By Frank McGurty
(Reuters) - Looters ripped up parts of Virginia's Petersburg National Battlefield in an apparent search for relics from a siege that led to the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the National Park Service said ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.
Thieves dug a series of small pits looking for artifacts from the Union Army's nine-month blockade of Richmond and the neighboring city of Petersburg, targeting a field where more than 1,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died, the agency said.
The looters were likely to have found uniform buttons, buckles, bullets and other small metal objects that are difficult to trace, Chris Bryce, chief of interpretation and visitor services at the battlefield, told Reuters on Saturday.
The blockade, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, cut off supply lines to Richmond after the Union commander failed to capture the capital city of the breakaway Confederate states in 1864. The siege led to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, ending the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history.
"This kind of aberrant behavior is always disgusting but it is particularly egregious as Memorial Day weekend arrives, a time when we honor the memories of our friends and family," said Lewis Rogers, superintendent of Petersburg National Battlefield, in the statement posted on Friday.
Numerous excavations in parts of the 2,700-acre park were discovered by staff this week, and the area remained an active crime scene. Unaffected sections of the sprawling park remained open to visitors, it said.
Bryce said the theft of battlefield relics hampers the work of historians by destroying archeological clues.
"Even if we recover the artifacts, we lost context in which they were found," he said.
Looting of such sites is a federal crime carrying a penalty of up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine, the service said.
(Reporting By Frank McGurty in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)