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The next time you’re in the Fredericksburg, Va., area, take time to visit the White Oak Museum on Route 218, a unique showcase for Civil War artifacts. On display there you’ll find the fruits of nearly 40 years of relic hunting by proprietor D.P. Newton, his father and friends.

Tens of thousands of Union soldiers camped in D.P.’s Stafford County during the war, leaving behind an unbelievable amount of detritus, scads of which is exhibited in the museum’s cases. Here you’ll find a pile of 60,000 Minié balls, dozens of belt plates and gun parts galore. In addition to metal artifacts, D.P. has also unearthed beef bones, clay pipe bowls and other fascinating odds and ends of humanity, including dentures and horn combs. To catalog his entire collection is too daunting for this page.

Relic hunters sometimes get a bum rap for destroying history, but D.P.’s museum contains valuable lessons. Items like lost ID tags humanize the men who fought. Plus the sheer mass of his collection gives you a sense of the massive scale of Civil War armies, and helps you understand just how big they really were to have left behind such a mass of refuse and paraphernalia. Adding to the attraction: D.P. has copiously documented the location of his finds in scores of notebooks that visitors can consult. Want to know where your relative’s brigade camped during the winter of 1862? D.P. can likely tell you.

Equally inspiring is D.P. himself, with his soft Tidewater accent, whose enthusiasm for his collection and friendliness toward visitors is part of the exhibit’s appeal. Chatting with him helps us understand and appreciate the gentler manners of a more reflective, less hectic time. Those days are long gone, and no relic hunter can bring them back. But we can conjure up a vision of the past thanks to the remarkable collection at the White Oak Museum.

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times.