Metal Detecting in Virginia for Civil War Relics

Metal Detecting in Virginia for Civil War Relics

The State of Virginia is steeped in Civil War history, I’ve found that owning a metal detector often leads to unexpected discoveries. Even if you initially set out to hunt for coins and jewelry around the yards of old 18th and 19th-century homes, chances are you’ll stumble upon relics from the Civil War. Bullets, buttons, and brass artifacts are common finds, especially if troops were in the area and camped around these homes.

Finding a Bronze Axe With a Metal Detector
Finding a Bronze Axe With a Metal Detector

A Journey into History

Once you get seriously into relic hunting, you’ll find yourself diving deep into Civil War history. I confess I probably didn’t pay much attention to it in school, but now I find myself reading books, letters, diaries, and maps. Anything that tells of campsites, battles, troop movements, and more.

In central Virginia, for example, the armies of both the North and South spent the winter camping along the opposing sides of the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. By studying and exploring, you can locate the campsites, actual river crossing sites, and other smaller areas, not always mentioned in any records.

Metal Detecting Tip: I’ve got a full where to go in Virginia guide. Read it 👉 Where to Metal Detect in Virginia

Read to Read-up on the Civil War and Metal Detecting?

The Metal Detecting Bible RECOMMEDED for All Detectorists
The Metal Detecting Bible RECOMMEDED for All Detectorists

Here are some book titles that would be good for Civil War metal detecting:

These books should provide a wealth of information on metal detecting techniques, identifying finds, and understanding the historical context of Civil War relics.

Metal Detecting Tip: One of my most popular articles is about getting permission for private land. Read it here 👉 How to get permission to detect private property

Understanding the Rules: Metal Detecting in Virginia

Before you set out on your relic hunting journey, it’s important to understand the rules and regulations surrounding metal detecting in Virginia. Contrary to what some websites for hobby detectorists have posted, there is no general permitting process for metal detecting in Virginia. However, there are some key points to be aware of:

  • Private Property: If you wish to metal detect on private property, you must have the permission of the property owner. Metal detecting on private property without the owner’s permission has the potential to lead to charges of trespass and theft.
  • Public Property: Public property, both state and federal, is generally not open to metal detecting and removal of artifacts. There are a few exceptions. Some state parks allow metal detecting in defined beach areas; those parks require that you apply for a permit directly from them. Some counties allow metal detecting on manmade beaches or around sports fields. Contact the parks and recreation departments for the county you are considering to learn if and where metal detecting is allowed.
  • Underwater Exploration or Recovery: Underwater bottomlands in Virginia’s rivers, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic coastal zone are state property and do require permits for the removal of artifacts. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has the authority to permit underwater archaeological investigations on historic resources on bottomlands owned by the Commonwealth.

Metal Detecting Tip: PLEASE stay up to speed with the rules of the road in Virginia. The State has an awesome page describing the “How To” for metal detecting. Read more here 👉

The Hunt for Relics

Searching for bullets metal detecting
Searching for bullets metal detecting

The thrill of the hunt can sometimes be dampened when you realize you weren’t the first one to explore these sites. The sight of shotgun shells piled around tree stumps, shredded cans, and sardine cans is a clear sign that you’re in the right place, just a little late.

But don’t be discouraged. Slow, careful hunting with a better-suited detector like a Multi-Frequency than what the earlier hunters had available to them can still yield results. I have never seen a campsite or battle area that was “hunted out” to the point where I couldn’t find a few more deep bullets, buttons, or even larger relics still in the ground.

Metal Detecting Tip: After years of swinging my machine, I’ve come to realize find treasure is cool, but also having a conservation ethic is better. If you read just a little bit about the 1906 Antiquities Act you understand the idea of perseveration and conservation. Here’s a link. 👉 Antiquities Act U.S. Department of Interior

More Than Just Finds

The success or satisfaction of a day’s hunt is not judged strictly by the amount or value of relics dug. It’s a “state of mind” feeling you get when you’ve stood in the actual campsites, walked in the trenches, and envisioned how the soldiers felt during the events that happened there over a hundred years ago.

This is a much stronger connection and feeling than any tourist can get by standing on National Park property with the nice clean reconstructed trenches and pretty signs to explain it to them.

The Unexpected Joys of Relic Hunting

A relic hunter will also dig coins, rings, jewelry, etc. in the normal course of relic hunting in certain areas. I think it would be very hard for a relic hunter to move to a state where no Civil War activity took place and have to become a coin & jewelry hunter only. However, if a coin hunter had the chance to do some relic hunting and get interested in Civil War activities, they might get hooked on a whole new world of detecting.

When the National Park Service comes to Virginia, we’ll find out if there’s anyone who has never dug a Civil War relic, just how they feel when they hold in their hands a button or bullet that was last touched by a soldier +160 years ago. It might just be habit-forming.

Preserving History and Advocating Responsibility

As we delve into the past with our metal detectors, it’s crucial to remember that we are not just relic hunters, but stewards of history. Each artifact we unearth is a tangible link to the past, a piece of the puzzle that helps us understand the lives and experiences of those who came before us.

Here’s a shortcut link to the National Park Service 👉

While the thrill of discovery is exhilarating, it’s equally important to preserve these artifacts for future generations. This means handling them with care, researching the best methods for cleaning and conservation, and, in some cases, leaving them in place if their removal could lead to a loss of historical context.

Moreover, we should always respect the laws and regulations related to metal detecting. Many historical sites, especially those managed by the National Park Service, prohibit metal detecting to protect their archaeological integrity. Always check local regulations and obtain the necessary permissions before you start your hunt.

If you’re fortunate enough to make a significant find, consider reporting it to local historical societies or archaeological organizations. They can provide guidance on preservation and may be able to use your find to enhance our collective understanding of the Civil War.

One More Swing in Virginia

In conclusion, metal detecting in Virginia offers a unique opportunity to connect with our Civil War history. But with this opportunity comes responsibility. Let’s continue to explore, discover, and learn, but always with respect for the relics of the past and the history they represent.

Check Out These Spots for Your Next Metal Detecting Trip


David Humphries, Writer and Creator of METAL DETECTING TIPS. After borrowing my son’s detector and finding $.25. I felt like a treasure hunter. FREE MONEY! I was seriously bitten by the metal detecting bug.

Read about David -> HERE

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