Civil War artifacts in the last century have gone from common leftovers of yesteryear to historic relics subject to federal laws that can land unauthorized history hunters behind bars.
As laws have changed, so have people's perceptions, and some history buffs believe reality television shows like "American Digger" could be fueling a shift from responsible archaeology to profit-seeking treasure hunting.
Two Tennessee men recently were sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for illegally excavating and collecting artifacts from sites in Marion and Hardin counties in Tennessee and in Jackson County, Ala.
Alexander seeks to expand Shiloh military park lands
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on Wednesday introduced legislation that would expand the boundary of Shiloh National Military Park to include three Civil War battlefields in Tennessee and Mississippi and designate Parker’s Crossroads as an affiliated area of the National Park System.
In a news release, Alexander said the bill would designate battlefields at Davis Bridge and Fallen Timbers in Tennessee and Russell House in Tennessee and Mississippi as part of Shiloh National Military Park. The National Park Service has determined that these battlefields are nationally significant and in need of preservation and protection, and the majority of the land included in this legislation is now owned by the state of Tennessee or the Civil War Trust, which would speed the process of including these areas in the system, Alexander said.
Dr. Anthony Hodges, president of Friends of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and a local Civil War collector, has as many relics and images from the conflict as some museums.
Hodges said he hasn't been an active relic hunter for 20 years but he defends relic hunting on private land. Those artifacts might be lost to time if not for the people with metal detectors who ask landowners for permission to look, he said.
"I'm not down on relic hunters. In fact, I'll say a good portion — and perhaps all — of what we know about Civil War artifacts themselves come from the relic hunters. They're the ones who write the books," he said. "The academics don't share that information.
"That said, I'm a law-abiding guy," Hodges said. "I've never dug on national park property, and if anybody's caught doing it they need to be prosecuted."
Kenneth Stephen Fagin Jr., 39, of South Pittsburg, and Terry Bruce Tate, 61, of Manchester, pleaded guilty in February. They were prosecuted under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act for excavating illegally at Fort McCook in South Pittsburg, at Shiloh (Tenn.) National Military Park and at a public site in Bridgeport, Ala., according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Bill Killian.
They were sentenced July 30 to 30 months in federal prison. Fagin was ordered to pay $22,463 and Tate was ordered to pay $21,619 in restitution to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Park Service to cover the cost of repairs. Once they're released from federal prison, Fagin and Tate will serve a year of supervised release.
Federal authorities said that between September 2007 and July 2011 Fagin, Tate and others excavated Civil War artifacts at Fort McCook, which is on TVA property. The men recovered Hotchkiss shells identified as pieces of Civil War artillery.
In August 2009, authorities said, the men dug up Civil War-era U-rails from public property in Bridgeport. In March 2010, the two men transported and delivered a counterfeit "Sherman Bow-Tie" that was made from those U-rails.
In August 2010, Fagin dug artifacts from Shiloh National Military Park, including a .57-caliber, three-ring rifle bullet, five fired three-ring rifle bullets and Schenkl artillery shell fragments, according to prosecutors.
Todd Roeder, chief ranger at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, says park law enforcement and the general public keep an eye out for plunderers of history. Illegal excavation disturbs the historical context in which most artifacts are found and there's little record keeping, he said.
"We take this very seriously; we will go for the maximum penalty," Roeder said. "Rangers are always out there and we have visitors in the park that call us. There are a lot of eyes and ears in the parks."
Relic hunters who illegally target public land usually strike at night and have studied enough to know where to dig, he said. Anybody with a metal detector on public land is a major red flag, and cars parked along park roads at night could be transportation for illicit hunters.
"The only way to know is to go check them out," he said.
Eddie Horton sells Civil War relics at his shop, Somewhere in Time, just outside the Chickamauga Battlefield.
"In the relic hunters I deal with, I tried to find really reputable people," Horton said. He said most of the relics in his store come from two people. One is a historian, antique store owner and reenactor from South Carolina; the other is from Virginia.
Most of Horton's relics are priced around $20 to $30 so people can afford them, he said, and the risk in buying from unknown hunters is too great to chance ill-gotten merchandise.
But Horton agrees with Hodges that much of the best recovery work is done by enthusiastic history fans with permission to hunt for relics on private land, especially locations where Civil War armies were bivouacked for long periods.
"These guys are the real historians. They know where the major bivouac areas are," Horton said. "They love the history of it more than anything else."
On the other hand, Horton said relic hunters on military park land are up to no good, and he has no sympathy for those who get caught.
"To me, that's sacred ground. I think they ought to make the sentence even more," he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.