Monday, April 07, 2014

Fabulous Cold Harbor find: A 1,000-bullet crate of ammo

Relic hunter Gary Williams and a hunting partner discovered this ammunition crate of 
1,000 Union bullets on private property on the Cold Harbor battlefield in the late 1990s.
A close-up of the contents of the crate, which includes minies and Williams cleaner bullets.
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Seventy-year-old relic hunter Gary Williams has unearthed Civil War buckles, bullets, buttons, bayonets, canteens, artillery shells and much more since he was handed his first metal detector when he was 11 years old.  A lifelong Virginian, he never has had to travel far to whet his Civil War appetite. Since 1977, he and his family have lived in a log cabin-style house smack-dab on the Cold Harbor battlefield, 10 miles northeast of Richmond.

Williams gave me this bullet from the
1,000-bullet crate.
"Union trenches were just over in those woods right over there," Williams said, pointing out his kitchen window several hundred yards away. National Park Service property is only a sliver of the vast Cold Harbor battlefield, much of which remains in private hands or, sadly, has already been developed for housing or commercial use. Hunting for Civil War relics is a big-time hobby in Hanover County and the surrounding area, where Rebels and Yankees also killed and maimed each other in major battles at Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines' Mills, Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill and Glendale and in scores of  skirmishes.

"Kids here get a metal detector before they get their first bicycle," the former Marine said in a syrupy Southern drawl.

From the mundane (thousands upon thousands of bullets) to the rare (Louisiana seal buttons) to the unusual (a gun barrel in the 'V' of a tree), Williams' finds all have a story behind them. For years, he documented in a notebook what he unearthed and where he found the relic. In our 90-minute visit on this raw and rainy day, Williams relished telling stories of his nearly 60-year relic hunting career in which his wife, Teresa, has been a partner since they were married in Gettysburg on July 4, 1976. (In fact, the couple met while relic hunting.) Williams told of the poignant discovery of a daguerreotype of a woman and child -- presumably it belonged to a Yankee or Rebel -- and the unearthing of metal soldier ID discs, among his favorite finds. Perhaps Williams' most challenging hunt came when he found an artillery shell that weighed a couple hundred pounds. It required a major, and sometimes comical, effort to haul the massive piece of metal a mile out of the woods.

"The last part I had to drag it in a tub up a hill." Williams said, shaking his head at the memory. "The tub slid all the way down the hill, broke, and then I had to get another tub to haul that thing out."

Williams also found this ax near the 1,000-bullet ammunition crate.
But his most amazing find came in the late 1990s -- he's not sure of the exact date -- when he and a digging partner found an ammunition crate of 1,000 Union bullets about four feet under ground with a metal detector in a low-lying, wet area at Cold Harbor. Exactly 1,000 bullets. Williams knows, because he counted every ... last ... one of them. The walls of the crate were askew, but otherwise it was well preserved, possibly because the wood remained in water for a long period. An equally well-preserved ax, probably used to open the ammunition crate, was found nearby.

Williams keeps the big box of bullets under Plexiglas in the living room of the house, where 50-plus years of collecting stuff is evident almost everywhere. A log that was part of the old Grapevine Bridge that once spanned the Chickahominy River forms the mantle above a fireplace. ("Run a metal detector across that thing and there are bullets in there," Williams insists.) On a table, there's a box full of fake belt plates used by the actors who played Union soldiers in Gone With The Wind. There are shark teeth, one bigger than a man's hand, unearthed on his property. On a wall, there's a framed photo of old cowboy Roy Rogers, another Williams favorite, and cases with Confederate belt buckles. And in another room, there are framed autographs of The King, Elvis Presley himself. Williams, who collected the autographs from 1956-68, still remembers where he was the day Presley died and remains a huge fan.

But that's a whole other story.

Relic hunting isn't Williams sole connection to the Civil War. Since 1967, he has manufactured reproduction military belt plates, including these fabulous Army of Northern Virginia copies. (These reproduction New York plates are my favorites.) Internet business for Hanover Brass Foundry  is booming, said Williams, who ships his plates worldwide.


  1. What a great story... I cannot imagine the thrill Mr. Williams experienced with this find, as well as, many of the others. I would enjoy hearing of (and seeing)other artifacts that he has unearthed. My hat is off to all of the relic hunters who have helped tp preserve our history. John, thanks for bringing this story to light.

  2. I agree and also am so appreciative of all those that respectfully collect and preserve the artifacts and memory of this horrible chapter in our history.

  3. Mr. Williams is also very generous sharing his knowledge and advice about relics and collecting. A good man and I thank him.