Dennis Irvin of Fauquier County, VA recovered Civil War relics during the late seventies into the early eighties from Civil War sites, both Union and Confederate, in Fauquier and surrounding counties. The following, titled "Chasseur de Vincennes", found in the 1981 Supplement section of "Relic Hunter: The Field Account of Civil War Sites, Artifacts, and Hunting", by Howard Crouch, recounts only a small, but very important, portion of Dennis Irvin's years of relic hunting.
“FORT SUMTER ATTACKED, WAR DECLARED,” read the bold black headlines. Though hardly unexpected, the awesome news left no American unaffected. And indeed it ultimately would affect all of the civilized world as word of the conflict spread. Even some Americans living in foreign countries would quickly return home, heading north or south upon arrival according to their loyalties.
At this time there were many loyal Americans living in Paris. Among them were diplomats, businessmen and educators. Wishing to aid their country in some tangible way, they contributed funds to purchase equipment for two full regiments of United States troops.
The French Army at this time set the style standard for the military world. What better could we do, thought the Americans, than to select the dashing “Chasseur de Vincennes” uniform to send to America. And what a uniform it was! A large shako with a heavy brass front plate; an elegant piped coat with distinctive, silver colored, cast pewter eagle buttons; white gloves, gaiters, and quite possibly the French inspired rifleman’s buckle.*
Apparently the uniforms reached American shores in late 1861 or early 1862. Their arrival must have created quite a stir; and the Union commander, General George B. McClellan, found himself in a dilemma. By now all of the Union forces were well supplies with uniforms. What to do with them?
A decision was made. The Army of the Potomac, numbering about 100,000 men, would soon hold a grand review for President Lincoln. Those two regiments surpassing all others in drilling skills and military bearing would be awarded the prized uniforms.
The winners turned out to be the 18th Massachusetts and the 83rd Pennsylvania. With the awarding of the uniforms, a problem soon came to light. Cut for Frenchmen, who were somewhat smaller than the average American, very few of the uniforms fit. With mixed feelings of disappointment and disgust, the two regiments surrendered their new uniforms to the quartermaster, who in turn sent them into storage.
The army left to enter the Peninsula campaign. As the campaigning progressed, the colors of mud and blood now stained the troops’ faded regulation blue uniforms. Long gone was the desire for impractical, fancy uniforms.
A couple of years after the grand review, in December of 1863, the New York Excelsior Brigade was camped in the once fertile fields around Brandy Station, Virginia. The unit was made up of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd and 120th New York Regiments. These hard fighting troops were veterans of two years tough campaigning, and by now they were used to bivouacking in the cold and wet Virginia winters. With the order to go into permanent winter camp, construction work started. Large log huts were built over excavated cellars some three feet deep, and board floors laid directly on the earth, graced the more elaborate huts. Their work finished, the troops settled into the usual routine of winter quarters. New supplies from the north began arriving by rail in great quantities.
*A photograph of a soldier wearing this uniform, along with further descriptive notes, may be found on page 77 of “Uniforms of the Civil War,” by Francis A. Lord. The button is listed as P.A. 48A in “Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons with Supplement,” by Alphaeus Albert.
Somehow and for some reason, perhaps by typical quartermaster whimsy, the Chasseur de Vincennes uniforms were sent to the Excelsior Brigade. The ultimate fate of these uniforms would not be revealed for another 115 years.
The fate of many members of the Excelsior Brigade as not so long in coming. As the winter passed and trees began to bud with the warmth of spring, they knew that a confrontation with the enemy would soon be at hand. Events were rapidly falling into place that would send them into huge and terrible battles, known as the Wilderness campaign. On the 4th of May, 1864, the various regiments formed and marched out toward the fords on the Rapidan, part of Grant’s move to flank Lee’s army and threaten Richmond.
Gradually the large, deserted camp site of the Excelsior Brigade reverted to the farmland it had once been, and for the next 115 years the ground was plowed and planted, harvested and grazed. The deep cellars of the huts were not disturbed—only filled—until no trace remained on the surface.
The modern view of the area offered no clue to its former history. One camp area, comprising about ten acres of pasture, was home to a small herd of White-faced cattle. Making up about five acres, the other camp area was a regularly planted cornfield covered with stubble during the winter months. Separating the two, a small creek meandered down a draw and on into an oak woodlot.
Enter Dennis Irvin. A resident of the area, Dennis had often studied the patch of woods as he passed the farm on a nearby county road. With a practiced relic hunter’s eye he had noted all of the terrain features and made a more than even bet with himself that a few good artifacts would come out of there. Numerous sites nearby had proven prolific in the past. He would soon have his chance. As Dennis later told me:
“I was driving home from work one day when I saw a farmer at his gate trying to brace up a sagging fence post. I rolled down my window, and I guess you could say I got right to the point. ‘Ever find any Civil War stuff back around that woods,’ I asked him. ‘Sure,’ said the farmer, ‘We pick up bullets out there all the time.’ ‘Well then,’ I said, ‘Would you mind if I did a little hunting with my detector?’ He got right to the point too-with a quick no.
“ ‘Well, I’ll bet you don’t find any bullets out there,’ I said, joking with him. That must have riled him a little, but he surprised me by saying, ‘You bring that detector back tomorrow and hunt out there, and we’ll see who is right.’ From then on we were the best of friends.
“Saturday my brother Paul and I came back. That “was October 29th, 1977. I’ll never forget that day. We parked the truck in the pasture, got out and plugged in the machines. Right off the front bumper I dug a few bullets. I looked around and Paul was doing the same thing. We both looked long and hard across the field at that woods and took off for it, each of us taking an end of the woods. After giving it a couple of hours, Paul and I met in the middle and compared our finds: just a few bullets each. Giving it up as a lost cause, we headed for the truck. ‘Looks like we are going to have to settle for a few bullets out of this field,’ I said to Paul.”
“Hey, I know what you mean, Dennis,” I said, intercepting his narrative. “I don’t know what’s wrong with all of us hunters in this state. We just don’t like to hunt in a field. Maybe everybody likes the privacy of the woods, or they just don’t like digging stuff that’s been eaten with lime or cut with a disc. Matter of fact, an old hunter once told me that it was just too much like shooting quail on the ground, not sporting enough.”
“Okay,” said Dennis, not much bothered with my philosophizing. He went on:
“When we had all but given up, we suddenly started finding more and more bullets and an occasional eagle button, all localized within a few square yards. Naturally we stuck around. Between the broomsedge, stubble and rotten soil, it wasn’t the easiest kind of hunting, field or no. Matter of fact, sometimes we’d have to hunt one field, then change places with the cattle into the other one.
“Pretty soon the place started making sense. We were plainly over top of a winter camp with deep, scattered huts in it. The second day there we started digging plates—box, buckle and eagle. Then I got part of a rifleman’s buckle. A little later Paul dug both halves of one. More and more pieces started coming up: halves and belt slides. Now those are uncommon enough, but we were getting some of those odd, French-made, pewter eagle buttons, and broken up parts of an odd hat plate. We knew that these guys were not typical Yanks, for sure.
Fully intact hat plate recoverd by Dennis Irvin.
“One afternoon just before dark we pulled up an” ID pin engraved, ‘William John Van Buskirk, Company A, Second Regiment, New York City, New York.’ This of course was a nice find, one of those sutler-supplied discs with George Washington on one side. Two days later we got another one marked, ‘Milo V. Bailey, Third Regiment, Company D, Sickles’ Old Brigade, Hooker’s Old Division.’ This one was a fine, custom made, silver shield-type pin.
“These two fields were turning out to have been sizable camps. New York and eagle buttons, more plates, a few coins and lots of bullets kept coming out. We were working it hard though, picking up nails and dumping them on the edge of the field. It was slow hunting, and some of the stuff was down more than a foot. I was using a Fisher 441 with a large head, and Paul was using his Garrett Groundhog.
“The next odd thing was those deep readings we were getting. Sometimes we would go down two or three feet and find tin cans, glass, animal bones, and sometimes a few relics. Now that ground out there is hard, and we’d sort of stayed away from those pits. You know how that kind of place is—one big signal in bad soil, and you’ve got to sort it out with a shovel. You can’t just cherry-pick it.
“If we had known what was in those holes, I believe we’d have started on them first. There were probably 25 holes in there, and we were over three months working them alone. Paul and I had to work carefully on our hands and knees so as not to ruin any glass. The New Yorkers had thrown perfect hat plates, buckles and inkwells into some of them. We got two more ID pins out of those holes. One was marked, ‘P.S. Donahue, Excelsior Brigade,’ and the other, ‘William Doyle, 46th Regiment, Excelsior Brigade.’
“From some of the excavation dirt we picked up a few white glass buttons and pieces of clay pipe. Also—and you might not believe it—we found ten pressed cardboard underwear buttons. They were about ¾ of an inch across with four holes in the center. I guess that’s what they meant by ‘Army shoddy.’
“In total, in that camp we got 20 New York buttons, 25 cast eagles, 16 complete rifleman’s buckles, 15 hat ornaments, and probably 20 good inkwells and” “bottles. And 64 U.S. plates of all types. I just thought I’d save that for last. Kind of seems a shame, though, doesn’t it? Those uniforms traveled half way around the world just to end up on a Culpeper cow pasture.”
One of the 16 complete Rifleman buckles recovered by Dennis Irvin.
All pulled from the muddy pasture, these identification discs would ultimately be able to speak across the years. The Irvins were able to obtain each man’s service record through the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Milo V. Bailey was born in Wayne County, New York, in the year 1842. At the age of 19 he was working as a farmer, a common occupation in the western part of the state. On the 20th of June 1861 he enlisted as a private in the 3rd Regiment, Sickle’s Brigade, New York State Infantry. On the 6th of May 1864 he was wounded at the Wilderness, made a prompt recovery and later reenlisted as a Veteran Volunteer.
John Van Buskirk was a 22-year old shoe-maker when he enlisted on August 2nd, 1861 in New York City. Serving out his first 3-year enlistment, he rejoined as a Veteran Volunteer. As such, he apparently received a bounty and a furlough. Records indicate that he did not return to his unit and was listed as having deserted.
William Doyle was employed as a “moulder” in New York City when the war started. At that time the term “moulder” generally referred to a person producing or working with wooden mouldings, a trade we would classify today as trim carpentry. Whatever his former duties were, after recruit training the army made him first a wagoner then a cook. He was promoted to corporal on the 1st of June 1863 and was discharged on September 29, 1864.
At Camp Scott, New York, on June 25, 1861, Patrick Donahue enlisted as a private in Company D, 1st Regiment, Excelsior Brigade. Records do not indicate his age or civilian occupation. He was promoted to corporal in September of 1862. On the 21st of June 1864 he was reported missing in a battle near Petersburg. Captured by the Confederates, he was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, and paroled there on December 11th of the same year."