From the begining to the end of the Civil War vast armies fought and marched and countermarched and camped throughout this region, leaving behing them a wasteland strewn with bones and bullets and all the pieces of personal and impersonal gear that soldiers carry to war.
As soon as the sound of firing died away-and sometimes before-men, women and children came out to scour the battlefields, tending or robbing the wounded, burying and/or robbing the dead, looking for valuable or useful or curious items. Yankee soldiers wanted souvenirs; Rebels tended ot concentrate on shoes, food and guns that would shoot, none of which were consistently available through the Confederate service of supply.
For a decade after the war, impoverished Southerners made a living picking over the battlefields for items to sell as mementos or scrap. Veterans and generations of their descendants covered every inch of every battlefield, carrying away tons of bullets, belt buckles, bayonets, brass buttons, bones. So prodigious was the waste of the conflict, fought by Roman tactics with the weapons of the Industrial Revolution, that "corduroy" roads were planked with discarded rifles. The war contined to make widows and orphans for a century, as the powder in "dud" shells used as paperweights and doorstops deteriorated and became as tetchy as nitroglycerine.
The great and cruel war will have been over for 114 years come Monday, but collectors still find it worthwhile to search the battlefields, campsites and routes of march with metal detectors.
"The fascination is endless," said Lewis Leigh Jr. of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association. "Collecting was pretty casual and careless until recently, but now most of our members do research before they go out, plot their finds and do more research to try to relate them to a particular action.
"A few years ago one of our members found some insignia and a stencil with a soldier's name near Bull Run. He looked the man up and found a notation in the company records that he had been punished for the loss of the same insignia.
"The significance of an item may be mostly the story that goes with it. When a development was destroying one of the old Alexandria forts, a member went out there with a metal detector and found another stencil at the foot of the rampart. It turned out the man had been pensioned off after he was kicked by a mule. I have this picture in my mind of the man flying through the air, with the stencil and everything else coming out of his pack."
Leigh, a lawyer, has hundreds of such items and a story to go with nearly every one. He and other members of the association, plus scores of dealers, will be sharing them with the public Saturday at the seventh annual Civil War Memorabilia & Relic Show at the Kena Shrine Temple on U.S. 50 in Fairfax. "There will over 200 display tables," he said. "Many of the items are for sale, but many of these people would rather talk about them than sell them."
He surveyed the collection that fills a room of his historic home near Centreville. "This sword, for instance. It was carried by Lt. Col. George H. Ward of the 15th Massachusetts, who was in two battles. In the first on he lost a leg. He returned to duty, promoted to full colonel, in the spring of 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg. Killed there, second day."
Leigh turned to his fireproof safe. "This is a letter to his father from Maj. Eugene Blackford, of Fredericksburg, serving with the 15th Alabama. He wrote from Carlisle on 28th June 1863, when Lee's army was sweeping north to what they thought would be victory9"
"Tell Mary I to make out a list of such things as she wants, giving the size of gloves & shoe and send it to me with a long letter, and I will fill the list for her," Major Blackford wrote. "I calles on a good many ladies [at Hagerstown] of undoubted Southern feelings and was much pleased." Major Blackford survived Gettysburg, but his dream did not.