Discovering pieces of Ozarks’ Civil War history

Written by Wes Johnson, Springfield, Mo., News-Leader

CARTHAGE — The high-pitched electronic squeal of Phyllis Burki’s metal detector told her something unusual was underground.

What she unearthed still surprised her. It also grossed her out.

Buried for 150 years, a gruesome reminder of the 1861 Civil War Battle of Carthage emerged from the soil — a human bone with an impact-flattened bullet lodged in it.

And close by, a round, lead bullet that  Burki and others believe was imprinted by the force of human teeth.

Carthage historian Steve Weldon is depicted in "The Battle of Carthage" mural by Andy Thomas on display at the Civil War Museum in Carthage. / Valerie Mosley / News-Leader

“When someone came in injured, men would hold him down while they sawed off the injured part,” Burki said. “They gave him a lead ball to bite down on.”

The artifacts from a five-foot-square pit she and her husband, George, excavated a few weeks ago — with proper permission, they emphasize — offer a glimpse into Carthage’s Civil War past.

Along with a handful of bullets, they found the rim of a pocket watch, a sword hanger, used percussion caps from black powder rifles and an 1857 Liberty silver quarter.

Phyllis acknowledged the bone with a bullet lodged in it “was the grossest thing I’ve ever found.”

“But it makes you wonder what happened to him,” she said. “Did he live? Did he get an infection and later die? It sure ties you back to the Civil War.”

First significant land engagement

The Battle of Carthage took place on July 5, 1861, and was the first significant land engagement of the war, according to Steve Weldon, archivist and historian at the Jasper County Records Center.

Over the course of several engagements, federal Union troops fought a much larger, local, militia force.

A key part of the battle took place in the heart of downtown Carthage — in the town’s original public square.

The local militia force succeeded in driving out Union troops, a major boost for the secessionist cause.

The southwest Missouri fight over slavery and state’s rights also carried undertones of intolerance toward German immigrants, Weldon said.

On one side, a federal Union force of 1,100 men was led by German immigrant Col. Franz Sigel. Most of his troops were of German or Dutch descent and spoke German.

Two events mark Battle of Carthage

On July 5, the day the battle took place 150 years ago, an evening prayer service will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Battle of Carthage State Historic Site on east Chestnut Street, adjacent to Carter Park. Church bells will ring to mark the beginning of the battle.

Then on July 9, a more extensive day-long event begins at 10 a.m. at the same location.
Activities will include reenactors’ interpretations of the lives of soldiers during the early years of the war. That will include the firing of weapons from that time period.
Jeff Patrick, interpretive specialist at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield park near Springfield, will talk about the Carthage battle’s impact in Missouri.
The event is free and open to the public.
For more information contact the site at 682-2279 or the Missouri Department of Natural Resources toll free at 800-334-6946 (voice) or 800-379-2419 (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf).