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TOPIC: Relic hunters vital but troublesome for Civil War history

Relic hunters vital but troublesome for Civil War history 4 years 9 months ago #16113

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by Ben Benton

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.

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.

Courtesy: Chattanooga Times Free Press
“Treasure – If it’s out there, we’re going to find it!” (Tommy Vawter)
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Relic hunters vital but troublesome for Civil War history 4 years 9 months ago #16115

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:( I think comparing "American Diggers" to out and out destructive artifact thieves and vandals is way out of line. I have watched the show many times and get the impression that they are searching historic sites with the permission and at the request of the land owners and historic authorities in charge of these sites with the finds going into the respective museums and collections for display at their historic sites.

The two guys in the article seem to have been digging with backhoes and bulldozers to reek that much havoc and damage in National Parks and Historic Sites. Sherman Bow-Ties are not little objects that can be dug with a spade and thrown in your trunk. That alone would require something the size of a heavy truck and some serious lifting equipment. That does not sound like your average relic hunter. Also, I know of no one who would hunt in an historic park or cemetery, or National Battleground. We all know this is forbidden and downright disrespectful to those who fought and died fighting for what they believed in on both sides of the Civil War. Private land seems to be another question altogether. If I own land that I find was the location of a Civil War battle or encampment or even a prison I would be searching wherever I wanted. If I found anything of importance I would have to look into getting it to a museum or some other display where it could be enjoyed by anyone who was interested in the Civil War and it's artifacts. Still, I feel that would be my own choice and not dictated by the government or some desk jockey who thinks he/she is in charge of my property. Now laws are in place that will keep you from doing what you want on your own property with these mineral rights and such. How come you can own the land but be required to turn over any historic finds without compensation or even recognition for recovering it and displaying it.

There has to be some kind of line drawn to distinguish between your average detectorist and the blatent vandal using a detector to destroy historic sites and recover historic relics for profit. Bagging everyone in the same category as these two idiots is wrong. Picking up bullets, belt buckles, gun parts and such seems to be a far cry from damaging sites with serious digging equipment and not even refilling your digs. No one I know would even leave a small dig hole for someone to trip in or even have to look at. We fill our digs and end up throwing trash we dug in the trash cans. It seems that these Desk jockeys are just using this as another battle cry like the Homeland Security uses 9/11/01 to start taking away rights and getting people to agree to it. These people are using this incident to cause an uproar against detectors in general rather than just seeing it for what it is. Two crooks damaging the parks and selling artifacts for profit that they don't have any right to. Theft and vandalism plain and simple. Put them in jail for as long as the law allows but quit labeling us all as vandals and thieves because we have detectors and love to hunt for fun and adventure.

This just seems kind of unfair to the rest of us who are honest and law abiding. It could turn us all into artifact pirates for real. Millions of guys and gals with detectors and a few thousand Park Rangers and such. How would they deal with a hoard of 100,000 people hitting thousands of sites at once? Those two idiots don't make the rest of us or the American Diggers the bad guys. They caught two bad guys. Great! Now get back t work and quit blowing this out of proportion and labeling us all as vandals and crooks. :S

I'm going back to work on my pontoon treasure ship.
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Relic hunters vital but troublesome for Civil War history 4 years 9 months ago #16117

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