On the eve of Memorial Day, National Park Service officials are investigating a looting at the Petersburg National Battlefield, citing "a large number of excavations" in the Virginia Civil War park.
Park service staff members discovered the excavated pits earlier this week, officials said. Thieves were likely digging for relics on the field where more than 1,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died fighting during the Siege of Petersburg, from June 9, 1864, through March 25, 1865. "There's a market for these items related to the Civil War," said Chris Bryce, a park service spokesman.
"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, in an announcement of the theft. "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."
"This is still a very active investigation," said Bryce. Officials are urging anyone who may have seen something to call the park service with tips or other information. The toll-free number is 888-653-0009, and callers calls can leave a message.
This looting is a federal crime covered by the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, and the crime carries a fine of up to $20,000, imprisonment for up to two years, or both.
While it's unlikely that soldiers were buried in the area where the looting occurred, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that there could be remains that were overlooked when troops were burying their dead, Bryce said.
The affected area is an active crime scene, but the remainder of the 2,700-acre park is open to visitors.
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.