Relic hunter saves history, a piece at a time

September 09, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

SMITHSBURG - Preston "Toby" Law digs history.

He has scoured Civil War battlegrounds and encampments in search of artifacts for more than 30 years in a quest to preserve pieces of American history before they are buried under shopping malls and subdivisions.

"I can name battlefield after battlefield that's gone forever," said Law, 68, of near Smithsburg.

Law hopes his new book, "Gone Diggin': Memoirs of a Civil War Relic Hunter," will entertain and educate readers with its history-packed stories of his excursions to places from Bull Run to The Wilderness.

Law also hopes the book will give readers a sense of how his hobby preserves history.

Many of the Civil War battlefields and soldiers' campsites from which Law has harvested the thousands of bullets (each meticulously dated and labeled), belt buckles, artillery shells, buttons and other relics in his private collection are "simply gone, wiped off the face of the earth," Law writes in his book.


"I had to witness the disappearance of these treasured places, sometimes in a matter of months, like sandcastles swept by rushing tides or a wisp of smoke in the wind," Law wrote. "Some call it progress, some greed. Others say it is ignorance and disregard of our heritage.

"More than anything, I call it a real pity."

A storage facility now stands on land where Union and Confederate forces clashed during the Battle of Funkstown, Law said. Confederate soldiers en route to Williamsport just before that battle holed up in a barn that was torn down in recent years to make way for Prime Outlets of Hagerstown, he said.

Interstate 270 cuts through the center of the Monocacy Battlefield in Frederick, Md.

Racing development

Racing development to battlegrounds and campsites keeps Law and other relic hunters busy, he said.

He rushed to Chantilly (Va.) Battlefield, also known as Ox Hill, in the mid-1970s to sweep the hardwood forest for artifacts one last time before the "chainsaw army and the armored battalions of earthmovers" cleared the way for an upscale townhouse development, shopping center and office complex, Law said.

His collection contains fired bullets, a bullet entombed in wood and a brooch he found at the Chantilly site.

A business college now covers the farrier's camp that Law and fellow hunters found on the perimeter of the Bull Run Battlefield in Manassas, Va. The discovery yielded dozens of relics ranging from horseshoes and drum canteens to a bayonet scabbard tip and eagle breast plate, Law said.

There are fewer hunting grounds and more hunters with better technology than when Law started his hobby in the late 1960s after striking up a friendship with pioneer hunter Stanley S. Phillips - to whom "Gone Diggin'" is dedicated, he said.

While development has conquered some battlegrounds, the federal government has made most others off-limits for relic hunters.

An increasing number of private property owners are turning down hunters' requests, either because they've signed easements that ban relic hunting or because they've been overrun with requests from an ever-growing number of hunters, Law said.

Construction sites offer some of the best hunting opportunities. Relic seekers can find long-lost treasures in the churned-up soil if they beat the bulldozers, Law said.

He dreams of finding undiscovered campsites. And of unearthing one of the few relics not in his collection - a Confederate belt buckle.

"The Holy Grail for me would be an AVA (Alabama Volunteer Corps) belt buckle," said Law, whose great-grandfather served in the 3rd Alabama during the Civil War.

War stories

Law grew up near Manassas and attended a church that Union soldiers used as a stable during the war. His childhood was filled with war stories passed down from his great-grandfather, who fought in battles at Antietam and South Mountain.

"I grew up in an environment where people still talked about the Civil War like we would talk about Vietnam," Law said. "A lot of people were still angry."

The Civil War centennial events of the 1960s heightened his interest in the war and sparked his desire to start collecting artifacts, said Law, a Confederate re-enactor who will participate in the upcoming 140th Antietam re-enactment.

He paid $30 for first item in his collection, an 1863 Springfield rifled musket. The gun is now worth about $1,500, Law said.

He can't put a price tag on the home museum full of Civil War artillery, shoulder belt plates, Confederate artillery buttons, U.S. bridle rosettes, Union belt buckles, bullets and other relics he's dug from the earth over the years.

"How can you put a price on something you could never replace?" he asked.

Law is a member of the Washington County Historical Advisory Committee, the Smithsburg Historical Society, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, Friends of Gettysburg National Park, the Civil War Preservation Trust and the South Mountain Relic & Coin Club.

His 152-page hardcover book was published by Publisher's Press Inc. in August. "Gone Diggin'" can be ordered online at

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