History, Memory and the Hunt for Civil War Relics

My uncle Tom Dickey died a natural death in 1987. But when I read an article recently about Sam White, a collector of Civil War relics who was killed by a cannon ball from the War Between the States just this February, it made me think my uncle was mostly just lucky.

Now, Tom probably was the greatest relic hunter who's ever lived. He roamed battlefields all over the South, scouring them with a World War II mine detector that would ping with sonarlike excitement whenever it passed over heavy metal: Minié balls, bayonets, shrapnel, unexploded projectiles. If anybody knew what he was doing when it came to handling century-old ordnance, Tom was the man.

Eventually the walls of my uncle's rec room were lined with neatly catalogued artillery shells and other treasures dug up from yards in Atlanta, swamps in South Carolina, even pulled from the bottom of Louisiana bayous. The concrete floor of his basement looked like an ammo dump. His collection gained fame among military historians, and Tom wrote an authoritative illustrated treatise about the ordnance that is on the shelves of many academies and specialty libraries. Much of it is now on display at The Atlanta History Center.

My father, James Dickey, the poet and novelist best known for "Deliverance," wrote a poem about his brother Tom's relic hunting that is also, ultimately, about their search for a common history. It begins:

Years later, in 1974, I decided to make a film about Tom. Of course, when I was a little boy in Atlanta, memories of the Civil War had been all around us. The centenary came and went. So did a second "premiere" of the movie "Gone With the Wind," which my parents attended in costume. Then, when my father was at the Library of Congress in the mid-1960s, I spent hours taking advantage of my special access as his son to pore over photographs of the Civil War battlefields. Many of them showed carnage that had been airbrushed away in popular history, and it added to my sense of shock and discovery that most were printed as "stereo" cards that could be viewed in sepia-toned 3D.

In film school I had seen the historical documentary "Nuit et brouillard" (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais, which juxtaposed oddly bucolic scenes of the destroyed Nazi death camps as they looked in 1955 with the horrors that had existed in them a decade before. My idea with the film about Tom was to use a similar technique, with the still photographs of the Civil War dead that I had found in the Library of Congress played against scenes of Tom searching forgotten battlefields and vacant lots in the Sun Belt South.

The film, part of which is excerpted here, was supposed to be about history and memory, and there's something of that, to be sure. But really it's about Tom: his great charm, his wonderful humor and his strange, and in some ways wildly dangerous obsession with the past.