My metal detector gave a loud signal as I swept its coil over the freshly cleared earth. I had just dug up several Civil War bullets a few feet away, but this signal sounded different. It was louder, and registered much higher on my detector’s meter than the bullets. Perhaps, I thought, I was about to dig up a Civil War belt buckle? Finding a Civil War buckle is always at the top of my wish list when relic hunting.
The year was 1992 and I was scanning a construction site in Centreville, which was a busy crossroads during the Civil War. The Battles of First and Second Bull Run, and the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford were fought nearby.
I was part of small group of “diggers” that chased the bulldozers around Northern Virginia, trying to salvage Civil War artifacts at construction sites before the topsoil was stripped away and the relics lost forever, buried under roads and housing developments. During the 1990s, the woods and fields around Centreville were getting developed at an extremely fast rate.
I knelt down and began to slowly dig a hole where my metal detector had produced the signal, taking care not to damage the artifact. At about five inches below the surface of the ground, I saw a thin, rectangular plate appear. My heart started beating faster. It was about the same size and shape as a Civil War buckle. Could it be?
I pulled the plate out of the ground and gently wiped away the dirt. Instead of seeing letters, numbers or a state seal, which is common on Civil War buckles, the face and shoulders of a woman appeared. What I found was not buckle, it was a photograph of a woman — the negative image of a woman in a dress — etched into a thick, metallic plate.
I gazed at the women in the negative, trying to flip it into a positive image in my mind. In that dress, she looked ready to attend a Civil War ball. Unfortunately, her name was not engraved on the back of the negative plate.