At the end of the picket post road, Pvt. David Finney, 12th Georgia Infantry, rises like an apparition from the luxuriant Virginia forest.

For Finney, dressed in homespun Confederate gray and surrounded by the furnishings of 19th century camp life, time is frozen in the summer of 1863.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, he says, left him behind when Lee took his troops north to Gettysburg. Finney stays at his post, awaiting the army's straggling return. He says it's been a long wait.

"I don't think the Confederate boys is righteous," Finney says with a persuasive drawl as he recounts the May 2, 1863 battle that took place at Chancellorsville -- a major Confederate victory that also cost the life of Gen. Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson. "I do think, though, we got more of God on our side than the Yankees," he adds, dropping his voice to a whisper.

Ten miles east, across the Rappahannock River, Pvt. Roger Cox, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, gazes moodily toward the Fredericksburg skyline.

He retells the disastrous events of mid-December 1862, when Union troops under Gen. Ambrose Burnside attempted to cross the Rappahannock on pontoon bridges. Fierce fighting followed at Marye's Heights, Cox remembers, and the Union lost 12,000 men in two days.

It's a bravura performance.

In real life, Cox, 32, teaches fourth grade in Spotsylvania County. Finney, 36, is a high school history teacher from Farmington Hills, Mich. "Civil War history, of course," says Finney with a laugh, as he finally breaks out of his role.

Finney's enthusiasm for Civil War history is so great that he has chosen to spend his summer -- admittedly over his wife's protests -- portraying a Confederate soldier in the "living history" program at Fredericksburg National Military Park.

Finney and Cox are among eight summer employes who, in rotation, portray four Civil War soldiers -- a careful balance of two Union and two Confederate. At National Park Service wages that amount to $756 a month, it is a labor of love.

Nor are they alone. The Civil War -- which ended more than 114 years ago -- is still a passion for many in Virginia.

Manassas. Seven Days.Fredericksburg. Chancellorsville. The Wilderness. Spotsylvania. The Siege of Petersburg.

These names, among the great battles of the Civil War, all have a resonance that goes beyond simple place names.

"For me, it's following in the footsteps of history," Finney says. "My great-grandfather had four brothers, three of whom were killed here in Virginia."

Finney says he spends his winter in Michigan "reading everything I can" on the Civil War, and used his off-duty hours this summer to read the regimental history of the 12th Georgia. He even made a trip to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond to have the colors of the 12th Georgia displayed for him.

Fascination with the war also extends to relic hunters and hobbyists, whose numbers seem to be growing.

One group, the Northern Virginia Relics Hunters, a Civil War collectors' club in Fairfax County, started in 1971 with a hardy group of 35. Since then, the club has grown to close to 150 "friends and kindred spirits who are interested in our war," as one man put it recently.

The indispensable tool that accompanies almost every relic hunter into the field is a metal detector -- a gadget that can cost the hobbyist $1,000 or more and is used to "sound out" buried metal -- old coins, ration tins, belt buckles, even buttons.

It is illegal to use a metal detector in a battlefield park. Violators face a possible $500 fine and/or a maximum prison term of six months.

Because relic hunting and metal detecting go hand-in-hand, responsible relic hunters are noticeably sensitive about their image.

"I don't want to get into this argument," says Northern Virginia Relics Hunters president Bob Armstrong, looking slightly hurt that the question has even been raised. "Most of us here believe in the 'hallowed ground' principle. Relic hunting in battlefield memorials is a good way to get kicked out of this organization."

While park authorities say that hunting in the parks has stabilized in recent years, the temptation to hunt in battlegrounds remains great as the relics become increasingly rare.

The number of trophies still buried in Virginia soil is pretty much anyone's guess. Dickson Freeland, superintendent of the four battlefield parks around Fredericksburg, says that well over 50 percent of the relics probably disappeared in the first years following the war.

Overall, Freeland estimates that more than "90 percent of the metal objects have been picked up, disposed of, or corroded away."

"Older farmers down here -- they found stuff in the field when they were kids," Freeland says. "So much, they didn't pay much attention. Even parts of soldiers' skeletons were rather typical."

Serious relic hunters generally agree with Freeland's estimate.

"It's getting pretty darn hard to find anything," says Howard Crouch, who has written a book on Civil War relic hunting. "The more you find, the less there is to find. Every year there's less and less.

"When I started in 1969, I was told by serious collectors I'd never find anything," he adds.

But since that time, Crouch has found quite a bit.

"About five years ago, I found a Louisiana regiment site with more than 100 buttons," says Crouch, relishing the memory. "Even to a jaded collector, it takes your breath away. You get this real rush. I imagine it is the same thing a mountain climber would have."

That thrill is not shared by all Civil War buffs, however.

"I'm not a relic hunter," says Finney with a note of scorn. "I'm not interested to dig up those rusty things."

Then Finney had an afterthought: "But if I lived in Virginia and could do this year 'round, my interests might be a little different."