MIGHTY HISTORY

Why grave-robbing Confederate generals is big business

In April, 2013, an iron casket was found pulled out of its grave and its contents were spilled all over the Old Church Cemetery near Waynesboro, Ga. A man, later found to be Ralph "Bubba" Hillis, and a partner had taken to digging up graves in the cemetery.

Why target this little cemetery? Because it was filled with the remains of Confederate and Revolutionary War soldiers.


(Sgt. Sean Cochran, Burke County Sheriff)

The issue of grave robbing by those searching unique, ancient artifacts is a huge problem the world over, especially in places like Egypt, Peru, and Cambodia. These are areas filled with archaeological treasures and a steady flow of individuals who are struggling economically and are willing to risk punishment to go dig up said artifacts for the right price.

And that price can always be found. Illegally-sold Egyptian antiquities are found all over the world as they make their way from the Valley of the Kings to Syria to Dubai to New York and, finally, to whatever buyer is waiting at their final destination. Eager collectors are just waiting to find the right artifact from the right seller at the right price. The same technology that brings the world closer together also brings looters and grave robbers closer to these buyers.

Online sales and auction sites like eBay make it possible for individuals to make these transactions in short order, while the popularity of television shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers show just how easy it is to profit from a few authentic pieces of history. The ease of selling ill-gotten items and the interest garnered by their value and origins are making grave robbing a profitable crime right here in the United States, too.

A sword like this one, which belonged to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, is worth tens of thousands of dollars. This example was never dug up from a grave, however.

The value of Civil War-era artifacts has lead to the growth of a booming black market. A single button from a Confederate uniform can net as much as $150. Full uniforms and medals can fetch anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars for the right collector. According to Southern antiques brokers, an officer's sword is worth anywhere from $20,000 and $30,000 — it doesn't even matter if that officer was a general.

Two big things make dealing in black-market Confederate artifacts so profitable. The first is how rarely these sorts of things are available at auction. Electronic tracking, official dealers, and mandatory identification make it very difficult to illegally transport Civil War relics. The second is the inability to track the authenticity of the artifacts themselves. As you can imagine, Confederate records were kept only for as long as the Confederacy existed, which means there are plenty of legitimate artifacts that lack a kept record.

As a result, there is treasure literally buried all over the South.

Archaeologists carry out a dig at New Mexico's Fort Craig cemetery, where the remains of dozens of soldiers and children were secretly exhumed after an informant tipped them off about widespread grave-looting.

(U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

And people are starting to go dig for it — risking stiff prison terms.

But don't be concerned that your local Civil War museum or historical society is dealing in stolen goods or housing grave-robbed artifacts. You can be reasonably certain that anything accepted by a legitimate museum was purchased with a clear record of ownership and was probably tracked through INTERPOL.

Authorities are now taking to hiring archaeologists to exhume grave-robbed Civil War-era sites in order to preserve the history entombed there while keeping them from being looted again in the future.