Looters steal Civil War history at Petersburg National Battlefield

PETERSBURG, VA. (WRIC)  — While Americans this weekend honor citizens who gave their lives in defense of home and country, the National Park Service is investigating looting that took place at a Civil War battlefield earlier in the week.

According to the National Parks Service, the initial assessment at Petersburg National Battlefield identified a large number of excavations in the park.

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Thieves were likely looking for relics on a field where more than 1,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died fighting during the Siege of Petersburg.

“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,” said Petersburg National Battlefield Superintendent Lewis Rogers. “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.”

11D1A747E34641A490011A6DBEB95219The affected area of the battlefield is an active crime scene, Rogers said. The remainder of the 2,700-acre park is open to visitors. Park staff discovered the excavated pits earlier in the week.

“Archeological resources are a window to our nation’s history,” Rogers said. “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.

“Someone may have seen something we need to know. The public can help by calling in any tips or other information. The toll-free number is 888-653-0009 and callers can leave a message.”

The looting at Petersburg National Battlefield is a federal crime covered by the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Violators, upon conviction, can be fined up to $20,000.00 or imprisoned for two years, or both.

“I think this is sacred ground,” said park visitor Pamela Minor. “To desecrate it in that way, I think is appalling.”

“I think this is sacred ground. To desecrate it in that way, I think is appalling.” — park visitor Pamela Minor

Other visitors agree. “It’s completely despicable,” said Tom Philabaum, in from Charlottesville for the weekend. “This is a place we should all commemorate and honor our history as a nation.”

Unfortunate facts about looting and theft of cultural resources:

  • Unlike natural resources, cultural resources are non-renewable
  • Despite land managers’ best efforts, looting goes on every year
  • The cumulative effects of looting, year after year, are disastrous to the historical record
  • Only about 14 percent of looting cases are solved
  • About 95 percent of cases that are solved end in misdemeanor convictions

Petersburg became the setting for the longest siege in American history when General Ulysses S. Grant failed to capture Richmond in the spring of 1864. Grant settled in to subdue the Confederacy by surrounding Petersburg and cutting off General Robert E. Lee’s supply lines into Petersburg and Richmond. On April 2, 1865, nine-and-one-half months after the siege began, Lee evacuated Petersburg.

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