Sal­ley sa­vors hobby of un­earthing Civil War relics

Siloam Springs Herald Leader - - PROUD SILOAM - By Janelle Jessen Staff Writer ■

As a re­tired sergeant over the school re­source of­fi­cer pro­gram and the long­time owner of City Bar­ber­shop, Chris Sal­ley is a fa­mil­iar face in Siloam Springs, but few know about his hobby as a Civil War relic hunter.

Sal­ley uses his de­tec­tive skills to re­search Civil War era camp­sites on his wife’s par­ents’ land in Vicks­burg, Miss., and then searches out the sites in real life and uses a metal de­tec­tor to pin­point ob­jects. He has found ev­ery­thing from large items such as a live canon ball and cast iron skil­let to small items such as wed­ding rings and uni­form but­tons.

Al­most all of the items pulled from the Mis­sis­sippi silt af­ter more than 150 years have a story that cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion. Some items are in pris­tine con­di­tion, while oth­ers are sheared, twisted or have pieces snapped off. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know whether the dam­age was caused in bat­tle or by the rav­ages of time.

“All the time, I find stuff and I think ‘Wow, I mean some guy 150 years ago was sit­ting here and ei­ther lost this or maybe lost his life and dropped this, or who knows what hap­pened.’” Sal­ley said. “Some­times it just feels re­ally, re­ally cool and other times its al­most spooky, some of the stuff I’ve find. You find a 58-cal­iber Minie ball (the type of bul­let of­ten used in the Civil War named af­ter its cre­ator rather than its size) that’s been fired and hit some­thing pretty sub­stan­tial and you won­der, did that hit some­body or did that hit the dirt? You just never know.”

An in­ter­est in his­tory

Grow­ing up on the Mis­sis­sippi Delta in Clarks­dale, Miss.,

sur­rounded by Civil War sites, it was only nat­u­ral for Sal­ley to de­velop an in­ter­est in the past. He has al­ways loved his­tory, es­pe­cially military his­tory, as well as mu­se­ums and relics.

“The Civil War was the military his­tory of that area, there’s noth­ing else,” Sal­ley said.

He spent 23 years work­ing in law en­force­ment, as an in­ter­na­tional cop in places such as Kosovo as well as a de­tec­tive in Mis­sis­sippi and a school re­source of­fi­cer in Siloam Springs. He pur­chased City Bar­ber­shop, the long­est con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing bar­ber­shop in the state, about 12 years ago.

“I love law en­force­ment,” Sal­ley said. “I loved work­ing in the schools, loved work­ing with the kids.”

The high­light of his ca­reer was not the time he spent as an in­ter­na­tional po­lice of­fi­cer or work­ing as a de­tec­tive, it was work­ing with stu­dents in the Siloam Springs School Dis­trict, he said. How­ever, between his job at the po­lice de­part­ment, run­ning the bar­ber­shop and teach­ing law en­force­ment classes to other agen­cies, he was work­ing 60 to 70 hours a week.

“I was just work­ing too much,” he said. “Once I qual­i­fied with the state to re­tire it made sense.”

It was only about two and a half years ago — or about a year be­fore he re­tired — that he be­gan metal de­tect­ing and search­ing for Civil War relics.

“I think, between the po­lice de­part­ment, the school, the bar­ber­shop, my teach­ing that I trav­eled and did, I worked a lot,” Sal­ley said. “I fig­ured I didn’t re­ally have much of a hobby, you know spend­ing time with my fam­ily, which I love. I wanted a hobby.”

Sal­ley watched some YouTube videos about metal de­tect­ing and re­searched what types of equipment he should buy. The prop­erty owned by his wife Brooke’s par­ents is in Vicks­burg, right where the siege oc­curred, mak­ing it a nat­u­ral place to be­gin search­ing.

“I went out there hop­ing to find a bul­let,” he said. “If I was re­ally lucky I was go­ing to find a bul­let, and it kind of turned into more.”

It ac­tu­ally turned into a lot more. The items Sal­ley has found on the prop­erty in­clude hun­dreds of Minie ball bul­lets, but­tons, buck­les from sad­dles and horse tack, metal plates from Con­fed­er­ate and Union equipment such as car­tridge boxes or swords, pieces of jew­elry and watches, bay­o­nets, ex­ploded pieces of large and small ar­tillery shells, and one live canon ball, which he had pro­fes­sion­ally de­milled.

Some of the items, such as an en­graved ster­ling sil­ver spoon, date back to the Civil War but are not nec­es­sar­ily from the war. Other items are more related to the ev­ery­day life of a sol­dier, such as har­mon­ica reeds, pocket knives, game pieces and pen­cils fash­ioned from metal bul­lets, heel plates from boots and even a glass medicine bot­tle, en­graved with the ad­dress of the phar­macy where it was pre­scribed in Vicks­burg.

Peo­ple back then didn’t have a lot and what they had wasn’t eas­ily re­place­able, Sal­ley said, hold­ing an old clay pipe.

“When you lost your pipe, it prob­a­bly ru­ined your day,” he said with a laugh.

Con­nect­ing the past with the present

Sal­ley does not search on bat­tle­fields or pro­tected ar­eas and is care­ful to hunt for relics on pri­vate prop­erty owned by his fam­ily.

“I de­tect re­ally old home sights or re­ally old Civil War camps if I can, any lo­ca­tions that have his­toric sig­nif­i­cance that I find in­ter­est­ing, that’s the kind of de­tect­ing I like to do,” Sal­ley said. “It’s kind of cool for me be­cause when I was a cop for years I got to in­ves­ti­gate things and study, and you know, you’re re­search­ing and chasing down leads and you get to do that stuff, and so with this, now that I’m re­tired, I still do tons of re­search.

“I read old of­fi­cial re­ports and study old maps. I’ll find old let­ters that a sol­dier may have writ­ten home say­ing ‘Hey mom, this is where we’re camped, and this is our lo­ca­tion,’ and then if I can link it to the place that my fam­ily has there or fig­ure out what he’s talk­ing about and then go through the woods and see if I can find where they are camped, and I’ve been re­ally, re­ally for­tu­nate to find a lot of camps.”

For ev­ery hour that he spends dig­ging, he es­ti­mated that he spends 10 or 12 hours re­search­ing. More than once, that re­search has paid off.

“I go to the woods and this ter­rain is so hilly and it’s pretty dif­fi­cult to get through, you’re talk­ing the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, which is full of cane breaks and these huge bluffs. So I climb and what­ever, and then I get there and some­times I strike out and there is noth­ing, and other times I hit the jack­pot,” Sal­ley said.

Sal­ley had fam­ily that fought on both sides of the war and he was able to find records of a fam­ily mem­ber that fought in the 30th Mis­sis­sippi In­fantry and was sta­tioned on his in-law’s prop­erty. He used let­ters from the sol­dier to find the camp­site.

“It takes me well over an hour, so I’m climb­ing and what have you, and as I’m coming up the side of this bluff, I look in front of me and I see the ri­fle pits still dug,” Sal­ley said. “I find we’re in the side of this bluff, it’s cut out where I think, ‘Man, this was a canon em­place­ment,’ and it was. I found ar­tillery relics there. Now it’s grown up, there are trees grow­ing out of the old ri­fle pits, but 100 per­cent that’s where I am. That’s an awe­some feel­ing, just be­ing able to go back to where I know that my fam­ily was, or where these guys were and where they camped. It’s su­per cool to me. Then when I dig it. … when I find some­thing, it’s awe­some.”

Un­cov­er­ing his­tory

The re­search is only begin­ning when Sal­ley finds an ob­ject. He puts even more hours into find­ing what the ob­ject was and track­ing down the his­tory be­hind it.

One of Sal­ley’s rarest finds is a solid brass sword han­dle he dis­cov­ered pok­ing out of the ground.

The sword han­dle is pat­terned af­ter a stan­dard U.S. Cav­alry sword, but un­like a stan­dard sword, which had a wooden han­dle wrapped in leather, cov­ered in wire, with a few brass pieces, the sword he found is solid brass.

“Lots of Con­fed­er­ates went to war with what they could find,” he said. “Well, this is one solid piece of brass. I have looked and

looked and looked. I have asked the big­gest Civil War ex­perts and mu­seum cu­ra­tors around to help me find that. They have all looked and no one has been able to find an­other one of these.

“Now, there was a gentle­man who found a con­tract from a company that made 100 full-brass han­dled, pom­meled, bas­keted cav­alry swords for a Louisiana Cav­alry Unit and none of those are known to have sur­vived. None of those are known to be in a col­lec­tion, now they may be at some­body’s house or in an at­tic and peo­ple don’t know.

“The area where I was hunt­ing, that Louisiana Cav­alry unit camped dur­ing Vicks­burg. So I be­lieve that may be one of those 100 swords that none are known to have sur­vived the war. It’s crazy, at the end of Vicks­burg, all of the Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers had to stack arms and walk out and sur­ren­der, and then they were paroled, they sent them home, but they had to turn in all of their weapons,” Sal­ley said.

He pointed out that the blade of the sword is cleanly bro­ken rather than rusted through.

“Did that guy say ‘I’ve got to turn my sword in, but they’re not us­ing my sword,’ and find some­thing to break it on, or was it turned in and a Union sol­dier said ‘I’m break­ing this guy’s sword,’” Sal­ley said. “Who knows? You could come up with any story.”

On an­other ex­pe­di­tion, Sal­ley found a bell. When he took it home and be­gan re­search­ing, it was an ex­act match to a picture of a bell on a slave col­lar. He noted the area he was search­ing was a plan­ta­tion be­fore the war.

“Did some slave take that off and then get away or did he lose it and then get pun­ished for it? Or did it come out of some­thing else? I don’t know,” he said.

Once Sal­ley found a lit­tle brass cap­sule, slightly more than an inch long, all cov­ered in dirt. He took it home and his wife no­ticed that it rat­tled when it was shook. He used a lit­tle ra­zor to get in the seam between the two sides and pry it open. In­side, he found a tiny statue of a saint.

“There’s this lit­tle re­li­gious pocket saint that some solider car­ried dur­ing the war like it was his good luck charm, and he drops it,” he said.

Most of the metal de­tect­ing Sal­ley does is in Mis­sis­sippi, but he did find a Bri­tish Royal Navy cap­tain’s but­ton from the War of 1812 in a cow pas­ture in south­west­ern Mis­souri, just north of Pea Ridge. It’s hard to imag­ine how such a but­ton found its way so far from where the war oc­curred.

“The only thing I found were Bri­tish trad­ing posts where the Bri­tish traded with Na­tive Amer­i­cans, even

I don’t ever sell any­thing that I’ve dug, I just keep it and en­joy it and maybe one day when I’m older, I may try to do­nate some of it to a mu­seum so other peo­ple can see it. I love show­ing it off. Chris Sal­ley Civil War relic hunter

af­ter the Revo­lu­tion­ary War,” he said. “Dur­ing the War of 1812, (the Bri­tish) were in Mis­souri, not fight­ing, but re­cruit­ing Na­tive Amer­i­cans to help them in the war against the United States. There were some there. So I don’t know, was there a naval of­fi­cer who was de­tached to the army that hap­pened to go through there or was (the but­ton) a war tro­phy that was brought home by some sol­dier that later lost it in a cow field. I don’t know.”

Sal­ley and his fam­ily make five or six vis­its to Vicks­burg ev­ery year and his fa­therin-law en­joys watch­ing him un­cover relics. He also en­joys vis­it­ing with his wife’s grand­mother who has lived in the area her en­tire life and re­mem­bers sto­ries she heard as a child.

“I don’t ever sell any­thing that I’ve dug, I just keep it and en­joy it and maybe one day when I’m older, I may try to do­nate some of it to a mu­seum so other peo­ple can see it,” he said. “I love show­ing it off.”

Janelle Jessen/Herald-Leader

Chris Sal­ley holds a cast-iron skil­let he dis­cov­ered at a Con­fed­er­ate camp.

Chris Sal­ley holds a rare solid brass sword han­dle he dis­cov­ered stick­ing out of the ground in Vicks­burg, Miss.

Chris Sal­ley holds a Union of­fi­cer’s ring he found in Vicks­burg, Miss.

Photos by Janelle Jessen / Herald-Leader

Chris Sal­ley holds a Bri­tish Royal Navy cap­tain’s but­ton from the War of 1812 that he found in a field in south­west Mis­souri, just north of Pea Ridge.

Photos by Janelle Jessen / Herald-Leader

A coin sil­ver and rose gold pock­et­watch fob, dated by the mark­ings on the back to 1861, is one of the items Chris Sal­ley found in a Union in­fantry camp in Vicks­burg, Miss. Pre­cious met­als don’t de­te­ri­o­rate from be­ing left in the ground for 150 years and clean up well.

Sal­ley has found a num­ber of Civil War era lead bul­lets on his wife’s par­ents’ prop­erty in Vicks­burg, Miss. Some of the bul­lets are dam­aged and show ev­i­dence of be­ing fired from a gun, while oth­ers have bore holes show­ing the gun was jammed and the bul­let had to be ex­tracted.

Sal­ley has dis­cov­ered sev­eral locks and dozens of pieces of mor­tar shells (above) on his in-laws’ prop­erty. More than 22,000 shells were fired dur­ing the siege of Vicks­burg, with many of them coming from boats on the nearby Mis­sis­sippi River. (Right) A bell that ap­pears to be off of a slave col­lar was one of the items Sal­ley found on a plan­ta­tion in Vicks­burg, Miss.

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