The Civil War battlefield of Perryville, Kentucky will always have special significance for me, not only because it was the site of the biggest Civil War battle fought in the state, (and one of the twenty biggest in the whole war!) but because it was there that I found my very first Civil War artifact back in 1977… a fired common 58 caliber 3-ring “Minie Ball” bullet.
Little could I have imagined that nearly 14,000 recovered Civil War bullets and artifacts and forty years later, that it would be very near that same great battlefield, where many thousands of brave men wearing blue and gray were killed and wounded, that I would make my rarest and most surprising Civil War artifact finds. This experience would only be made sweeter by the fact that these artifacts were definitely related to that battle. This story points up the lesson that we should NEVER get in the frame of mind that we will NEVER find a certain coin or artifact that we would love to discover.
It all began when my family and I decided to rent a restored 215-year-old stone house about three miles from the Perryville battlefield for a week in October, 2016 for vacation lodgings. Our activities were timed to culminate in attending the biggest re-enactment of the Perryville Battle in history at the battlefield state park. There would be over 3400 re-enactors from all over the eastern half of the U.S. and dozens of cannons and it promised to be quite an event (And it was indeed!).
The battle, itself, not only killed thousands of soldiers on both sides, but even more thousands, too badly wounded to be carried away, remained behind when the armies immediately left the area. This forced the doctors and soldiers assigned to tend them to press virtually every house and structure for miles around into use as field hospitals. It would be over three months before the property owners would get their houses and barns back from the military… all in very bad shape from the medical “horrors” that had taken place in them.
And so it was, that I suspected the old stone house we would be renting would have been one of those field hospitals. In conversing with the house’s out-of-state owner who had bought and turned the property into a “vacation-rental” facility, she confirmed to me that the attic of the two story structure was rumored to have been used as a hospital for wounded soldiers from the battle. Although she did not allow metal-detecting on the property, I suspected from the start that unprincipled local hunters had detected the site, without permission, during the six months it sat vacant between owners.
Nonetheless, I explained to the owner that I did Civil War Artifact rescue projects and that I would be glad to search the grounds to see if we could find any proof of its use as a field hospital site while I was staying there. I pointed out that she could retain ownership of any artifacts found as long as I could take pictures of them and that they would be displayed in the house as part of the history of this very old property (It was built in 1801.). She readily agreed to this proposal and upon arrival I began to investigate the property, both inside and out.
I started my search inside the house as she told me that the narrow attic stairs were original to the house and had what was thought were bloodstains on them from when the attic housed wounded soldiers. I did indeed see what could have been bloodstains on the raw wood steps but the attic floor had been replaced at some point after the Civil War and so there was no evidence to be found in it to help confirm its use as a field hospital.
I then decided to check out the floors of the rooms on the second floor and discovered that the floor in the master bedroom was the original wood on which had been applied a clear sealer. It only took a few moments to discover that there were major bloodstains in the wood of that floor and you could see where a rectangular surgical table had been set up… probably made with rough boards… and used for surgery and amputations. The bloodstains were to be seen in the floor around where it had sat on both sides. I went on the internet and looked at pictures of other famous houses used as field hospitals during the Civil War that had blood-stained floors and found that the stains I had discovered in this house were a perfect match to those that had been confirmed as being bloodstains on these other houses wood floors (one of them being the Dye House which is on the Perryville Battlefield in the state park and open for tours.).
I also found similar stains in the wood of the living room floor which was also original to the house. At this point I was convinced the entire house had been used for treating wounded soldiers. The only question remained was whether-or-not those whom I suspected had metal detected the property when it was vacant had missed any of the artifacts the Civil War activities there had left in the yard. I would soon find out.
While awaiting their turn on the surgeon’s table, the wounded would have been laid out in the yard. Once the wounded soldier’s surgeries were completed inside the house, they were taken back outside and placed once again in the yard to begin their recovery as there was no room in the house for any but the most desperately wounded. It was not uncommon for the entire yard to be filled with wounded men (as actual surviving photos taken at field hospital sites during the war prove) and they commonly left many artifacts from bullets to buttons and coins, belt buckles and pocket knives and some of everything they had on them when they arrived at the hospital.
Before I get into the details of my search of the yard, I want to comment on what the relic hunting fraternity calls “Medical Bullets.” It is true that the old saying of “Biting the Bullet” comes from the all-too-frequent practice of putting a lead bullet between the back molars of a Civil War soldier suffering an amputation without the benefit of anesthetic… of which there was never enough in the medical supplies of armies that fought great battles. This kept the soldier from biting through his tongue in the unbearable pain of having a limb cut off with nothing in the way of any pain-killing drug to lessen his agony. Unlike many civil war bullets I have dug, that had been chewed by animals such as squirrels, pigs and rats, a “Medical Bullet” is very easily identified by the two human molar marks impressed into the lead. Sometimes the bullet is literally bit flat and sometimes the teeth marks are shallow because the soldier passed out from the pain before he could bite down hard on the bullet between his teeth. Though there were many thousands of amputations performed by surgeons in all theaters of the Civil War, it seems that to actually find an authentic “Medical Bullet” on any hospital site is harder than finding a Confederate belt buckle! I had never found a one in my forty years of artifact rescue work and had only seen one found by a hunting partner on a field hospital site on a Louisiana battlefield. Even rarer is to find a bullet or other lead projectile, such as artillery case shot, that shows evidence of having been removed from a wounded soldier.
The only way to know if any “Medical Bullets” remained at this “Stone House” field hospital site was to put my Garrett AT-Pro to work in the yard. So, I began to work the left side of the front yard which was defined by a three-board wood fence that went all the way around the house.
The house being over two hundred years old, I could expect there to be some old coins and pre-civil war artifacts to be found in the yard also… IF… they had not been already been found by other hunters. It did not take long, once I began to swing my detector, to realize that the non-ferrous targets, such as the old coins that should have been there, were non-existent in the yard. There were not even any new coins to be found. My suspicions that the property had been previously worked hard were being borne out. After a disappointing hour of searching, yu can imagine my surprise when suddenly, I got a strong signal that indicated a possible “Minie Ball.”
I was pleasantly surprised to recover a dropped 69-caliber round ball in perfect condition left behind by some Confederate soldier, no doubt laying in that part of the yard as he tried to recover from his wounds… and surgery. Now, at least, I had proof that Confederate soldiers had been here in this yard!
I continued detecting and was even more surprised when within five minutes I got another signal indicating a bullet. Just a few inches deep, I recovered another 69-caliber round ball… only this one was completely different from the first. This bullet had been chewed like chewing gum by some Rebel soldier. There were human teeth marks all over it! This was not an uncommon practice in both armies as the dangers of lead poisoning were not well known back then and so soldiers with strong teeth would often chew on bullets like we use chewing gum. I had found several of these over the years on various battlefields. An unexpected and unusual find, indeed, but nothing to “write home about.” It did, however, give me temporary hope that whoever had detected this yard before me had been sloppy about it and I might yet find a CS belt buckle or the “Medical Bullet” I had been searching for since 1976.
I spent several hours, now filled with anticipation of more finds, thoroughly covering every square inch of the front and side yard and found not a single additional Civil War artifact or even a modern coin… much less an old one. Obviously, whoever got to this yard before me knew how to “clean” a site with their detector. My expectations were evaporating with each swing of my AT-PRO so after covering the yard I went out into the just harvested cornfields all around the house to see if maybe any soldiers had camped in them. They apparently had not as no artifacts were found nor any of the square nails always present on a CW camp site.
As I came through a side gate in the fence back into the yard, I got a signal which I suspected was a crushed aluminum can, as I had found several of them in this area. I started to ignore it but experience would not let me pass on, so I checked it out because a Civil War brass belt buckle sounds… and reads out… pretty much like a smashed aluminum can. I was amazed when it turned out to be the once-silver-plated brass fitting that went around the bottom of a Civil War flagstaff to help keep the end from splintering with use. This was the second one I had ever found… the other being in Arkansas, thirty years previously.
It was a great find and… I thought… probably the last one I would make on that field hospital site. I could not have been more wrong… the best was yet ahead!
The rest of the week spent at this Stone House field hospital site went by very quickly and was filled with family activities that kept me away from my metal detector.
It was on the morning before the last day of our stay that I found myself with a few hours of free time due to a schedule change in the family activities planned for that day. I decided to grab my detector and make one last search… this time outside the front metal farm gate that marked the gravel drive entrance into the front yard. The ground outside the front gate consisted of roughly mowed pasture and I wondered if whoever had previously searched the farmhouse yard had also searched outside that yard.
The metal gate had been in an open position all the time we had been at the farm and I decided to first close it so I could detect the ground where it had been without my detector picking up the gate. Immediately, right in the middle of the grass where the gate had rested I got a signal that my AT Pro indicated was in the range of that given off by a Civil War bullet.
Sure enough, at about five inches in depth, I found another .69-caliber round ball… BUT…. there was NOTHING COMMON about this most common of Civil War bullets… THIS WAS MY VERY FIRST EVER “MEDICAL BULLET” FIND !!! There was no doubt… the human teeth marks in the side of it CLEARLY revealed it had been between the teeth of a soldier while he was becoming an amputee! Amazingly, I had found it in the first ten minutes of searching! Ah…. but THIS was only the beginning of what would prove to be the most incredible artifact recoveries of my entire 44 years of detecting !!!
Just a foot way from where I had dug this medical bullet, I got another signal just like the first one! Okay, I reasoned, it is probably another Civil War Bullet… and it was! It was another ,69 caliber round ball and just like the one I dug first, IT TOO WAS A MEDICAL BULLET WITH THE UNMISTAKEABLE MOLAR MARKS IN THE LEAD!!! WOW !!! TWO MEDICAL BULLETS IN A ROW !!!
I was just starting to ponder how these two special bullets got to this spot that the metal front gate had protected from the previous relic hunters when just another foot away from where I found the second “Medical Bullet,” I got a THIRD IDENTICAL SIGNAL! “Oh, no… IT CAN’T BE ANOTHER ONE,” I thought to myself, but when I got it out of the ground… IT WAS!!! I was making HISTORY!!! THREE “MEDICAL BULLETS” IN A ROW! Maybe someone else has done it too, but I personally knew of no one who searches for Civil War relics that claims to have accomplished this.
At this point, I was theorizing to myself that some soldier serving as a medical orderly must have swept the floor around the surgeon’s operating table and dumped the refuse, which included these “used” musket balls just over the fence by the front gate. I barely had time to construct this theory in my mind before I got a fourth signal almost identical to the first three and also just a foot or so away from the others. Could it POSSIBLY be a FOURTH “MEDICAL BULLET???” Yes, yes and YES!!!! It was indeed… only THIS ONE was different from the other three. It was NOT a 69 caliber round ball but rather a standard 58 caliber 3-Ring Minie Ball (Conical shaped bullet with a hollow base.) At first I thought it was just an unfired bullet until I noticed the back end of the bullet was deformed… by two molar teeth crushing both sides of it until they were close to touching! I HAD JUST DUG FOUR “MEDICAL BULLETS” IN A ROW… in less than ten minutes… and…. I WAS NOT FINISHED WITH THE INCREDIBLE DISCOVERIES YET!!!
I had barely started swinging my detector again and just few inches away from the Minie Bullet, I found and dug a 00 (double ought) buckshot lead ball such as was used extensively by many Confederate soldiers in what was called a “BUCK and BALL” load. This load for a smoothbore musket contained one 69-caliber round ball and three 00 (double ought) buckshot.
It was MUCH too small to have been used as a “Medical Bullet” and I puzzled over what it was doing with the other bullets I had found until I took a closer look at it. It was then I noticed the “forceps mark” left by the surgeon upon this little slightly deformed lead ball when he grabbed onto it INSIDE a wounded Yankee soldier and PULLED IT OUT OF HIM!
TOTALLY UNBELIEVABLE… I HAD FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME FOUND A CIVIL WAR PROJECTILE THAT HAD ACTUALLY BEEN EXRACTED FROM A WOUNDED SOLDIER! This was another history making find and a high point in my entire Artifact Rescue experiences!
I carefully secured this incredible artifact in my finds pouch and almost immediately in practically the same spot got another signal like the one made by the first buckshot ball I found. SURE ENOUGH, IT WAS ALSO A 00 BUCKSHOT WITH FORCEPS MARKS ON IT… probably extracted from the same soldier who got hit by two of the three buckshot from a “Buck and Ball” load.
I was still trying to cope with both the major astonishment and extreme sense of accomplish-ment that almost made me giddy when my detector signaled to me that this small four-foot diameter area had one more outstanding Civil War artifact to give up. This one was not like any of the others found so far… it appeared to be about a 54 caliber round ball made of lead that was badly deformed on one side, apparently having struck bone beneath the flesh it hit with a great impact. There was a cupped-out place on the damaged side that I thought might be the imprint of part of a joint… perhaps in an arm or hand… or the end of a bone. One thing for sure… it too had the marks of the surgeon’s extraction tool on it, making it the third projectile I found at this spot that had come out of a wounded soldier! As I pondered this strange looking lead ball I realized that it almost certainly did NOT come from a rifle but rather was most likely one of the lead “CASE SHOT” balls designed to create deadly shrapnel when an artillery shell loaded with these exploded amongst the soldiers.
This was the last Civil War artifact treasure that the Stone House field hospital site was destined to give up to me, during my stay there, but it was MORE than enough, I can assure you!!!
FOUR MEDICAL BULLETS AND THREE EXTRACTED PROJECTILES FROM A PERRYVILLE BATTLEFIELD HOSPITAL SITE FOUND IN LESS THAN 30 MINUTES is an accomplishment that certainly to-date has capped my Civil War artifact rescue experiences. What made the experience even more special to me was that these incredible finds came from the same battle that had produced my very first Civil War artifact forty years previously.
The conclusion about this pocket of rare finds that I tend to embrace is that a soldier serving as a medical orderly took a pan of bloody water that the surgeon had dropped these bullets into out to the front fence and dumped it over the other side to get rid of it. This would have accounted for all these artifacts being so close together.
The artifacts found were given to the owner to become part of the visible history of this great farmhouse’s role in Civil War battle of Perryville.
One of the “Medical Bullets…” was given to me by the owner in recognition of the service I performed in finding these artifacts. This, along with the pictures, memories of the search and thrill of the discoveries and the enjoyment of the re-telling of the story involving them to all who are interested enough to listen to or read about, remain in my possession. They will ever bring me pleasure as I progress through my senior years of metal detecting.
So, to all those out there who are ever tempted to give up on both “hunted out sites…” and your hopes of making rare finds…don’t! As any veteran hunter will tell you, “Nobody ever gets it all…” and you know what? It happens that they are nearly 100% correct! Whatever it is on YOUR “bucket list” in the way of great finds you want to make, rest assured there is still some of all of it out there waiting to be found. Sometimes, however, you just have to keep swinging that metal detector and… BELIEVING! that one day… one year… you are going to find them!