|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.
"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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.