- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

BOONSBORO, Md. The looters left signs only trained eyes could see: scars in the earth where shovels were used to dig up relics of Civil War battles.
Investigators found 73 such refilled holes in January on weed-covered Wise's Field, a remote piece of Western Maryland real estate where Union and Confederate soldiers clashed during the Battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862.
Authorities don't know what was taken from the federally owned site. Probably bullets, maybe some brass buttons or a belt buckle. Such items are prized by collectors willing to pay thousands for certain artifacts that can be traced to specific battles, regiments or soldiers.
"When someone takes that artifact out of the ground, they're taking more than that item; they're taking part of the story that item has to tell," said Al Preston, a state historical interpreter who has studied the battle.
Penalties of up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for removing archaeological resources from federal lands haven't stopped determined diggers like those who violated Wise's Field. Despite scores of prosecutions reported annually by the National Park Service, violations have increased over the past decade at Civil War sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, said Ed Wenschhof, chief ranger at the nearby Antietam National Battlefield.
He said the 3,200-acre park, site of the war's bloodiest one-day battle, has two open cases of looting, including one dating to the late 1990s. Elsewhere in the park service's National Capital Region, rangers are investigating the removal of items from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and several sites along the Appalachian Trail.
The thefts sometimes aren't discovered for weeks. "I guess you get a little bit more remote, people take advantage of the situation," Mr. Preston said.
One of the biggest such cases was resolved in 1997, when two men were sentenced to several months in prison and ordered to pay more than $25,000 in restitution for excavating more than 1,000 artifacts including bullets, belt buckles, canteens and harmonicas from the Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia.
More often, people are caught in the act of searching with electronic metal detectors. Between Antietam and the Monocacy National Battlefield, a smaller Maryland site managed by the Antietam staff, rangers arrest about one such prospector every other month, Mr. Wenschhof said. The penalty for possessing a metal detector in the parks is $50.
There are spots, though, that may be searched legally for Civil War artifacts. Private owners of battlefield lands sometimes give relic hunters like Donald Komjian permission to search and dig on their property.
Mr. Komjian, a postal employee from Huntersville, N.C., spent a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon walking the spacious back yard of Philip and Lilli Wilson's 43-acre farm on the Antietam battlefield. He found two .58 caliber Union bullets, a common variety known as three-ringers that fetch $110 per 100 on the www.cwrelics.com Web site.
Mr. Komjian, 50, said he keeps what he finds for his personal collection of about 1,000 items gathered during 15 years of what he calls "sniffing" for relics.
"I love American history, especially Civil War history," he said. "Being right here, in the middle of a battlefield where you know there was a lot of fighting going on this is a dream come true for me."
It's a thrill, he said, to find an unfired bullet and imagine the young soldier who dropped it, perhaps while fumbling with his muzzleloading rifle. "You know he was standing right there," Mr. Komjian said.
He said he never hunts for relics on federal land during his twice-yearly trips to Maryland. About a half-dozen private landowners have given him permission to prospect on their land, he said. In return, he brings them soda pop or autographs of North Carolina NASCAR drivers.
He won't be coming back to the Wilsons' land, though. This is their second year of allowing bullet-hunting, and Lilli Wilson says it will be the last. Word spread quickly after she and her husband gave a few polite prospectors permission, and soon the hobbyists were showing up on their doorstep or making insistent, sometimes belligerent phone calls, she said.
"I look at it two ways," she said. "By hunting the relics for themselves or for museums, people are able to learn about the soldiers. The other way I look at it is that it's history, and it really should be left alone. It's sacred ground, and to us living here, it's just home."

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