On the eve of Memorial Day, Civil War historians and battlefield preservationists were alarmed to discover someone had illegally dug numerous holes on the grounds of the Petersburg National Civil War Battlefield Park. The criminals were apparently hunting for relics buried long ago during some of America’s most trying days.
Relic hunting on federal battlefield property is a crime but that apparently didn’t deter whoever defaced this hallowed ground and neither, apparently, did the fact that the nation is only days away from pausing to remember the sacrifice of all America’s fallen soldiers, most especially those of the Civil War–the very soldiers the holiday was created to memorialize.
Petersburg National Battlefield Superintendent Lewis Rogers told ABC news, “This is an affront to the memory of people who fought and died on this field and it is destruction and theft of history from the American people.”
“This kind of aberrant behavior is always disgusting but it is particularly egregious as Memorial Day weekend arrives, a time when we honor the memories of our friends and family,” he added.
The park chief informed the media why leaving the relics undisturbed is so important.
“Archeological resources are a window to our nation’s history,” Rogers explained. “Historians are still writing history based on the archeological clues left by those who have preceded us. Removing these artifacts erase any chance for us to learn from our nation’s greatest tragedy.” Rogers added that looters take from the battlefield using a metal detector, digging into the earth and taking whatever artifacts they find.
From the evidence at hand it is impossible to determine if the relic hunters pulled anything from the grounds, but somewhere down the line, it is likely when the thieves try to sell the items the closely knit relic collecting community may be able to help authorities track down those responsible.
Civil war artifacts are highly prized collectibles and things from identified battlefields carry a premium price tag, especially when the battlefield in question is as important and famous as Petersburg.
But defacing a national battlefield park and stealing relics from their grounds is highly illegal and brings thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time. In some cases, those found with illegal relics could also have their own collections confiscated by the federal government, even if much of the collection was not all illegally obtained.
Anyone with information on the desecration of the field should call the National Park Service at (888) 653-0009.
Petersburg is a seminal Civil War battle. It is the locale of the longest siege battle in U.S. history as Lincoln’s general Ulysses Grant encircled and probed the weaker defenses of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Summer of 1864. Lee was desperate to prevent Grant’s forces from capturing Richmond, Virginia, the nascent Confederacy’s capital city.
After nine months of grueling warfare, pitched battles, harassment via sharpshooters, and a successful campaign of starving the Confederate forces of food and supplies, Grant’s men finally drove Lee out of Petersburg by March of 1865. It was only a month later that General Lee surrendered his forces to Grant’s victorious army starting the clock on the last days of the war.
The thievery is especially galling since it occurred only days before Memorial Day. The holiday was initiated by Illinois General John Logan who in 1868 ordered a special day for the “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
It was originally called Decoration Day, but the practice has come down from 1868 to us today as Memorial Day, a day when we take time out of our busy lives to remember all who fell and gave their last full measure of devotion in service to our nation.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org