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Removal of Human Remains at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Highlights Bigger Issue

credit: National Park Service

The U.S. Attorney’s Office Announced Wednesday (11/7) that Springfield resident Coy Matthew Hamilton has admitted to digging up the remains of a Confederate soldier at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Hamilton removed the remains from a riverbank in late February of 2011 while canoeing on Wilson’s Creek, through the Battlefield, looking for artifacts. As KSMU’s Samuel Crowe reports, the National Park Service says acts like these not only destroy an archaeological site, they rob the United States of its heritage.

“If we could first know where we are, and whether we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it. Therein lays the relevancy of history. If people can better understand the issues, the trials, the sacrifices, and the struggles that past generations endured, then we can better judge what to do and how to do it, today and in the future,” Hillmer said.

 That’s Ted Hillmer, Superintendent at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, quoting President Abraham Lincoln. He says the quote illustrates why it’s so important for the public to help preserve the special places like Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield; so future generations can enjoy these areas, but also learn from them.

“You want to walk on the land gently. You want to make sure the next generation has the same opportunity to see what you’ve seen. In order to do that, we try to preserve these places for the next generation also, because we think they’re pretty special places,” Hillmer said.

Dr. Caven Clark is a cultural resource management specialist with the National Park Service. He’s based out of Buffalo River National Park in Harrison Arkansas, and was hired to perform an emergency restoration and repair of the excavation site in April of 2011. While he says he was able to restore the embankment to its original contours, the rest of the human remains had to be removed.

“You can’t really restore an archaeological site. That’s why cultural resource crimes are different than natural resource crimes. Somebody can poach a deer, but generally speaking, there’s plenty more deer where that came from. When you destroy an archaeological site, it’s gone forever. You can’t put it back,” said Clark.

Clark says the National Park Service is trying to educate the public that digging and artifact removal inside National Parks is illegal, through signage inside the parks. While he says this may be common sense for some people, the incident at Wilson’s Creek highlights a bigger problem at National Battlefields across the country.

“There’s an awful lot of looting going on. Not so much human remains, but people are going into our National Parks with metal detectors and getting bullets, belt buckles, bayonets, firearms parts, and things like that. They fetch a very, very high price tag, and it’s a huge problem,” Clark said.

Clark says the remains of the soldier will be reinterred at Springfield National Cemetery next spring. As for the suspect, Hamilton must pay $5,351 in restitution to the National Park Service and perform 60 hours of community service.

The Civil War battle at Wilson’s Creek took place August 10, 1861. It was the first major battle fought west of the Mississippi River, and where the first death of a Union General killed in combat, Nathaniel Lyon, occurred.

For KSMU News, I’m Samuel Crowe.