GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - With 250,000 visitors expected to converge on the Gettysburg battlefields this week, historians and antiquarians say the 150th anniversary of the clash that defined the U.S. Civil War has prompted an increased interest in Civil War relics — and an apparent uptick in the thefts and faking of conflict memorabilia.
While there are no national statistics about thefts of war mementos, museums and law enforcement officers around the nation have reported a range of incidents involving the plundering of Civil War artifacts.
The thievery even extended to the current Gettysburg re-enactment, where criminals made off with a trailer containing war items valued at $10,000 in Frederick County, Maryland, last month.
Cheri Gainor, owner of the missing goods, is portraying a camp laundress in the Gettysburg battle commemoration on July 4-7. Among the rare items taken, she said, were a 150-year-old washing dolly — a wooden device used to agitate water in a washing barrel — as well as a number of mini-irons for cuffs and collars.
In Burke County, Georgia, thieves plundered the graves of Confederate soldiers in the Old Church Cemetery, prying open caskets — presumably, according to cemetery oversee Leroy Matthew Bell Jr., in the hope of finding relics to sell. Burke County police have arrested two men in connection with the April incident.
In downtown Lexington, Kentucky, determined thieves went to even greater extremes by stealing an iron prison gate from the Hunt-Morgan House, a museum that houses an extensive collection of civil war relics, in May. Sheila O. Ferrell, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust, which runs the museum, said the 400-pound gate, a remnant from the Ohio State Penitentiary, which once held Confederate General John Hunt-Morgan, was almost immovable. It was the museum’s third theft this year. A $1,500 reward has been offered for recovery of the gate.
Stephen W. Sylvia, a military historian, author and antique store owner in Orange, Virginia, attributed the rising popularity of relics to the anniversary of the war and the popularity of movies such as “Lincoln.”
Prices for Civil War relics vary widely, Sylvia said. An authentic minie-ball, a cylindrical bullet named for its French army officer inventor, Claude-Etienne Minie, starts at around $3, while a Confederate uniform button can go for $150. A uniform can sell for thousands, and a sword may fetch more than $20,000.
Fakes are a problem, he said, especially when it comes to Civil War dog tags and slave tags. Authentic slave tags are especially rare unless they originate from the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
Civil War bullets can also be less than they seem. According to Sylvia, the minie-balls can sell for $10 or more if they come from a famous battlefield. Visitors to Gettysburg this week need to exercise caution, though, as not all bullets sold in Gettysburg were actually fired there. “Not very many are being found at Gettysburg any longer,” Sylvia said.
Reporting by Jeffrey Roth; Editing by Arlene Getz and Douglas Royalty