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Joseph Balicki gets to play in the dirt for a living. A principal archaeologist and project manager for John Milner Associates, which offers historic preservation services, Balicki became involved in Civil War military archaeology after he obtained his master’s degree from Catholic University. After 30 years of field work, he is widely acknowledged as a military archaeology expert. Based in historic Alexandria, Va., Balicki doesn’t have to venture very far afield to find interesting sites where he can dig.

How do you find places to dig?

My consulting firm often does work for a particular agency or place if they have a specific project that they’re looking at. The Marine Corps Base at Quantico, for example, which has so much land, wanted to determine where to do their military exercises, where troops can live and what areas they should develop into parks or open spaces.

But in other cases it’s a situation where a new development is going in. Then we would come in and see what could be found before the land was built on. It doesn’t have to be a Civil War site; it can be from any period of history. I’ve just been lucky enough to be able to recognize Civil War sites—and lucky to find them at projects where I’ve been working.

Do metal detectors help you?

In archaeology we use a lot of different techniques. A lot of it is background research. A lot is asking people. I’ve developed contacts in the relic community, so if I have a project in a particular spot I can ask them about it. A lot is knowing local Civil War history. I use a metal detector on almost any project. It’s really metal detection that’s the key to everything.

So you work with relic hunters?

I never considered relic hunters enemies; they often help me examine sites. There’s probably not one Civil War site in the country that some relic hunter has not already looked at. It’s a vast supply of untapped knowledge that I try to incorporate in the work. A few relic hunters buy night vision goggles, trespass and dig illegally. Some even dig up graves. But the vast majority of relic hunters don’t like those people, because that’s what gives their hobby a bad name.

Are camps your primary focus?

My primary interest and expertise is archaeology. Among the encampments I have looked at, for instance, were the ones at Quantico. We were contracted by the Marines to do various kinds of surveys. One of the areas there had been the location of large regimental camps dating from the fall of 1861 to the spring of 1862— Confederate encampments that supported their efforts to blockade the Potomac. It was a significant site, with winter quarters.

There were four regimental camps, which were laid out according to the military regulations of the time. So you could walk through the woods and see one hut, and then walk a certain distance and see another one. You had officers living on the hillside, higher up than the rank and file, the company streets, so they could watch their troops.

Looking at what we can discern about how they built their cabins or huts, it was clear that the officers had larger huts. The officers also had stoves, as opposed to the enlisted men. In some cases, the enlisted troops were still living in tents during the winter.

Which units were there?

The two main camps I looked at were the 35th Georgia and the 22nd North Carolina. A stream ran between them, which the men referred to as the River Styx. The 35th Georgia was decimated by disease, and the 22nd North Carolina wasn’t.

When you look at the documents, the commander of the 35th Georgia is talking all about how his troops are ill, that they can’t participate in policing the camp and in guarding the roads and so forth. But when you look at the 22nd North Carolina, they are decorating for Christmas and having turkey shoots. They’re experiencing the war a lot differently than the 35th Georgia. And then when you look at the encampment itself, you see that the 22nd North Carolina was living in cabins, while the 35th Georgia was still living in tents. You can still see the physical evidence in the landscape, by the different kinds of features, the evidence that is still there on the ground.

What other encampment sites have you examined?

We looked at a bunch of encampments in Alexandria, Va. The city of Alexandria has an interest in preserving its heritage, so when there’s any kind of development, people have to consider the archaeology.

What we started finding is, in homes that were built pre-1960, people just built a house and didn’t really change the landscape at all. Nowadays in new developments they strip everything down to subsoil level—soil that has been relatively undisturbed for eons. In the backyards of many Alexandria homes you can still find places where you can look at a pattern of artifacts using metal detectors.

One of the features we found there is tied to heating hospital tents. It’s called a Crimean Oven. They had a large furnace. Its chimney was buried underground, and it went through the tent and heated up the ground—the radiant heat kept the soldiers warm.

What artifacts do you most commonly come across?

The most common thing we find is dropped .58-caliber Minié balls. One particular site that we were excavating near Brandy Station, Va., was associated with the 1863 Mine Run Campaign. That place had thousands of unused Minié balls on it. When we went back and looked at some of the diaries and soldiers’ letters from the two-week period when the men were living in that camp, they were talking about how it was so unfair that the government was making them carry an extra 100 rounds of ammunition and how it was such a waste because it all just got damaged—and it was all just thrown away anyway because it was heavy. So you can tie the historic record to the artifacts.

Any other cool things you’ve found?

I like to see the things that soldiers made—to make their lives easier or just to pass the time in camp, like the poker chips they made out of bullets. Some bullets were cast with a star design or a “U.S.” inside the cone of the Minié ball. The men would take the time to flatten the soft lead bullet if they were making a poker chip or a checker piece. Finding one of those is always interesting.

Anytime you find something that really tells you about who was there, an item that gives you a clear indication of what troops were there, it’s fascinating. When you find a button worn by Mississippi troops, for example, that’s a clear indication that Mississippians were present. And you can do research to find out more about the individuals who were on that spot. That’s the kind of thing that’s interesting. But frankly, anytime I find something, it’s kind of fun. I still get excited whenever an item comes out of the dirt.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here