Salley savors hobby of unearthing Civil War relics
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.