RICHMOND, Va. (WUSA9) -- Desecration of a hallowed site this Memorial Day.
Rangers from the National Park Service are hunting for looters who dug up acres of the Petersburg National Battlefield south of Richmond.
The Park Service suspects the looter or looters may have spent days digging in the battlefield where more than one thousand Union and Confederate troops died. They're now calling it an "active crime scene."
Rangers now investigating the crime, scores of holes, likely dug by someone with a metal detector searching for relics.
They left marked graves left undisturbed, but the rest of the hallowed ground disrespected at a time when many of gather to honor those who have given they're last full measure of devotion. "I think this is sacred ground and to desecrate it in that way is really appalling," said visitor Pamela Minor.
The more than nine month siege of Petersburg was the longest battle of the Civil War: More than 70,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were wounded as Gen. Ulysses S Grant tried to cut off the rail supply lines to Richmond.
Looting the battlefield is a federal crime, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
There's a thriving market for Civil War relics, some sold on line for thousands of dollars. And the money seems to be an irresistible lure for battlefield thieves.
Across the country, there's concern tonight about the destruction in Petersburg. Among those angry, Rachel Becker at the Rockville Memorial Day Parade. "It should be left there in the ground. To go and dig that up and sell it is just ridiculous."
Even if the Park Service somehow recovers the looted relics, archeologist will have lost the context, the layer and location where they were found. And that means we've lost a some small sense... some small understanding... of our history. "It's like ripping out a page of a book," said Civil War historian Chris Calkins, "because artifacts in the ground, they show patterns, they show depth, they show type. All kinds of information is learned from a proper archeological dig."
Rangers say the looters likely stole uniform buttons, buckles, and bullets -- all small metal objects that are difficult to trace. Although some sellers on line actually brag about the battlefields where they've found their artifacts, including from Petersburg.