MURFREESBORO, TENNESSEE - Nearly 150 years ago, the area around Medical Center Parkway was once ground zero for one of the bloodiest Civil War conflicts — the Battle of Stones River.
"The first day of battle really happened around The Avenue," said Bill Jakes, whose extensive Civil War relic collection is currently on display, free of charge, at the Rutherford County Archives on Rice Street for several months. "The Avenue — that is the battlefield."
It may be hard to believe that underneath those pristine shops and restaurants and the tree-lined parkway once laid thousands of remnants from the battle that claimed more than 25,000 lives. But right before that area was covered with tarmac, concrete and steel, Jakes was able to dig up some prized relics for his collection.
"If Bill didn't go out there (before the area was developed) those relics he found would be sealed under pavement," said John Lodl, director of the Rutherford County Archives.
Jakes' collection includes dozens of bullets — various kinds from different periods in the war. As industry progressed, so did military artillery. Over time, Jakes has learned what bullets came from which troops, and he's been able to locate a handful of bullets that, because of the type of bullet and the location of where they were found, he's sure were made during the Battle of Stones River on Jan. 1, 1863 — the day President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a turning point in the war when the issues officially became focused on slavery, Jakes said.
There are also belt buckles, a 6-pound cannonball, a powder horn (used to make loading gun powder easier), uniform buttons and other various parts and pieces left behind long ago. While the majority of the displayed items have been dug up by Jakes, he's also garnered items here and there from online purchases to Civil War relic stores.
Hunting for the 150-year-old artifacts is fun, though, albeit not always an easy task to locate. Most are buried 12 to 18 inches under the ground surface. He uses a metal detector to find the items, and he recommends getting a good one if you're serious about hunting artifacts. "You get what you pay for," joked Jakes, also author of "Murfreesboro in Historic Postcards," on sale through major retailers as well as iTunes.
He also said it's important to "always, always, always have permission" to hunt for artifacts wherever you go. "It's illegal to trespass. It's also a good idea to get written permission and carry it with you," he added. Definitely avoid searching for items in the government-protected battlefield.
Lots of local history goes along with Jakes' collection, much of which he has learned through extensive research.
Although he is proud of the items he's dug up himself, one of his most prized possessions is an original letter written by a Union soldier that Jakes found on eBay. He said he was excited to find a letter than was actually written in Murfreesboro and mailed home. The soldier, Richard S. Corle, was part of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery Company and authored the letter in May of 1863.
At first, he was skeptical of the letter's authenticity, but he did lots of research to make sure it was the real deal.
"One of the ways I was able to confirm it was real, I looked up the names of the men mentioned in the letter," he explained. "I was able to confirm all the soldiers were indeed artillery soldiers. ... I verified all the information and that's how I decided it was a real Civil War letter."
The letter was actually found in a barn with a bunch of other discarded letters, and it's not in the best shape thanks to some hungry mice. "After all this time it has finally made it's way back to Murfreesboro," Jakes noted. "I think that's cool."
Jakes is still trying to find family members of the soldier so he can send that piece of history home.
"It would be awesome to find the descendants of the people mentioned in the letter," he said.
Jakes plans to continue looking for other relics and artifacts still buried in known camp sites and battlefield locations as time permits.
"In a nutshell, it's the thrill of finding 'treasure,' but more importantly, it's to preserve the artifacts that would otherwise be lost to the growth and development of the town," Jakes said.
“Treasure – If it’s out there, we’re going to find it!” (Tommy Vawter)
The administrator has disabled public write access.