and other impacts.
That list also included another Fredericksburg-area site, the Wilderness battlefield, a 13,181-acre area located just to the west of Chancellorsville. Of particular concern, the preservation trust noted, is a 455-acre tract located near a swanky subdivision set within the battlefield, known as Fawn Lake, which is slated for further residential development.
Rives can rattle off details of proposed roads and shopping centers almost automatically now. But when I visit his office on a weekday in May, he heads to an office closet and pulls out a pile of maps. Spread out on the table before us, the maps are colorful topographic depictions of the Fredericksburg region and the battlefields they encompass. Park Service areas are blocked off in a pleasant shade of green. The threatsmost of them potential new roads or plans to widen existing onesare marked in red, with some of the intersections surrounded by light pink circles to signify the shops and businesses that would likely spring up around the new interchanges. They look, instead, like bombs dropping into an otherwise calm, unsuspecting landscape.
“I’m a big believer in visuals,” Rives explains.
The problem is this: Back in the 1920s, when Park Service leaders were purchasing land to turn it into federal parks, they wanted to make their funds stretch as far as possible, so they bought only minimal portions of historic propertiesoften the locations for the most significant events, or thin strands connecting one such place with the next. At the time, the sites were surrounded by farmland that stretched out in all directions, so officials reasoned that the small park areas would lie mostly unbothered, far away from any real centers of population.
But that all started to change in the mid-’60s, when the completion of I-95 made travel time to D.C. and Richmond shorter and brought thousands of newcomers to the area. And when the tech boom hit Northern Virginia, in the ’90s, the Fredericksburg area became ripe for development as a nearby suburban outpost.
Today Rives finds himself in a race to purchase those farmland areas ahead of the next developer. Of course, he’s not the only Park Service employee with this particular headache. In its February report, the Civil War Preservation Trust also listed 24 other significantly endangered battlefieldsincluding some in Loudoun Valley, Va., just west of the District along Route 50.
The American Battlefield Protection Program, a division of the Park Service, estimated in 1993 that at least 71 of the most significant Civil War battlefields have already been consumed by sprawl or other factors. Since 1992, the program has doled out more than $7 million in grants to help preserve battle sites, but the money’s not enough to cover all requests for financial aid, says Paul Hawke, who heads the program. The Civil War Preservation Trust estimates that an acre of battlefield is lost every 10 minutes.
“Our goal here is to preserve and protect the sites of these battles,” Rives says. “And you can’t do it on a half-acre. You can’t do it on an acre. It’s not like trying to preserve a house site or a small development. In order to preserve what happened there, we have to have some of the landscape….We will lose this whole story if we’re not able to preserve it.”
In May 1864, a different kind of battle was waged in the Wilderness. Recovering from a loss the previous spring, Union commanders were once again leading their soldiers just west of Fredericksburg on their way to capture Richmond. In the early days of that month, they headed west along two roadsGermanna Plank Road (now Route 3) and Ely’s Ford Roadhoping to meet the Confederates someplace past the Wilderness, a 70-square-mile area of tangled brush and thicket. “A jungle of switch, twenty or thirty feet high, more impenetrable, if possible, than pine,” was how one Confederate soldier later recalled the area.
But Union plans were foiled by a blunder by one of their own. One of the commanding officers had sent a scouting party ahead of the marching troops to check out the area and keep an eye on Confederate advances. One of those scouts, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, was sent to inspect the Orange Turnpike, right near the Wilderness Tavern, where Stonewall Jackson had his arm amputated the year before. Finding no rebels there, Wilson moved on. But instead of posting soldiers to keep watch, as was the usual practice, Wilson left the area unguarded and moved on to Orange Plank Road.
When Union soldiers camped a few miles away saw smoke rising from that same area the next morning, they assumed it was from the Union soldiers they presumed Wilson had posted. Instead, it was smoke from the campfires of Confederates, who were able to advance unhindered that morning. By the time the federal troops noticed them, it was too late to avoid battle in the dreaded Wilderness. Fighting broke out on May 5, 1864, in a clearing in the middle of dense thicket, an area known as Saunders Field.
“The very moment we appeared, [they] gave us a volley at long range, but evidently with very deliberate aim, and with serious effect,” a Union soldier recalled later during testimony to his commanding officers, according to a Park Service account.
Confederate soldiers had built trenches along one edge of the field, atop a high ridge, and they fired on the advancing Union troops below. Fighting wore on for hours. According to a book by former Confederate soldier John Worsham, troops held their fire for a brief time as two soldiersone Union, one Confederatetried to settle the score another way, engaging in a fistfight right below the ridge. But the pause was brief, and fighting continued. During the combat that day, musket shots ignited dry grass and leaves, enveloping some soldiers.
“Swept by the flames, the trees, bushes, and logs…now took fire and dense clouds of smoke rolled across the clearing….The clearing now became a raging inferno in which many of the wounded perished. The bodies of the dead were blackened and burned beyond all possibility of recognition, a tragic conclusion to this day of horror,” recalled one soldier.
Other battles erupted near Saunders Field. By the end of the second day, Union soldiers had lost a staggering 18,000 soldiers to death, injury, or capture by the rebels6,500 more than the casualties the Confederates suffered. Unable to break through, they decided instead to go around the Wilderness, altering their path and heading to the southeast. Historians regard the battle as a stalemate: Union soldiers weren’t able to overpower the rebels in the Wilderness, but the Confederates couldn’t stop the Union march to Richmond, which was captured in April 1865.
Today, you can still see the trenches where the Confederate troops held their ground. They line the same ridge atop the same hill; the grassy field that once smoldered from the flames of fighting stretches below, empty and still. Standing there, you can almost envision the troops raging toward each other, the smoke from their rifles, the fires, and the carnage.
The Park Service owns the field, along with some other sites in the areamany of them recent acquisitions that have come as part of the effort to protect the battlefield from encroaching development. But there is still much to be done. Down the street from Saunders Field, a once nearly abandoned intersection has become a prized spot for developers. A lonely shopping center sits there now, across from a 7-Eleven. But there are plans to build a McDonald’s and a Sheetz gas station, and county planners are negotiating a proposal to widen Route 20, which runs through the field, to four lanes.
“When you do tours around here, it’s horrible to have to say something happened to the left of this house and to the right of the 7-Eleven,” says Tom Van Winkle, a nearby resident and president of a local nonprofit group called Friends of the Wilderness. “This is extremely bloody and hallowed ground.”
Van Winkle has been living on the Wilderness battlefield since 1995, in a subdivision called Lake Wilderness. He’s quick to point out that he and his wife moved into an existing house and did not build on the battlefieldwhich is important to a guy who spends much of his time fighting against further construction. It’s a minor distinction in my mind, but many other preservation-oriented locals make the same clarification to me during my time reporting in the Fredericksburg area.
A field representative for General Motors, Van Winkle has been heading the group since the year after it was founded, in 1995, to protect the battlefield from some of the growing development. The members of the groupVan Winkle includedare not confrontational people. The logo for Friends of the Wilderness consists of a drawing of two soldiersone Union and one Confederatewearing grins and shaking hands.
“It’s so hard to be politically correct,” shrugs Van Winkle. “No matter what side you’re on, who could get mad at that? We’re a friendly group.”
But Van Winkle and his group members don’t feel so friendly toward one of their neighbors, the NTS/Virginia Development Co., which created Fawn Lake, the massive housing development that also occupies space on the Wilderness battlefield. “There’s only one way to see why Fawn Lake has affected this area so much,” says Van Winkle one afternoon. “I won’t even tell you what. You’ll see it.”
We’re driving down one of the roads that snakes through the Wilderness site. Around us are modern houses, many of them large, set on big plots of land, surrounded by trees. At the end of the road, the trees clear to reveal a massive red brick wall, coupled with iron gating, that stretches out on either side. On the wall, in big block letters, are the words “Fawn Lake.”
“It looks like a fortress,” says Van Winkle, shaking his head. Built in 1991, the 3,000-acre development includes a man-made lake and a golf course designed by Arnold Palmeran “exquisite, gated, residential community nestled in the Virginia countryside” that is “rich in civil war history,” according to its Web site. About 350 houses have already been built in the area, and there’s room for 1,100 more, says Michael Hannon, president of NTS/Virginia.
Van Winkle and other preservationists have been rallying to limit at least some of the impact of Fawn Lake. Nearly a decade ago, representatives from the Park Service identified a historically crucial 455-acre plot of land within the Fawn Lake boundaries that is still undeveloped.
Known to some as Hamilton’s Thicket, it’s a dense area of woodlands that once served as the setting for a fierce fight during the Battle of the Wilderness. Using an unfinished railroad bed as a makeshift trail, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet secretly guided his Confederate troops around and behind some entrenched Union fighters. Then, in a surprise attack, Longstreet’s troops came bounding through the trees about 11 a.m. on May 6, 1864, “with rebel yells magnifying their numbers as they came crashing through the woods,” according to one account.
The unexpected attack bewildered some Confederate troops, too, and in the confusion of the battle, Longstreet was shot in the neck by one of his own menmuch as Jackson was wounded only the year before. Unlike Jackson, Longstreet survived. He was removed to a private home in Lynchburg, Va., to recover.
Today, a few of the trenches are still visible near Hamilton’s Thicket. The unfinished railroad bed still winds its way through the trees, slightly overgrown but definitely visible. With the exception of two busy roads encircling the site, the area remains untouched.
That’s just how Van Winkle and others would like it to remain. “If it ever gets developed, it would change the Wilderness battlefield forever,” he says.
Last year, Congress appropriated $6 million so that the Park Service could purchase the land. But since then, Park Service representatives and Hannon have haggled over the selling price. Hannon says his company is prepared to sell, but an appraisal it had done on the property put the value closer to $9 million. Rives says the Park Service has hired another company to do a final appraisal, which is due by early August.
“We’re a willing seller. The question is: Is there a willing buyer who can pay the fair market value for that property?” Hannon asks.
Beyond the Hamilton’s Thicket question, Hannon says he and his company have done a lot to preserve the historic nature of the area, holding seminars and educating residents about the background of the land. Company officials even built a median in the middle of the main road into the division and a crescent-shaped hole in the massive front fence so that they wouldn’t have to disturb some of the remaining trenches, says Hannon. He adds that he’s working with lawyers to get protected status for other famous sites on the Fawn Lake property. If he and Park Service representatives can’t come to an agreement about the property and his company builds additional houses there, Hannon says, he’s already designed the plots so that they won’t destroy the historic features.
“We give every purchaser a book on the Battle of the Wilderness,” says Hannon. “We have tried every way in the world to show respect for the historic nature.”
Van Winkle, however, is not impressed with Hannon’s attempts to accommodate history. If he were so concerned about the background of the area, Van Winkle says, Hannon would have sold the Hamilton’s Thicket property already. “They’re holding out for what they can get,” says Van Winkle. “They try to write it off as ‘Come live in history,’ yet they’re holding history ransom. It’s not only the development of the land. It’s what comes with it.”
For his part, Hannon attributes much of the delay to government red tape. He maintains that zealous efforts to preserve the history of an area can interfere with property owners’ rights. “Why, if you have 2,000 acres that belongs to you for farming, why should you have to stop farming it because some guy has decided there is some historical value to it?” he asks. “Why should a man have to give up his constitutional rights to own land?…I served in South Vietnam for 14 months, and I don’t see anyone trying to defend the rice paddies I lost friends in.”
Once we get past Sissy, Moter and I meet up with some friendly faces during our relic-hunting adventure at Potomac Run Farm: Billy Hardenburgh and Danny Patrick Newton, known to most as D.P.longtime Stafford County residents who have been metal-detecting for years. “I started hunting back in the 1950s,” says Hardenburgh, a retired electronics technician. He smiles before delivering a punch line I’ll hear again from other older relic hunters: “Then I discovered women.”
Newton says little to me that day but smiles broadlya sort of elfin grin that spreads across his round face. I learn later that he’s a quiet man who keeps mostly to himself. He does not belong to the Fredericksburg Relic Hunters Association, a group of local hunters who meet regularly to listen to Civil War speakers and show off recent finds. Newton is a local legend among hunters just the same.
Newton is a short, stout man with skin that looks as if it’s always been tan, a product of years of working and hunting in the Virginia sun. A carpenter and fisherman, the 48-year-old Newton has spent much of his time inside lately, toiling away on display cases for the White Oak Museum, the institution he started to house the Civil War artifacts he and his father have collected over the past 40 years.
The museum, located just to the east of Fredericksburg in Whit Oak, is a plain brick building that was once a schoolhouse where Newton attended classes when he was young. He has retained a blackboard and a couple of desks in one part of the museum, but that’s the only clue to the building’s previous incarnation. Newton is a man who seems to rarely let go of the past, howeverhe refers to the museum as “the school.” You need only glimpse inside to see how much relic hunting has consumed Newton’s life.
In one room, Newton has re-created a Civil War campsite, with a couple of tents made from canvas and old pots, a frying pan, and empty bottles scattered around them.
It’s an impressive display, but the real evidence of the Newtons’ endless years of hunting is found in another room, where Newton has built wooden cases covered with glass to display the thousands of artifacts he and his father unearthed over the years. They feature nearly every item a Civil War soldier could have needed.
There’s a case dedicated to cookware: spoons, forks, knives, an entire set of plates, a tin cup, and a bottle that says “Shrivers Oyster Ketchup.” Another features items used for hygiene and killing time: pencils carved from bits of lead, a clothes iron, thimbles, tin cases for holding matches (some with matches still inside), marbles, and part of an old set of dentures. One display contains hundreds of buttons from old uniforms; another holds a pyramid-shaped pile of old bulletsmore than 60,000, says a sign above. Dozens of epauletsthe rectangular metal shoulder plates that look something like fish scales and protected soldiers from saber swipesline one wall.
It’s really a simple collection of things, but remarkable for the time and painstaking precision it must have taken to collect and assemble all of the items. Newton plays down the work, as he does most of his projects. He says the setup took about two years; the museum opened in May 1999. When I ask if Newton had a grand opening celebration, he replies, “We had an opening. It wasn’t grand. I do nothing on the grand scale.”
Some tarnished and eaten away by decay, the relics serve as a sort of shrine to the land that swallowed them, held them, and then offered them up again. The display also pays homage to the men who took the time to seek them out: “The museum is dedicated to the memory of those old time relic hunters,” reads a brochure that lists names like Fred Stevens, Fred Bullock, Lou Curtis, and, of course, P.D. Newton.
P.D. Newton is Patrick Daniel Newton, D.P.’s namesake, father, and longtime relic-hunting buddy. Newton refers to him, always, as “Daddy.” He says a friend introduced his father to the relic-hunting hobby in 1963 and lent him a metal detector. Young D.P., then 10, tagged along. “I toted the shovel,” he explains.
Two years later, his father purchased his own detector, a Fisher M Scope that cost about $125a huge sum back thenand the two were free to comb the woods or relatives’ farmland whenever they felt like itwhich happened to be most evenings and weekends for the next 40 years. “We have one fortunate thing here,” explains Newton. “Daddy was kin to nearly everyone.”
One of their favorite hunting grounds was Potomac Run Farm. Newton first searched the area with his father in the ’70s. He kept track of their finds on bits of papers or napkins, which he later compiled into a map he has recorded into a book bound in brown paper. Newton doesn’t really need the maps now. He knows where most of the soldiers set up camp, where they dug trenches to protect a nearby railroad, where they sat to have their meals.
Newton’s hunting slowed considerably in 1993, when his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The elder Newton died three years ago, and his son hasn’t been doing much hunting since. “After Daddy got the way he did, I didn’t have a mind to,” Newton explains.
For Newton, and for many Fredericksburg residents, the rolling land that has enveloped them for a lifetime holds the nation’s history, and their own. It is a reminder of what had value in the area long before a couple of developers came to town.
Although he’d given up on relic hunting for some time, all that changed a few months ago, when one of the developers at the housing site came to visit Newton and asked if he’d like to do some final searching on the fields of Potomac Run Farm. Newton couldn’t resist. “It’s like an old friend that’s dying, that’s on his deathbed,” he says.
When Fredericksburg-area preservationists ponder the historic sites they’ve lost, they often think of Salem Church. It’s a squat, red-brick building that sits on the western edge of Fredericksburg along Route 3, a once sparsely developed road that’s now a crucial link between the interstate and all points to the east and west.
In the winter of 1862, Salem Church was a safe haven for Fredericksburg residents fleeing the town, then under attack by Union soldiers on their way to Richmond. The locals huddled outside the building under quilts and makeshift tents and watched smoke from musket fire rise from their hometown.
By the spring of 1863, Union soldiers planned to move further westward, and the church, once a refuge from the fighting, became a strategic part of it. Confederate sharpshooters were posted on the second floor; another group of fighters lined a ridge that stretched from the church across the road. They would block the Union advance as the Northerners marched over the road and through the fields covered with a tangle of bushes and undergrowth.
Fighting lasted nearly a day on May 3, 1863. But by the next morning, the outnumbered Confederates had managed to push the Union soldiers back across the Rappahannock River.
The victory was bittersweet. Hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers from both sides lay on the rough field. Many were carried to the church, which had been converted to a makeshift hospital.
“Hundreds upon hundreds of wounded were gathered up and brought for surgical attention,” reported one eyewitness, according to a Park Service account. “The amputated limbs were piled up in every corner almost as high as a man could reach; blood flowed in streams along the aisles and the open doors.”
Nearly 140 years later, you can still see marks from Union bullets that pocked the church building. But you can scarcely see any of the battlefield that was the final resting place for the warring soldiers: It has been replaced by a widened Route 3, shopping centers, several parking lots, a Wachovia bank branch, and a Food Lion.
There has been some effort to pay homage to the significance of the site: One of the shopping centers nearby is called Salem Church Crossing. It includes a Chick-fil-A, a DryClean Depot, and a Jersey Mike’s Subs. Next to it is Salem Village, which offers shoppers a weight loss center, a GMAC insurance office, and a nail and tanning salon.
Of course, it’s not exactly the sort of remembrance some preservationists had in mind. “It’s just wall-to-wall shopping centers,” says Carroll Hayden, a longtime resident. “If you look back behind, you can see the church is there. There’s a furniture store and some restaurants. You can’t even realize that was a bloody battlefield. It’s gone.”
Hayden was one of first members of a group called the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, a nonprofit founded by eight local residents in 1996 to keep what happened to the Salem Church site from happening in other locations. The group meets monthly but has no paid staff or office. Its sole function is to raise money to purchase battle sites and then preserve them.
“Our selling point is dirt and grass,” says Dr. Mike Stevens, a founding member of the group. “I think we’re the only organization that, if you give us a dollar for battlefield preservation, as much of that dollar is used for battlefield preservation as possible. You’re not going to get fanny packs or bookmarks or coffee mugs. You’re going to get the satisfaction of knowing that money has been put into saving ground.”
A Northerner by birth, Stevens has been living in the Fredericksburg area since 1976. Like many Americans, he became captivated by the Civil War after watching the 1990 PBS television series produced by Ken Burns. Stevens spends his weekdays tending to his busy dermatology practice, but his heart lies elsewhere. “I do dermatology for a living. But my passion is battlefield preservation,” he says.
Stevens sees a need to save the sites not simply because of their historic importance to the Old South, but to honor men from all parts of the country who lost their lives fighting for their principles. “Those grounds are special because of the men who fought and died on them,” Stevens says. “It’s sort of metaphysical. It’s difficult to articulate without sounding like a fool. There’s a sense of enormousness that pervades those grounds. There’s something hallowed there.”
Stevens isn’t the only one who feels that way. Since its founding, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has grown from eight members to more than 900 from all over the world, says John Mitchell, president of the group. In its five years of existence, the trust has had much success, managing to raise more than $1 million and to purchase 175 acres.
“That doesn’t sound like much,” says Mitchell. “But we’re not buying it in some agricultural district. We’re buying it right in the heart of the development district. And right in the bull’s-eye of development, that’s a helluva lot of land.”
Much of the landabout 125 acreshas been donated to the National Park Service. The remainder the group owns and plans to leave intact. Mitchell says the group is finalizing a contract to purchase another 11 acres of land on the Smith Run battlefield.
“There are just so many fires out there,” he says. “Some people don’t want to think about the Civil War. But I think everyone would agree that’s how the nation got formed. If people don’t understand the Civil War, they know nothing about this country. Nothing.”
Weeks after my relic-hunting outing with Moter, I return to Potomac Run Farm, this time with Hardenburgh and Newton. Moter tells me later that he’s given up on hunting in that particular area, too tired of hassling with the local residents, who never fail to give him a hard time. Plus, he heard that one unlucky hunter had his windshield smashed in by an angry local. “I don’t want them doing that to my truck,” says Moter.
We head out to the fields on a Monday morning. It’s not even 10 a.m., but there are already two hunters out before us: a guy named Gene, who I’m told is Sissy’s brother, and a tall, lanky man named Pete, or “Pit-Digger Pete,” as some call him, for his tendency to dig giant holes in search of relics. He tells us he’s been following construction crews around to search the ground right after they’ve plowed it. This site, he thinks, looks especially promising. “I’d rather dig campsites than battlefields,” says Pete. “Those have been dug 44 years ago.”
Hardenburgh hops out of the truck and spends some time chatting with the other guys gathered there. Newton gets straight to hunting. A half-hour later, he’s found a handful of bullets and a button from a saber pouch, which he places safely in his side pocket. While we’re talking about his finds, his detector buzzes again and he starts digging, until he pulls out something that looks like a crumpled wad of aluminum.
“What’s that? Old tinfoil?” I ask, disappointed.
Newton is not discouraged. “Yeah, and I think I know whose it is,” he says.
“Whose?” I ask, expecting him to grouse about someone littering. Instead, he smiles widely.
“Daddy’s,” he says, pausing. “It’s an old wrapper from crackers or something. He used to pack it into a ball real tight and throw it back into the hole and cover it up.”
He looks at the foil, presses it into his palm, and then shoves it in his pocket. He’ll save that, too. CP