Relics tell a 150-year-old tale
Although it is impossible to ever hear a first-hand tale from a Civil War soldier, it is possible to see items these soldiers touched, owned and used while they were in battle here in Pocahontas County.
The Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park Museum has a large collection of artifacts which were found on the grounds and around the mountain. Artifacts that speak volumes about the lives and deaths of the Confederate and Union soldiers.
The museum was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a vacation cabin in 1936.
“They had plans to build 15 cabins here at the park but only completed three of them when the camp was suddenly ended, and none of the others were ever done,” Droop Mountain State Park superintendent Mike Smith said. “Those three cabins were rented up into the early 1960s, two of them were torn down. This one was kept for storage and later converted to a museum in the 1970s.”
When Smith became superintendent in 1984, the museum was in disarray after suffering a “major vandalism episode.”
“In the beginning we gathered a lot of stuff because we had to have something, but over time, we’ve moved out a lot of articles that weren’t relative to the battle,” Smith said. “Now everything here except for just a couple of items, are artifacts from the battle here at Droop Mountain.”
One item that seems to be the star of museum is a Confederate marching drum which was donated to the park by Johnny Hill in 1997.
“The drum was found the morning after the battle,” Smith said. “Some local boys who lived at the base of the mountain behind us here had heard the cannons all day and the rifle fire. They knew something big was going on. They didn’t know armies were in the area.”
The next morning, the three boys climbed the mountain to explore.
“First thing they found was a wounded Confederate solider, laying in the woods, unattended to,” Smith said. “He had lost a lot of blood and was in really bad shape. They went to a nearby seep, a little spring coming out the side of the mountain, took their hats over there… and got enough water in their hats to give him a drink.”
When they fetched the water, the boys found the drum which had been dropped at some point during the battle.
“They were tending to the wounded solider and saw Union soldiers coming through the woods,” Smith said. “They could see the blue pants legs of the soldiers coming and, of course, got scared and afraid they would get caught and ran back down the mountain, and they took the drum with them.”
One of those boys was a relative of Johnny Hill’s and the drum stayed in the family until 1997. Hill had the drum since 1930 and, over the years, replaced the drum heads and cords that keep the heads taut.
“Almost all union drums had eagles on them somewhere so we believe it is a Confederate drum lost in the aftermath of the battle,” Smith explained. “The drums and the bugles and the fifes were an important part of the Army’s equipment at that time because that’s how they communicated over the roar of the battle.”
Smith said he is grateful that, instead of keeping it in the family, Hill chose to donate the drum allowing all visitors to Droop Mountain to enjoy the artifact.
“Mr. Hill’s attitude toward it was, he told me he was getting older, and he protected it his whole life, and was very much attached to it,” Smith said. “He could have left it to his children and grandchildren, but he felt like this was the place it belonged and they could come here and see it anytime they want.”
Another artifact, found 17 or 18 years ago, was again, discovered by three inquisitive boys.
“They were going down a steep ravine and they saw a piece of metal sticking out of the bank,” Smith recalled. “One of them was about to wrap it around a tree when one hollered and said it looked like a gun, so they brought it to me and sure enough, it was a Confederate Richmond Sharps.”
The boys took Smith back to the ravine where they used a metal detector to search for more artifacts. Smith said they found a gold wedding ring about six inches from where the rifle was.
“We believe that this was a Confederate soldier wounded in the battle, tried to escape down the side of the mountain, probably died right there,” Smith said. “Probably was never buried.”
Most artifacts found at Droop are somewhat easy to classify as Union or Confederate, due to the types of materials used.
“The Confederate States of America did not have the manufacturing capabilities of the North, so in some ways many of the items they manufactured during the war are somewhat cruder than the northern items,” Smith explained. “For example spurs. We’ve got some spurs, both Union and Confederate. The Union spurs tend to have smoothly rounded edges, whereas the Confederates tend to be flat straps with square edges that have just been bent to the proper shape. They work just as good, but not quite as finely manufactured.”
Smith said the Confederate soldiers were forced to be more resourceful and scavenge for materials.
“One of the great stories that intrigued me, as they [Confederates] were looking for metals for artillery pieces, one of the big sources of metal are church bells,” he said. “Throughout the south there are many, many church bells that were melted down and kind of, ironically, made into cannon barrels and used through the war and after the war, many of those same cannons were melted down again and recycled back into church bells.”
Although the museum does not have a cannon made from a church bell, it does have ordinances that were fired from cannons.
“The twenty-four pounders, we know any fragments from that are definitely Confederate because that was the only one here,” Smith said. “Both sides had rifle pieces, like the Parrot Rifle out here in the field. The Union also had three-inch ordinance rifles which are very similar to the Parrot except that they’re made out of steel instead of cast iron and wrought iron like the Parrot.”
Many shells and ordinances fired by the large rifles or cannons have been found intact, unexploded due to poor manufacturing and ineffective fuses.
“Sixty to seventy percent would operate properly,” Smith said. “That means out of ten shells, there’s going to be a couple, two or three, for some reason or other, the fuse didn’t work right and the shell didn’t blow up. We found, I know of three twelve pound shells with Boreman fuses that have been found during the time that I’ve been here. None of the three had the fuse pricked, so that meant it couldn’t have gone off. The fuse didn’t have any hole punched in it so for some reason they fired it, just used it not expecting it to blow up even though it was an explosive shell and designed to blow up.”
Like a lot of museum curators or artifact collectors, Smith has a favorite artifact.
“One of my favorites in the museum is the chewed bullets,” he said. “We have a fair number of them in one of the cases in there. [The ones] with teeth marks all over them. You’ve heard the expression ‘bite the bullet’ – means to toughen up, be strong, endure what you have to do. Well, that came from the Civil War practice of wounded soldiers biting on the bullet to protect their teeth.”
Biting on a lead bullet might not sound very protective of teeth, but it was better than grinding teeth together.
“The men suffered immensely and they would grit their teeth so hard that they would often break the molars, crack them against each other, so they learned to cushion them with a bullet or a piece of wood, a bullet being handy,” Smith explained. “We have several of them in there that were found around buildings used as hospitals after the battle. They look like old pieces of bubblegum stuck under a restaurant table because you can see the big teeth marks all over them.”
To test the force the soldiers had in their bites, Smith himself decided to “bite the bullet.”
“I bit one several years ago, just to see what it would be like,” he said. “I took an unfired bullet and put it in my mouth, and just bit until I thought my eyeballs would pop. Took it out and looked at it and it had the tiniest of scratches. Of course, my leg wasn’t being cut off while I was doing it.”
So many more stories are attached to the artifacts at the museum, but the most important story is that the battle happened.
“The artifacts that are found are interesting not only for what it is but also, it tells you something about the battle,” Smith said. “For a certainty something happened at this spot where that artifact is. It’s pretty cool every time something turns up.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at email@example.com