Dirt Fishing in Murfreesboro

History exists beneath our feet if we only take the time to seek it out.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity (for the first time) to accompany Stan Hutson for an afternoon of metal detecting in a field located where the opening shots of the Battle of Stones River occurred on the morning of Wednesday, December 31, 1862. 

Stan had already worked over the field a few days previously and scored a large chunk of a 12-lb cannon ball and felt the field had more to offer up. “One of things about detecting is that sometimes you have to sift through 150 years of junk to find the good stuff,” he said. “You’d be surprised to see the amount of trash you come across.”

Our target field was a located at the intersection of Gresham Lane and Old Fort Parkway in sprawling Murfreesboro, Tennessee next to the RaceTrac gas station; the field was a construction site for a new business which offered a last chance to pick up any relics lying just beneath the surface. The field was covered with grass and had been bulldozed in spots but appeared otherwise untouched. 

Finding a ball of canister likely fired by Battery A of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery during the opening moments of the Battle of Stones River was one of the highlights of my recent trip to the battlefield. During the battle, the battery was located over my left shoulder just out of sight of the camera. 

This particular intersection could rightly be named the place where the Battle of Stones River began. The four regiments of August Willich’s brigade lay in camp just north of the Franklin Road and accompanying them were the six guns of Battery A of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery. Today, the Franklin Road Baptist Church and School occupy Willich’s old campground.  There is a historic marker located along the road, but it says nothing about the site’s importance as the opening scene of the battle. Located far from the National Battlefield Park, most locals do not know that this location marked the beginning of the battle. 

At around 6:20 a.m. on December 31, 1862, General John P. McCown’s division overran the picket lines of the 32nd and 39th Indiana regiments a few hundred yards to the south of this location and slammed into Willich’s encamped regiments. In a fierce but very short fight, the Texans of Matthew D. Ector’s brigade and the James Rains’ mixed brigade of Georgians, Tennesseans, and North Carolinians put Willich’s brigade to flight (Willich himself was captured) and continued to push north, having effectively flanked the Union right wing under General Alexander McDowell McCook.

The field’s prime location and condition offered a chance that Stan couldn’t pass up to check the field to see what could be found. Joined by a few other hunters, we walked all over the field, Stan maneuvering his detector swiftly and digging at numerous points.

I learned quickly that Stan was right about having to dig through 150 years of junk. He received a long signal from his detector that sounded like a large chunk of iron. “Maybe it’s the rest of that 12-lb ball I dug the other day,” he said excitedly. “But its probably just junk.” A quick hole and a check with a wand proved his second guess was right: it was a twisted piece of old barbed wire fence. The next few holes revealed much the same: barbed wire. Then he received another good hit: a large chunk of iron and deep.

The chunk of a 12-lb cannon ball had been discovered in this same field just a few days before by my guide. The circular opening on the inside arc would have held a circular Bormann time fuze. 

It took several spadefuls of dirt before the shovel scraped against something metallic. This time it wasn’t barbed wire, but it was half of a broken horseshoe with a twisted nail sticking out of it. “Junk, but probably Civil War era,” he said as he handed it over to me. “As deep as that was, it was down there a long time.” I eyed the thick and heavy horseshoe with a profound sense of satisfaction: I’d seen my first relic dug. Maybe this came off an army horse from that era, maybe not. But how cool!

Continuing in our search, we came across more junk of the modern times: barbed wire, a set of pliers, bottle tops, broken pieces of farm implements. The debris of the 20th century farming that once occupied this field along the Franklin Road was littered everywhere it seemed. Not too far from the first horseshoe, Stan discovered another broken horseshoe. At first, I thought it was a match for the first one we found, but this second one was much thinner iron even if it did nearly fit together with the other.

As interesting as the horseshoes were, it wasn’t really what we were seeking. “If you find a lead bullet, the detector makes a higher pitched sound, very mellow,” Stan said. “Then you know you’ve got something.” Another 20 minutes of walking and a half dozen holes later, all we had found were more pieces of barbed wire. While Stan was striking out with the metal detecting business, I was ringing up golf ball after golf ball, at one point having a half dozen in my hand including ones from Titleist and Callaway.

“You know, if I could get enough of these, I could sell them and pay for dinner,” I said. But Stan was working a contact and didn’t respond. “More junk,” he said, but dug anyway. He spooned out a couple of spadefuls of the rich red Tennessee dirt and checked them with his wand. Then he saw something round and quickly plucked it from the hole. “Well damn, look at that, a canister ball,” he said with a grin. “Merry Christmas, Dan.” Now I was grinning.

No doubt it was a ball of canister. It was a rust red heavy ball of iron about an inch in diameter, probably fired from a 12-lb howitzer. You could see the black iron once the dirt was rubbed off. “I bet this came from Battery A of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery,” I said. “They would have been located just across the road maybe a hundred yards off. Firing in this direction at the advancing Confederates.”

“I bet you’re right,” Stan said. The other day, he and another digger had found another piece of canister and once he pointed out where it was found, we could form an estimate of the triangular spray pattern from the shots. They pointed to the northwest, right where Battery A would have been located in those frightful early morning minutes 160 years ago. A little while later, we pulled out our copy of Blue & Gray Magazine to check their superb Stones River maps and confirmed that Battery A was the most likely battery from which this particular round of canister was fired, and Battery A just so happened to be equipped with 12-lb howitzers.

“Where there’s one ball of canister, there ought to be more,” Stan commented and went back to work swinging the detector back and forth with renewed purpose. A half hour and a dozen holes later, he was ready to call it a day. “I’ll come back here tomorrow afternoon after they finish bulldozing it and see what turns up,” he said. “Always better digging after that.” He kept up the search as we walked towards our cars and was awarded with one little surprise: a .22 caliber lead bullet. Not sure it was Civil War era or not, but it was a neat find and a nice way to wrap up the session.

Examples of dug canister balls.

As I walked to my car holding the canister ball in my hand, I thought back to the last time human hands had touched that chunk of metal on the morning of December 31, 1862, when the round of canister was shoved down the hot barrel of a smoking 12-lb howitzer. The skies had barely started to pink up when frightened skirmishers came running in from the line breathlessly reporting that the Confederates were coming. The first shots from Battery A would have been shells, but as the Confederate line surged closer, First Lieutenant Edmund B. Belding ordered the gunners to load canister and let loose. Now I held one of those missiles fired in anger so long ago. As a historian who has studied Stones River for more than 20 years, it was a thrill to hold that piece of history in my hands.

On the receiving end of that canister were Southern boys determined to protect their homes and hurl Rosecrans’ army back to Nashville. They certainly succeeded on this end of the field. “The boys drove the enemy back into their camps which were well-lit with fires around which they were cooking breakfast,” Lewis Jones of the 10th Texas Cavalry related. “The onslaught was so sudden and the slaughter so great that they retreated in great confusion, every fellow for himself and devil take the hindmost. They had abandoned everything to get away.”

History exists beneath our feet if we only take the time to seek it out. Whether we seek it out by relic hunting, by walking our battlefields, by spending time reading the memoirs, letters, and diaries of the boys in Blue or Gray, or some combination of the three, it is a worthwhile endeavor to seek a deeper understanding of our shared past.

That single canister ball evokes those opening moments of the Battle of Stones River and has a story all its own to be told. I’m honored to have been able to tell some of that story. 

P.S. A subsequent search of the field revealed a plethora of items from the battle including more canister balls, bullets (including a spill of .69 caliber bullets), buttons, even a period poker chip. 


  1. Very interesting ! Your article brought the scene to life for me. Thank you.


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