Are looters saving Civil War history or destroying it?

“This button is from the coat of a Confederate soldier–or a Union soldier” is something one might hear at a Civil War relic trade show and sale.

Or perhaps you might hear this at county historical society museum. Civil War relics are often among those items passed down through generations. At a museum, they are displayed in a case for everyone to enjoy instead of being tucked in a box in a bedroom closet.

Guns, cannonballs, swords, bullets, uniforms–if it’s from the Civil War, and you have it, someone wants it. Increasingly, that’s what the U.S. National Park Service is finding out. Yesterday there was a story on NPR about the looting problem in National Parks. People loot the parks then sell their catch to collectors.

Here’s a case in point. At the Fredericksburgh & Spotsylvania National Military Park, a ranger found 467 holes dug in the ground where a battle took place when the Union soldiers led by Grant tried to flank the Confederates.

When the guys who were doing the looting were caught, they had 200 relics with them. Naughty guys.

Although digging holes in national property to steal loot seems like an obvious wrong, there are some who think, dig away. I’m pretty sure those who are pro digging think that digging should be more methodically conducted than destroying the land. They don’t think that relics should be left underground to rot away forever.

Those who say dig it up believe that if the relics are removed, they can be displayed and preserved for everyone to learn from and enjoy. The National Park Service, at least the ranger interviewed in the story, disagrees with the dig it up mentality. He believes the relics belong where they are since they are part of the battlefield, thus part of history as is.

Regardless of the ranger’s desires, it is hard to stop looters in National Parks because there is only one ranger per every 56,000 acres. This means that treasures like petroglyphs, plants and other relics are also in danger of being taken.

Personally, I’m intrigued that under the ground of Civil War battlefields there are still buttons that soldiers once wore. It makes their presence seem more real. [To listen to NPR story, click here.]

By the way, all relics you see are not stolen. This is a problem with some relics.