Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Faces of the Civil War: Relic hunter Richard Clem

Richard Clem, holding a small silver Civil War ID badge he found while relic hunting, estimates
he and his brother have dug 30,000 bullets. They sold 15,000 of the bullets to a New York man.
After 10 minutes of small talk, the wiry man with combed-back gray hair gestured for me to follow him to his car to view his Civil War treasure.

"Look here, John," longtime relic hunter Richard Clem said quietly as he pulled a small tin from the back of his blue car in the overflow lot at the Visitors' Center at Antietam National Battlefield on a sunny Saturday morning.

Silver ID badge of  Consider Heath Willett, a sergeant in  
Co. E. of the 44th New York. Richard Clem found this rare relic
near Antietam National Battlefield.
The 72-year-old retired woodworker opened the box to reveal seven small metal objects discarded or lost by Civil War soldiers nearly 150 years ago:

Two rare officers buttons, the gold on them still shiny.

Three brown Union soldier identification tags, each about the size of a quarter, the names of the original owner still legible on each.

A stunning 1852 2 1/2-dollar gold coin, a little smaller than a dime.

And the ultimate prize of the collection: an ultra-thin silver soldier ID badge, about an inch wide and creased twice, that Clem found at Lappan's Crossroads, several miles from the Antietam battlefield, the day after Thanksgiving 1986.

In ornate writing on the front of the badge are these words:

Sergt. C.H. Willett, Co. E, 44th N.Y. Vol.

After years of painstaking research, the lifelong Hagerstown, Md.-area resident discovered that the original owner of the badge, a soldier named Consider Heath Willettt, had rescued 97 rebels during fighting at Little Round Top at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Trapped between a deadly crossfire from Union and Confederate lines, the beleaguered men were out of ammunition in no-man's land. Willett, a sergeant from Albany, volunteered to lead men from the 44th New York to take them to safety.

One of Richard Clem's prized finds: an 1852 2 1/2 dollar gold coin.
For Clem, these fabulous finds represent a tiny fraction of the treasure -- from bullets to buckles to artillery shells -- that he has pulled from the ground of Civil War battlefield and camp sites in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia in four decades of relic hunting. Often hunting with his younger brother, Don, he estimates they have dug 30,000 Civil War bullets, many from the hallowed ground at Antietam. (They sold 15,000 of those bullets to a New York man for a dollar apiece.)

Before he purchased his first metal detector, Clem eyeballed relics at Antietam in the early 1960s. Back then, long before much of the current battlefield became part of the national park, Antietam was a Civil War relic hunter's dream. After seeking permission of the land owner, Clem and his brother hunted large swaths of the field.

As Connecticut Civil War Roundtable member Blair Pavlik 
and others listen, Richard Clem tells Civil War relic hunting tales
 Saturday at the  Visitors' Center at Antietam National Battlefield.
"There's hardly any part of this battlefield I haven't covered," he said.

Clem and his brother often worked four-day weeks, leaving Fridays free for relic hunting in the many Civil War-rich sites near his home. In fact, he found a Civil War belt buckle right in his own backyard using a metal detector.

After he held an audience of  re-enactors and other Civil War enthusiasts at Connecticut Day spellbound Saturday morning with tales of his digging exploits, Clem, Civil War blogger John Rogers (Private Oliver Case blog) and I spent several hours on the battlefield.

"I found buckles back there," he said as we walked about the West Woods.

As I drove down the narrow lane leading to the Pry House, General George McClellan's headquarters at Antietam, Clem gestured to a field to our left. "I once found 100 bullets back there," he said matter-of-factly. "I think they belonged to McClellan's bodyguard."

What once was a hobby has clearly turned into an obsession for Clem, whose wife eyes her husband warily whenever he looks down outside. "When she sees me looking at a piece of ground," he said with a mischievious grin, "she always thinks I'm thinking of Civil War relics."

Longtime relic hunter Richard Clem gave me 
this beautiful Federal eagle breast plate 
that he dug in 1994.
Although many Antietam-area sites have been picked clean -- probably by Richard and his brother -- he still continues hunting. And he relishes sharing his obsession with others.

After he showed me his seven prized relics, Clem pulled out a 6 x 4-inch box from the floor of his car. In it was a beautiful Federal eagle breast plate with a rich green patina, a Clem find from 1994, also at Lappan's Crossroads.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

"It's beautiful, Richard," I said.

"It's yours," he said.

For once in my life, I didn't know what to say.

After we had toured the battlefield for hours, I dropped Richard Clem off at the Visitors' Center parking lot.

As he opened the car door, the old relic hunter turned and shook my hand.

"God bless you," he said.

That was the best gift of all.

Richard Clem's prized Civil War relic hunting finds: 1) Staff officer's button;
2) 1852 gold 2 1/2 dollar coin; 3) Silver ID badge of Consider Willett in the 44th  New York;
4)  ID tag of John Thompson of 3rd Vermont;  5) ID tag of Lafayette Hunting of 49th New York; 
6) Officer's button; and 7) ID tag of William Secor of 2nd Vermont.


  1. Anonymous8:49 AM

    Very impressed with the ID badge from the 44th NY. I recently found that I had a first cousin who fought with the 44th at LRT and was wounded. Capt. Alvin Bennett Munger. I am from Massachusetts originally and his mother (my aunt) was from Agawam , Ma. Bennett was born in Agawam and they moved to NY before the war.

    Bill O'Brien
    Marlborough, Ct

    1. Anonymous3:19 PM


    2. Anonymous4:09 PM

      Bill - I am doing a book on Capt. Bennett Munger of Co. C, 44th NYS Infantry. I have his letters and diary and one of my friends has his sword and a war time CDV of him. If you have any further info on him please contact me at kesterson2@frontier.com
      Brian S. Kesterson

  2. thanks, bill. richard clem told us all about his relic hunting adventures. fascinating stuff.

  3. loves those cars in the parking lot