relic hunter

Joe Crews was in the weeds. The Fourth of July holiday had brought a throng of travelers to the Hillsborough McDonald’s that he owned, and he needed to clear his head. That meant one thing: relic hunting.

Crews rose early the next morning, already a scorcher of a day. He laced up his shin-high boots, layered himself with bug spray, and was out the door before his wife woke.

For six years, Crews had found solace in the woodlands of North Carolina and Virginia, where Civil War soldiers once fought and camped. The soldiers had left blood and glory on the battlefield, as well as more tangible items, weathered and buried and broken and faded, but each one sustaining a legacy. Armed with a metal detector and headphones, Crews sought to unearth the possessions — buttons and bullets and buckles and badges.

Crews made his voyages several times a year, usually with his friend Keith and Keith’s brother, a Hillsborough police detective. They’d stay out for 18 hours a day, sometimes for days at a time, motivated by the challenge of the find; the dit-dit-dit of the metal detector was akin to the ding-ding-ding of a winning slot machine roll.

On this sweltering July day in 1992 however, Crews decided to hunt alone in Holly Springs. After parking at the edge of the woods, he trudged a half-mile down a valley and up a hill, navigating the snakes. He didn’t find much more than a few bullets over two hours and was about to quit, when he suddenly got another reading, and started digging with his spade.

Eight inches below the surface, a star the size of a quarter emerged. Probably a piece of trash, he thought, a toy sheriff’s star. He dusted it off, and read:

46th P.V.
Co D
H.A. Weidensaul

Crews tossed the star in a box and forgot about it.

• • •
 

On a crisp afternoon, Crews stands inside his Hillsborough garage. The Jacksonville native still cuts an athletic frame built during his Army days, when he worked with air defense artillery at Fort Bliss during the Vietnam War. Today, clad in jeans, sneakers, rectangular wired glasses, and a trim mustache, the 72-year-old resembles a history professor on a casual Friday.

Crews holds other titles, too: founder of the Hillsborough Hog Day festival. Ex-racecar driver and vintage car collector. Treasurer of the Historic Speedway Group, which preserves the Occoneechee Speedway — the last remaining track from NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 season. But relic hunter is the title he likes best.

Crews’ once-buried treasures are varied: telescope and canon fragments, a mule’s chain, a pipe, 19th-century coins, and knife handles made of bone. Each one, he says, tells a story, begging to be preserved.

Crews began hunting in 1986. At the McDonald’s where he worked, he befriended Keith, a relic hunter who suggested that Crews accompany him in the woods one day. Crews was hesitant. “I was just a country boy flipping burgers,” he recalls.

Crews’s childhood consisted of killing hogs and milking cows on his family farm, which had no electricity. In 1960, after dropping out of high school, he enlisted in the Army. After nine years at Fort Bliss, he joined the Virginia National Guard as a leadership tack officer at the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, where he trained cadets to run and shout cadences in the woods. He married an Anheuser-Busch lab technician named Leslie, and retired as a captain.

For extra money, Crews applied for a night shift at a McDonald’s in Newport News, Virginia. His first night on the job, he made sure his paper cap was cocked perfectly over his forehead, an inch from his nose. The cap framed his buzz cut, just like his Army cap had. He ironed his uniform with extra starch. At the end of his shift, the owner told Crews that he seemed like a leader, and put the young veteran into the manager-training program. Four months later, Crews was supervising three branches. A few years later, he bought his first restaurant, in Hillsborough.

During his initial two hunting trips with Keith, Crews found nothing. But on the third excursion, to a wooded area in Petersburg, Virginia, Keith gave his friend an assist, drawing an X on a patch of dirt. Beneath the mark, Crews found a bullet. From then on, he was hooked.

To prepare for each hunt, Crews cross-references old battle maps with his weathered Rand McNally atlas. He educates himself on a new war tale with each item he unearths. In Pitt County, for example, where the Battle of Tranter’s Creek was fought, he discovered a buckle bearing the initials “CS” — Confederate States — designed for a sword, a rare weapon for an infantry soldier. Crews learned that Col. George Singletary, who commanded the 44th North Carolina, was shot in the head during the battle. Singletary’s comrades preserved his sword. “It’s got to be his!” Crews exclaims.

The relic hunter has discovered an appreciation for soldiers’ bravery, which hits close to home. His great-grandfather was a Confederate who survived a gunshot wound at Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. His life would be saved at a Pennsylvania hospital.

Inside the garage, Crews is still opening boxes. “Now let me show you the real stuff,” he says: corps badges. He displays with pride the arrow of the 17th Corps; the acorn of the 14th Corps, carved from a 50-cent piece with the eagle head still visible; the heart of the 24th Corps, melded from a bullet.

Then Crews hoists up a binder resembling a scrapbook. “To this day,” he says, “I still get chills.”

• • •
 

In 1862, somewhere near Williamsburg, Virginia Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, who oversaw a division of the Union’s 3rd Corps, observed a group of soldiers lazing around a tree. When the general ordered the soldiers to return to their company, one of them explained that they didn’t belong to Kearny’s command. A disciplinarian, Kearny responded by issuing an edict: Starting immediately, all his men would be identified with a red patch on their caps.

Kearny’s order jump-started a broader Union policy. In the following months, each corps was assigned a badge — a clover, anchor, or crescent, for example — to distinguish the soldiers. The star-shaped badge belonged to the 12th Corps, which included the 46th Regiment of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In March of 1865, those men were among the troops to arrive in North Carolina, where they camped out until the war’s end.

civil war relic hunting

Unearthed in Holly Springs, this star the size of a quarter led a Civil War relic hunter on a quest to Pennsylvania, and a remarkable meeting with the 100-year-old daughter of its original owner, the youngest person to ever enlist in the Union Army.

Crews didn’t know it then, but the star he’d unearthed in Holly Springs was a badge belonging to one of those soldiers. Several weeks after his discovery, Crews took it to a memorabilia show in Richmond, Virginia on a whim. For a $50 fee, a researcher agreed to look into the name H.A. Weidensaul. Six months later, Crews found a thick package in his mailbox.

Inside were reams of documents from the National Archives detailing Weidensaul’s service: casualty sheets, prisoner of war memos, medical charts, book excerpts, an enlistment certificate, a death certificate, company roll calls, personal letters, and pension claims.

Crews studied the documents with fascination. He learned that the Reading, Pennsylvania native was the youngest person ever to enlist in the Union Army, according to state records. (Other young teens backed into fighting roles through initial jobs as marching musicians.) On September 1, 1861, in Harrisburg, Weidensaul, just 14 years old, joined Company D of the 46th Pennsylvania infantry, one of the first Union regiments to organize after the war broke out.

Merely 5 feet 3 inches tall, Weidensaul established himself as a fearless fighter. During the Battle of Cedar Mountain, the teenager blitzed through whizzing shrapnel and was felled by a bullet to the hand. He was taken captive and sent to Richmond’s Libby Prison for five weeks before rejoining his company. During the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Weidensaul’s sergeant, who was carrying the 46th regiment flag, was fatally struck by a bullet that ricocheted off the staff, snapping it in two. As Weidensaul reached for the flag, he, too, was shot. The bullet barely missed his thigh bone, and the teenager was hospitalized for a stint.

Weidensaul engaged in several other battles — Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Resaca, Dallas, and Kennesaw Mountain. He marched alongside General Sherman from Atlanta to Bentonville. As the war was drawing to a close, the 46th regiment moved to Raleigh, where Sherman received a telegram from a local official, pleading that he spare the city. Sherman obliged, moving his men south to what is now Holly Springs. Tens of thousands of troops, including Weidensaul, camped there for 21 days. There, he left his badge in the dirt.

Following the war, Weidensaul returned to Reading, worked for 25 years as a letter carrier, and died on May 11, 1926, at age 78; until recently, largely forgotten.

But when Crews studied up on the youngest enlistee of the Union Army, an obsession grew. “He must’ve been a tough nut,” says the relic hunter. “Battle after battle, old Henry was right there in the front, smoking on through, not getting licked.”

Crews learned that Weidensaul had one daughter, Edna, born in 1893, and wondered if the Civil War veteran had any other descendants.

• • •
 

After purchasing his Hillsborough restaurant, Crews eventually opened two more branches. The dogged North Carolinian eventually won the Ronald McDonald Award, the top annual prize, given internationally, to an owner/operator of the franchise. He retired in 1993, and with downtime, decided to do more research on Weidensaul, whom he couldn’t get out of his mind.

A friend had told Crews that the 46th Pennsylvania flag — the one Weidensaul had picked up from a dead soldier — was stored in a glass case at the State Capitol in Harrisburg. Crews decided he must have a look.

During the eight-hour drive, Crews’ wife, Leslie, thought her husband had gone mad. Inside the capitol, an administrator explained that the flag was stored in a private room. Crews offered the justification — OK, he admits, the white lie — that he was writing a book.

Five minutes later, the tattered flag was laid out on a viewing table. One of the stripes read 46th Pennsylvania Infantry. The broken staff had been fastened back together with nails, shoe tacks, and candle wax. Crews felt adrenaline rush up from his toes.

Later that fall, a few days before Thanksgiving, the relic hunter decided to take another trip, this time to Reading. He and Leslie arrived at the city during a snowstorm. Weidensaul’s old Victorian brick row home was sandwiched between two other residences in a rough neighborhood. A small banister framed the porch, with beams on either side. For several minutes, Crews stood in front of the house, thinking of Weidensaul leaving each morning in his mailman uniform. Hours later, Crews traveled to the veteran’s graveyard. He spotted a snow-topped tombstone reading “Father Harry A. Weidensaul 1847-1926 Co. D 46th Regt. Penna. Vol.” (Harry was Weidensaul’s nickname.)

There it is, thought Crews, contemplating the surreal moment. His body’s in there.

Crews wondered if Weidensaul’s relatives still lived in Reading. His daughter, Edna, was almost certainly dead. (In 1993, she would have been 100.) Crews drove to the local library.

There were no listings for “Weidensaul” in the local telephone directory. But Crews discovered a 1926 microfilm obituary from the Reading Eagle titled “Civil War Soldier Dies.”

As he perused the clip, Crews nearly keeled over. Just like him, Weidensaul was a collector. After the war, the soldier amassed a bevy of artifacts, rare coins, and notes dating back to the birth of the republic. “Until now, [the currency] probably represents one of the most complete of its kind,” the obituary read. Weidensaul had fitted his home with a library of valuable books, cases of rare Indian heads, and war badges. His collection included a framed bronze medallion of Abraham Lincoln surrounded by brass buttons representing every state in the union. Crews took a moment to catch his breath. His own life, it seemed, was playing out through Weidensaul’s.

According to the obituary, Edna had taken the married name Yerger. Crews went back to the library phone book and found the listing of one Roy Yerger. He jotted down the phone number.

• • •
 

Back home in Hillsborough, Crews still couldn’t get the veteran out of his head. He retrieved Roy Yerger’s phone number.

The man on the other end of the line seemed intrigued by the North Carolinian’s fact-finding mission.

“Yes, I’m Roy Yerger,” said the man. “I wish you’d called when you were up here. You could’ve met my mother, Edna.”

“That can’t be,” said Crews, confused. “She’d have to be 100.”

“She’ll be 100 next month.”

Crews had never considered that in 1993, a Civil War soldier’s child could still be alive. (Research would later reveal that Edna was one of four living children of Civil War veterans at the time.) Thrilled, Crews told Yerger he wished to show Edna the corps badge belonging to her father. A week later, he and Leslie were speeding back to Reading through 10-inch snow banks.

Inside the retirement home, the frail woman sat in her wheelchair next to a bulletin board decorated with birthday cards. She wore 1960s-era eyeglasses, a white sweater, blue blouse, and floral skirt. Her white hair was brushed back, highlighting skin that still looked impeccable, protected for years by her handmade sunbonnet and longtime job as a bank teller. A nervous, perspiring Crews offered a handshake.

“My father was the youngest veteran to serve in the Union Army,” Edna said, and repeated herself for good measure.

Crews showed Edna her father’s corps badge. “Did he wear it on his hat?” she asked. Crews said yes.

When Crews asked Edna about her father’s recollection of General Lee, she smiled. “I don’t think the Yankees would’ve shot that general,” she said. “My father always said he was a nice man, and too much of a human being.” But when Crews mentioned Stonewall Jackson, the smile vanished. She gripped the armrests of her chair. “Let me tell you what he thought about Jackson: He scared the hell out of those boys.”

civil war relic hunting

Brass belt buckle reading “C.S.A.,” for Confederate States of America. The buckle has three hooks on the back, but one had been broken, which was probably the reason for its disposal. One corner is blackened, suggesting a fire. “I’d hunted this place (near Selma) eight times before, and never found anything great,” says Crews.

The following day, Roy Yerger allowed Crews to dig through Edna’s old trunk. He dusted off photos of Weidensaul as a teenage soldier. There were photos of him during his days as a postman, when he’d grown a drooping mustache; Crews admired his uniform, and the cap cocked smartly on head. Recalls Crews: “I’m having a heart attack. Looking at the pictures I’m seeing the whole damn universe of the guy!”

Crews offered Edna her father’s corps badge, but she told him to keep it.

Edna died in 1997, just shy of her 104th birthday; Crews received a note and obituary in the mail. During the next several years, whenever Roy Yerger drove south with his wife for Florida vacations, they would stop in Hillsborough to meet Crews, who introduced the couple to North Carolina pig pickins and barbecue.

Meeting a Civil War soldier’s daughter was one of Crews’ crowning moments. “For 29 years she lived with him!” he says. “That was her daddy!”

After Roy’s death, Crews lost touch with the family. Roy’s children didn’t seem to care about the corps badge. “That breaks my heart,” says Crews, but he’s continued relic hunting, and has retired six metal detectors in his career. He offers Civil War lectures whenever he can. Keith assisted him until his death.

Crews will eventually pass his collection on to a museum, he says, and offer a few relics to grandchildren. “I’m trying to preserve Civil War stories,” says Crews with a glint in his eye. “They never end.”

This story was published on

John H. Tucker is a staff writer for the Triangle-based INDY Week. In 2014, he won a first-place award for general news reporting from the North Carolina Press Association.