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A War Rages Over Civil War Relics

Battlefields: 'When someone takes that artifact out of the ground they're taking part of the story that item has to tell,' a historian says.


BOONSBORO, Md. — The looters left signs only trained eyes could see: scars in the earth where shovels were used to dig up relics of Civil War battles.

Investigators found 73 refilled holes in January on weed-covered Wise's Field, a remote piece of western Maryland real estate where Union and Confederate soldiers clashed during the Battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862.

Authorities don't know what was taken from the federally owned land along the Appalachian Trail. Probably bullets, maybe some brass buttons or a belt buckle. Such items are prized by collectors willing to pay anywhere from a few dollars for common objects to thousands for artifacts that can be traced to specific battles, regiments or soldiers. "When someone takes that artifact out of the ground, they're taking more than that item; they're taking part of the story that item has to tell," said Al Preston, a state historical interpreter who has studied the battle.

Penalties of up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for removing archeological resources from federal lands haven't stopped determined diggers like those who violated Wise's Field. Despite scores of prosecutions reported annually by the National Park Service, violations have increased over the last decade at Civil War sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

The nearby 3,200-acre Antietam National Battlefield, site of the war's bloodiest one-day battle, has two open cases of looting, including one dating to the late 1990s.

One of the biggest cases was resolved in 1997 when two men were sentenced to several months in prison. They were ordered to pay about $25,000 in restitution for excavating more than 1,000 artifacts from the Petersburg National Battlefield Park in Virginia. Among the historical treasures: bullets, belt buckles, canteens and harmonicas.

More often, people are caught in the act of searching with electronic metal detectors. Between Antietam and the Monocacy National Battlefield, a smaller Maryland site managed by the Antietam staff, rangers arrest about one such prospector every other month, chief ranger Ed Wenschhof said. The penalty for possessing a metal detector in the parks is $50.

There are spots, though, that may be searched legally for Civil War artifacts--private lands adjoining publicly owned battle sites. The boundaries are sometimes fuzzy, even on detailed maps, which frustrates relic hunters with permission from private landowners, according to John Owens, a member of the local South Mountain Relic & Coin Club.

Wise's Field is apparently one such area, Owens said. "I've talked to some people who have gone up there and they're not exactly clear on where the national park boundaries are or whose boundaries are what."

He said the club is inviting park rangers to its meetings later this year to discuss the problem.

Relic hunter Donald Komjian said he makes sure of the boundaries before he searches for artifacts on private land, with permission. A postal employee from Huntersville, N.C., Komjian spent a recent sunny afternoon walking the spacious backyard of Philip and Lilli Wilson's 43-acre farm on the Antietam battlefield.

He found two .58-caliber Union bullets, a common variety known as three-ringers that fetch $110 per 100 on the Web site www.cwrelics .com. Komjian keeps what he finds for his collection of about 1,000 items gathered during 15 years of what he calls "sniffing" for relics.

Komjian won't be returning to the Wilsons' land, though. This is their second year of allowing bullet-hunting and Lilli Wilson said it will be the last. Word spread quickly after she and her husband gave a few polite prospectors permission, and soon the hobbyists were showing up on her doorstep or making insistent, sometimes belligerent, phone calls.

"I look at it two ways," she said. "By hunting the relics for themselves or for museums, people are able to learn about the soldiers. The other way I look at it is that it's history and it really should be left alone. It's sacred ground, and to us living here, it's just home."

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