National Parks' Civil War Relics Tempt Thieves

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Many historical artifacts can be found in national parks, which are often tempting to thieves. Some say stealing these relics may help preserve history rather than hurt it. As part of our series on national parks, NPR's Laura Sullivan has the story.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

America's National Parks hold some of our greatest national treasures, and well, some people want to steal them. As part of our series on the parks, NPR's Laura Sullivan explores the market for Civil War relics.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Most detectives pull up to a crime scene and walk a few feet. Chief Ranger Keith Kelly pulls up next to a tree and walks for miles.

(Soundbite of walking in woods)

Ranger KEITH KELLY (Chief Ranger of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park): You know, there's obviously poison ivy and snakes out here. And they always say it's always the second one through that gets - but I don't know if that's true or not.

SULLIVAN: We're somewhere deep in the woods in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Park in Virginia.

Ranger KELLY: Now I am clearing all the cobs webs for you. That definitely what the first person gets.

SULLIVAN: It seems nobody has walked this route in a while. But three of the last people who did, climbed straight up this hill and dug 467 holes, right where dozens of Confederate and Union soldiers died in 1864.

Ranger KELLY: The Union Army under Grant, tried to flank the Confederate forces and they were definitely prepared for something right here.

SULLIVAN: By here, he means the long winding ditch we're not standing in. The ditches are called earthworks. To soldiers, they were shields. To looters, they're a gold mind.

What did you think when you saw all those holes dug where we're standing?

Ranger KELLY: It was pretty emotional. The area was desecrated for really no reason. People were selfish to do what they did and took it away from the rest of the American people, really, so… And the fact that we're here to protect it didn't make us feel very good.

SULLIVAN: It's a problem in almost every National Park. On average, there's now one ranger for every 56,000 acres, and looters of cacti, hieroglyphs, petrified wood, and relics have noticed. Thefts have doubled over the past six years. The three men canvassed this forest with metal detectors until they got caught.

Ranger KELLY: They had over 200 relics - mini balls, buttons. There was a couple shell fragments that have not seen the light of day in 150 years.

SULLIVAN: And that was just one day's haul. Whatever the men collected on previous visits is long gone, sold over the Internet, in little shops, or perhaps in places like this.

SULLIVAN: In Columbia, South Carolina, one of the biggest Civil War relic shows of the summer is underway. Swords, guns, buttons, bullets, belt buckles, line the tables. These sellers are a tight knit community of Civil War buffs. They call themselves diggers, and they all say they would never steal or sell artifacts from National Parks, but the general feeling here is that the thieves are doing history a favor.

MR. FRANK PERRINI(ph) (Vender at Civil War Relic Show): We probably have some of those doing that, but it doesn't bother me if they're persevering…

SULLIVAN: Frank Perrini mans a table of cherished Civil War items. Many, he secretly hopes, no one will ever buy.

Mr. PERRINI: Even if they are sound(ph), I'd rather see that than see it lost.

SULLIVAN: Lost, that is, to Mother Nature.

Mr. CLYDE MCFADDEN (Civil War Digger): Now, what we're running in areas where the stuff isn't worth digging anymore because it's so rotten.

SULLIVAN: Clyde McFadden is generally considered to be the best digger in the room.

Mr. MCFADDEN: It just crumbles in your hand sometimes when you dig it up.

SULLIVAN: Show organizer, Mike Kent, says the National Park Service is not protecting history, it's letting it disappear.

Mr. MIKE KENT (Civil War Relic Show Organizer): Why let them set in the ground and rot and deteriorate so that no nobody ever sees them, verses lets us bring them out of the ground and - whether we donate it, whether we sell them, whatever - at least they're out of the ground. They can be preserved. Whereas they will never been seen by another human being if we just leave them in the ground. So that's an ongoing battle.

Ranger KELLY: You can use this rain to your advantage, you kind of (unintelligible) you have.

SULLIVAN: Ranger Keith Kelly is crouching in the thigh high prickly bushes of Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle battlefield. He's spotted three people half a mile away wielding a metal pole.

Ranger KELLY: We'll just pop up right on them before they know it.

SULLIVAN: This time, the three turn out to be botanists studying the effects of fire.

Ranger Kelly: Well, thanks for doing your work.

Unidentified Man: Yep, no problem.

Ranger KELLY: Kelly stops in the shade under a tree. He says it isn't for diggers to decide what happens to the things left here a century and a half ago. And removing even one relic, robs them all of their historical context.

Mr. KELLY: We've just got to do the best job we can to preserve these areas so that they are here for future generations, and not for your, mine, lifetime, not for a looter's lifetime, not for a quick profit, this stuff is forever and it's for the future.

SULLIVAN: Kelly mops his brow and gently places his brown hat on his head. He says after decades of development and digging, the National Parks are really the only battlefields left that still have relics. And with so few rangers, he worries they'll never be able to keep up with all the diggers.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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