Civil War Battlefield Dubbed A “Crime Scene” After It Was Looted

Battery XVI of the Petersburg National Battlefield
Battery XVI of the Petersburg National Battlefield

An area of a Civil War battlefield has been described as “an active crime scene” by the National Park Service after a series of excavations. The authorities have been brought in to conduct an investigation into the suspected looting at Petersburg National Battlefield, located just south of Richmond, Virginia. The Petersburg site has been described as the location that hosted the war’s longest siege; it went on for more than nine months during 1864 and 1865 and more than 70,000 soldiers died.

A spokesman for the park named Chris Bryce confirmed that earlier this week one of the employees conducting landscaping noticed that some items were out of place. The discovery uncovered some digging that had taken place in the eastern area of the park, which is where a large number of excavated pits are located. Bryce said that a number of the holes were simply left open. In most cases, they were several inches deep.

Fortunately, the marked graves were not disturbed. The park officials have yet to release information about the type of items or relics that appear to have been targeted. Plus, they have still not confirmed whether or not anything was actually stolen. Bryce said, “They are probably doing their homework of the area, probably did research on Civil War. They were in the ground (and) they likely would have used a metal detector and a digging tool.”

It is not uncommon to find Civil War relics, such as uniform buttons, rifle parts, and other metallic battlefield items, being auctioned off on various internet sites. Looting a federal battlefield is a crime, according to the park service. Any violators can be fined upwards of $20,000 and be sentenced to two years in prison.

During the longest military event of the Civil War at Petersburg, Union General Ulysses S. Grant fought against the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This siege at Petersburg was a battle over supply lines, which ultimately led to the defeat and downfall of the Confederate capital of Richmond. It laid the groundwork for the Confederacy’s surrender in the war.

During one of most infamous battles, called the Battle of the Crater, a mine was detonated underneath a Confederate fortification by Union troops. However, the poorly led troops were repulsed after rushing into the gap. After the fact, Grant described the Battle of the Crater as “the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in war.”

Substantial fighting took place in June 1864 and March 1865 at the place where the excavations were made. On Saturday, Bryce said he was not cognizant of any tips that had been given to the authorities. Bryce and officials hope that someone saw something that they plan to report. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that people have conducted unauthorized excavations. In 2010, someone was successfully prosecuted for the illegal activity. Bryce added:

“What really took us off guard was this being so close to Memorial Day, where the nation is in the midst of starting the summer, and a weekend where we should reflect on sacrifices made.”


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE