Collecting the Civil War - one bullet at a time

Collector Jim Ketchum goes after collectibles from the War Between the States with his trusty metal detector. After 35 years of searching he's accumulated a lot of artifacts.

by Leigh Elmore

Ketchum purchased this Springfield musket after getting authentication that it had been used in the Battle of Lexington in 1861. (photos by Leigh Elmore)

There are all kinds of collectors of Civil War artifacts and memorabilia. From the plethora of websites on the Internet catering to enthusiasts, it is evident that one could accumulate a

wonderful collection as long as money is no object. There are hundreds of dealers of bona fide Civil War collectibles all over the country. Others, like Jim Ketchum, take a more direct approach to collecting by use of metal detectors. They like to dig their treasures directly out of the ground.

For Ketchum of Odessa, MO, the passion for collecting Civil War artifacts developed soon after he moved to Missouri from Iowa in 1979. He remembers the decade of the 1980s as sort of the "Golden Age" of collecting with detectors. Today, many likely spots already have been scoured by artifact hunters, making the search all the more difficult. But a passion is a passion.Ketchum had relocated to Odessa, about 35 miles east of Kansas City, and began to learn about the comings and goings of Confederate militias and Union Army detachments around western Missouri.

"I started doing my research because I really wanted to get into relic hunting," Ketchum said. From reading books, old newspapers and just talking to people in the know, he was able to piece together knowledge of where certain units camped for long periods of time as well as where various skirmishes and battles took place.

Relic hunting's "golden age"

"Back in the early 1980s, when I searched an area where I knew there had been a big encampment, I was able to find 30-40 bullets a day sometimes," Ketchum said. "The 1980s was really the prime time for relic hunting, but even then, it was really hard to find a really rich site."
He explained that while most people expect that a battle site would yield many relics, in actuality it's harder to find items on battlefield because everything is spread out over a large area.

Documented camp grounds are "the easiest places to hunt," Ketchum said, because the artifacts are concentrated in a specific site. Of course, these days it is illegal to bring a metal detector onto a battle site that is operated by the National Park Service or in most state parks. Consequently, much artifact hunting must be done on private land anymore. "It's important to develop a relationship with any landowner. Often you will have to share your finds with them, but it is worth it," Ketchum said.

An overview of some of the items that Ketchum has collected by using his metal detector. Included are musket bullets, buttons, rivets, puddled lead and various other metal items. This is just a fraction of artifacts in his collection.

Different theaters, different relics

This newspaper clipping from the New York Herald Tribune in 1861 details the action at the Battle of Lexington.

Ketchum's interest in Civil War history developed slowly over time. "Anything in Missouri is most interesting to me," he said. "You can find information about units from Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois, that all had regiments out here. There are quite a few regimental histories that have turned out to be good resources. I do most of my research online now."

One particular regimental camp near Clinton, MO has been a treasure trove for Ketchum, who noted that an Iowa cavalry detachment over-wintered on the site. He also has had success on the Battle of Newtonia site in southern Missouri, which was fought Sept. 30, 1862. "In that battle the cavalry and artillery predominated," he said. Ketchum said there is a difference between relics found in the Western Theater of the war versus what can be found say in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

"Out here in Missouri the Union forces got many of the weapons that the army was discontinuing. Consequently, we find some bullets that are very, very rare and they can't be found back East."


A mini-museum

Display cases in Ketchum's home attest to his attentiveness to his hobby – they are filled with bullets, artillery shells, buttons, hardened puddles of what had been molten lead. "The soldiers had to mold their own bullets and they often spilled lead on the ground and they make distinctive little disks in the ground," he said.

Larger metal fragments include the round grapeshot artillery projectiles and shrapnel.

Ketchum notes that bullets in good condition likely were never fired, as a used bullet has a different shape than the one it began as. Bullets crumple when they hit a hard object. He points out a jar of "teardrops," which were .36 caliber bullets made at the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis.
"I've probably collected more than 9,000 bullets over the years," Ketchum said. "I still have most everything that I have found. Occasionally, I'll sell some things or buy some things to help round things out."

A close-up of the musket's trigger and firing mechanism. The inscription "Spring-field 1842" is still visible.

A most notable purchase is a Union Springfield musket that had been recovered from the Battle of Lexington site years ago. "I spent about $500 for it, which is about right for a weapon in this condition." All the metal is rusted and the wooden stock has darkened. "But everything still moves, I can cock it, pull the trigger and the hammer comes down."

One thing he's learned from years of using a metal detector, "bullets sound just like pull tab from aluminum cans." Of course, in a good Civil War campsite, pull-tabs are likely to be absent.
It takes a beginner a little time to get used to a metal detector and the various sounds that they emit. The rule of thumb is to dig every blip until the user can begin to tell the difference between types of objects. The more familiar a person is with their machine the better the hunting will be.
"The other great thing about this hobby is that it's very good exercise," said the trim 60-something. "The other big thing though is that when I find something in the field I realize that the last guy who touched this thing was fighting in the Civil War. That's a real link to the past," Ketchum said.


The Battle of Westport comes alive again

Re-enactments to mark 150th anniversary

This mural depicting The Battle of Westport is located in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. The artist N.C. Wyeth created a scene to represent the battle in general, not a specific incident. Union forces were given dominance in the painting because they were victorious.

One hundred fifty years ago the Kansas City region was enveloped in what turned out to be the last major military confrontation of the Civil War fought west of the Mississippi. Over three days in October 1864, southern forces under the command of Gen. Sterling Price clashed with Union armies under the command of Gen. Alfred Pleasonton over several locations in the greater Kansas City area, known collectively as The Battle of Westport.

According to information supplied by The Westport Historical Society, the Battle of Westport has been called the "Gettysburg of the West" because of three criteria:

While the direct comparison to Gettysburg is overblown, "The significance of the Battle of Westport was, for the most part limited to the Trans-Mississippi… The Battle of Westport did deny the Confederacy any hope of a permanent presence in Missouri, and guerrilla activity was never the same. No major fighting again took place in Missouri," according to the book The Battle of Westport, edited by the Westport Historical Society. Today, most of the areas where the battle was fought have been lost to commercial and residential development. Yet a few areas have been set aside to commemorate the battle.

They include the Byram's Ford (Big Blue Battlefield) just north of 63rd Street as it crosses the Blue River. Also, Loose Park was the site of the last decisive engagement and interpretive plaques there tell the story of the battle. A period parrot gun marks the site. Overall, a total of 30,000 Union and Confederate troops had converged on the hills and prairies surrounding Westport prior to the battle on Oct. 21, 1864. Today, hundreds of Civil War re-enactors are polishing their buttons and bayonets in preparation of the Battle of Westport re-enactment to be held in Kansas City's Swope Park, Oct. 24-26.

Friday, Oct. 24, has been dubbed "Education Day" in which the public can mingle with troops at their encampments and learn about the day-to-day activity of Civil War soldiers. Two large battle re-enactments are set for Saturday, Oct. 25 on the large green expanses in Swope Park. The first will re-recreate Gen. Jo Shelby's attack against Gen. James G. Blunt's forces. The second will simulate Union Gen. Pleasonton's attack on Gen. John Marmaduke's line in the Battle of Byram's Ford.

The public can expect to see the largest turnout of blue and gray clad re-enactors in many years. Horseback charges, artillery exchanges and the pop, pop, pop of muskets firing will fill the air with smoke and excitement. While it will all make for a day of spectacle as well as providing a vivid educational tool for young historians, the actually battle took a terrible toll on its participants as this diary excerpt describes one scene of heavy fighting:

"At 8 a.m. crossed the creek called the Big Blue, the battlefield of yesterday. There for the first time the unburied dead were seen -- the unmistakable marks of stern and cruel war. At every step of our advance, the evidence of a fierce and bloody conflict was around us. It was a sad sight, the old, the middle aged and youth.

"The enemy took here a stubborn and determined stand. It was a cavalry fight – carbines, pistols and sabers—horse against horse –man against man— sabers right and left. The saber cuts visible on face, neck and arm; the wounded and dead horses seen all over the field. Our loss is estimated in killed and wounded at about 400; the enemy's loss is from 1000 to 1500."- George Sawin, Quartermaster, 58th Illinois Infantry Regiment, Oct 24, 1864


A schedule of Midwest Civil War re-enactments

A group of Confederate re-enactors march toward a confrontation with their Union counterparts. (photo courtesy Westport Historical Society.)

Several Midwest communities have scheduled Civil War re-enactments to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war in this area. The public is encouraged to attend the events.
Spectators should always plan to arrive a minimum of 1.5 hours before the scheduled battle time, as parking is sometimes limited and you may have to walk some distance. If you want to go through the camps and talk to the participants and observe camp activities, plan on arriving 2-3 hours early, as re-enactors start battle preparations well before the scheduled start time.
On Sundays, most re-enactors break camp and leave immediately after the daily battle demonstration, so they often have little time to talk.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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