Civil War Relics

By Daniel Bernzweig

The campsites of Union or Confederate brigades or the grounds where Civil War battles took place can be treasure troves for Civil War buffs. With the right metal detector and equipment, you can be successful at recovering relics from the most monumental, direction-shifting conflict in American history. Three million soldiers took part in almost 10,000 battles; tragically, some 700,000 lives were lost. The forefathers of today's great democratic nation suffered infantry and cavalry casualties that match those of all other American wars combined. It's no wonder that metal detecting hobbyists and Civil War enthusiasts are drawn to the art of unearthing mementos from 1861-1865. Many relic hunters say they want to preserve American history by cleaning and displaying their finds; others donate collections to historical museums.

Locating the Best Civil War Relic Sites

If you are going to treasure hunt with your metal detector for Civil War relics, you need to pick the best place to find them. The key to success lies in the combination of research at your local library, research online, and hard work. There is a higher probability of finding flat buttons, buckles, bayonets, breastplates, and shell casings on a battlefield that dates back to the Civil War. There is a good chance that you will be able to find relics if you swing your metal detector over the best spots.

Research and locate the coordinates of any Confederate or Union campsite, and you have found a Civil War site where prized relics were left behind. The flip side to this: many of the plentiful relic sites from Civil War encampments have already been worked hard by numerous treasure hunters. However, advanced technology and new capabilities of metal detectors in recent years (deeper depth detection, target identification, and superior ground balance controls) result in the ability to detect relics that were previously undiscovered. The best Metal Detectors for Relic Hunting are low-frequency models. There are a lot of relics that are low conductors, such as iron and lead, which requires a detector that operates at a low frequency, usually below 10 kHz, in order to detect them.

What Civil War Relics Can You Find With a Metal Detector?

The American Civil War ended over 160 years ago, but that doesn't mean that there aren't still plenty of relics from that time period to be found. If you're interested in historical artifacts and enjoy using a metal detector, then searching for Civil War relics is a perfect hobby for you.

Objects you might find while Relic Hunting with a metal detector

  • Civil war bullets & other ammunition
  • Civil war artifacts with soldier's personal information
  • Civil war buttons
  • Slave tags and other items

Civil war sites are often located on private land where the property owners have rights reserved on anything found, so always get permission before you start searching. Battlefields are usually well-marked, so you'll know if you're in the right area or not. If you want to find Civil War relics, then using a metal detector is a great way to go about it. With a little patience and perseverance, you can uncover all sorts of interesting and historical objects from this significant time period in American history.

Types of Civil War Relics & Where You Can Find Them

There are so many collectible Civil War items that it's difficult to list them all. However, among the valuable relics are pieces from soldiers' and officers' uniforms and equipment: knapsack hooks, buttons from uniform jackets, belt plates, and buckles ("CS" on the belt buckle stands for Confederate Service, "US" for Union Service), bayonets, canteens, rifle, and pistol bullets and cartridge pouches which held lead bullets and cartridges filled with gunpowder.

If you look at a historical map that shows the divisions between the North and the South, you can see where the splits between the troops occurred. Many battles took place in the four Border States that were split between pro- and antislavery groups. One of the key battles here was called "Bleeding Kansas." Lawrence, Kansas, was the site of a bloody battle that broke out in 1856.

Civil War Relic Hunting with Metal Detectors on TV

National Geographic Channel's show "Diggers" features an episode in which famous detectorists Tim Saylor and George Wyant use their metal detectors to uncover bullets and other Civil War artifacts. Other key battle sites where thousands of relics are found include Antietam (Sharpsburg, MD), Gettysburg, Charleston, Atlanta, Appomattox, VA, Jackson, Petersburg, Richmond, Nashville, and Savannah. And this is just to name a few! You can research your state or sites you're interested in at the library or on the internet. The first step is to locate previous camp sites and battle grounds-getting information that is as specific as possible.

The hobby of relic hunting is not limited to the United States. Henry Cole's Great British Treasure Hunt follows a group of treasure hunters searching for hidden relics and treasures around England. Their search for these treasures is based on clues found in history books. There are clues in each episode that lead to another clue until the buried relics are finally discovered.

A reality TV series called The Curse of Oak Island follows two brothers searching for treasure on a mysterious island off the coast of Nova Scotia. They believe they have found where Sir Francis Drake buried his gold and relics after defeating the Spanish Armada.

Civil War History & Relics

When the United States Civil War ended in 1865, it left behind a lot of history - and a lot of relics. If you're a fan of using a metal detector, then searching for a civil war artifact or two can be a fun and rewarding hobby. Not only can you find all sorts of interesting objects, but you can also learn more about American history in the process.

A war between Abraham Lincoln's Union army forces and the Confederate States of America, the Civil War was one of the bloodiest in American history. Over 620,000 men died during the conflict, making it one of the deadliest wars ever fought. The war began in April 1861 when Confederate troops fired upon Fort Sumter in South Carolina, starting what would become known as the "War Between the States." In response, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers from across the country to serve in the U.S. Army. By the end of 1862, however, only 32,000 soldiers had joined the ranks.

The Civil War didn't just leave behind physical reminders like bullets and buttons, however. There are also a number of historical sites that have been preserved as battlefields, parks, and monuments. Fort Sumter in South Carolina, where the first shots of the war were fired, is now a National Monument. Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania commemorates one of the most famous - and deadliest - battles of the war.

There are all sorts of different kinds of Civil War relics that you can find, from bullets and ammunition to buttons and a personal item or two belonging to soldiers. If you're interested in finding out more about what kinds of objects you can discover, then read on for a comprehensive guide.

Ammunition & Bullets

Rafael Eledge is a prominent Civil War and 19th-century military collectibles expert who specializes in rare and unusual weapons. Ammunition and bullets are some of the most commonly found Civil War relics, and they can be worth a fair amount of money - depending on their condition and rarity. Scabbards, bayonets, and other weaponry can also be found on occasion. A scabbard is a case in which a sword is kept when it is not in use.

Experts say that the most sought-after bullet to collectors is those that were used in famous battles, such as Gettysburg or Bull Run. Bullets or cannon balls that have been dug up from many a well-known civil war battlefield and can sell at auction for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on their condition and provenance.

Personal Items

Personal items belonging to soldiers - such as ID tags, letters, and photographs - are also highly sought-after by collectors. These items can provide a unique insight into the lives of the soldiers who fought in the war, and they are often very valuable.

ID tags were used by both Union and Confederate soldiers to identify themselves in case they were killed or wounded in a civil war battle. These tags were made out of metal, and they often had the soldier's name and unit stamped on them. ID tags can sell for hundreds of dollars at auction, depending on their condition and provenance.

Letters written by soldiers during the war are also highly sought-after by collectors. These letters can provide a unique insight into the lives of the soldiers, and they are often very valuable. 

Buttons

Another common - and relatively valuable - Civil War relic is buttons. Buttons were an important part of a Confederate soldier and Union soldier's uniform, and they often had the regimental number or initials stamped on them. This made them perfect collector's items, as they could be used to identify a particular soldier or unit.

Much like bullets, the value of a button depends on its rarity and condition. A button in good condition that was used in a famous battle can be worth hundreds of dollars, while a more common button might only sell for a few dollars. World War II buttons are also highly sought-after by collectors. An extensive collection can be worth a great deal of money, and thefts and fakes are common problems when validating these relics.

Slave Tags

During the Civil War, the Confederate states used slave tags to keep track of their African American slaves. These tags were made out of metal, and they often had the name or initials of the slave owner stamped on them.

After the war ended, many of these tags were collected by Union soldiers as souvenirs. As a result, they are now quite rare and can be worth a significant amount of money. A slave tag in good condition can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars at auction. 

Detectors and Equipment for Civil War Relic Hunting

There are two schools of thought when it comes to choosing a metal detector and accessories. One of them is going with a good quality multipurpose detector, so you can hunt for relics and also use your metal detector to search for coins, jewelry, gold, and other valuables. The other option is to select a metal detector that gives you the best possible performance for relic hunting since that's where your passion lies. If you are specifically shopping for a relic-hunting metal detector, MetalDetector.com allows you to "Shop by Usage" and has an expert-tested selection of metal detectors for relic hunting (in all different price ranges). Consider joining a relic hunting club or a metal detecting club to learn proper techniques and find a friend to go hunting with. Be sure to check out our metal detector club finder for contact details of a club near you!

Necessary detector features for relic hunting are advanced ground balance, discrimination (to eliminate junk targets), and the operating frequency. Typically, the grounds where Civil War relics are found (specifically in the South) contain highly mineralized soil. This means that the soil can emit false signals that sound like a good target, but it's not, and you can spend a lot of time figuring that out. To combat this, relic hunting detectors will often offer advanced ground balance controls. For example, the Garrett AT Pro (used by the "Diggers" crew) features both manual ground balance and Fast Track™ ground balance - an automatic feature that allows you to quickly ground balance the detector in mineralized soil conditions. Operating frequencies can vary based on what the detector is designed for. A gold-hunting unit will be different than a relic hunting model. For relic hunting, you're looking for VLF (Very Low Frequency) or at least a lower frequency. Visual target ID and depth display are two helpful features. Some units feature a digital target identification scale (0-99) to help distinguish iron, brass, silver, rings/gold, coins, etc. And others are water-resistant for searching in and around rivers, streams, and beaches.

Serious Civil War relic hunters always use metal detecting headphones and carry digging tools like trowels for carefully removing targets from hard-packed soil. The finds that are being made with top relic hunting metal detectors like the XP DEUS are incredible. Ronnie Hyer of Alabama located a rare silver George Washington Inaugural button with his detector. Doug Stanley of Martinsville, Indiana, found a Civil War Officers Buckle with his metal detector. Caught the relic hunting bug? Below are our favorite entry-level, mid-level, and high-end metal detectors for Civil War relic hunting.

Entry Level Metal Detectors

Mid Level Metal Detectors

High End Metal Detectors

Top Deep Seeking Relic Metal Detectors

See Underground Image Scans of Relics

For the first time ever, the idea of seeing underground image scans of the target has become a reality! The engineering team at Grountech has brought to life the Discovery models and the Conrade GR-3 models. These devices will show real-time image scans right before your eyes. Gold, Silver, and other Valuable metals are shown in full color on a Display screen. Junk metals like Iron are also clearly displayed. The Discovery models allow you to save target signals for later review and offer menus in multiple languages.

© 2013 Detector Electronics Corp. - Revised August 2022