These days, it’s rare to find bones on a Civil War battlefield.
It’s rarer still when a visitor pilfers those remains.
But that’s what happened last year at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield near Springfield, authorities said Wednesday. A collector of Civil War artifacts riding a canoe down Wilson’s Creek spotted a bone jutting from an eroded creek bank and stopped for an impromptu — and illegal — dig.
On Tuesday, Coy Matthew Hamilton, 31, of Springfield, signed a diversion agreement to avoid federal prosecution. He promised to pay $5,351 in restitution and perform 60 hours of community service. He’ll work alongside National Park Service rangers at Wilson’s Creek, site of the Aug. 10, 1861, battle — a Confederate victory considered the first major engagement in the Civil War’s western theater.
Hamilton couldn’t be reached for comment. But Michelle Law, an assistant federal public defender who represented Hamilton, said he was eager to make things right.
“My client has every intention of following through with the agreement he’s made with the federal government,” she said.
Hamilton admitted to investigators that he found the remains while canoeing with a friend in February 2011.
Described in case documents as an “avid, self-taught amateur archaeologist who routinely spends his free time hunting for artifacts,” Hamilton set out in the canoe after recent heavy rains, as he “knew from experience that this could reveal archaeological artifacts.”
On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Hamilton and a companion spotted a bone sticking out of an embankment. “Hamilton excavated two femur bones and pieces of a pelvis,” according to a report.
His companion urged him to stop, “but Hamilton’s enthusiasm was too strong.”
Several days later, Hamilton sent the bones, through an intermediary, to the National Park Service, which administers the battlefield.
Investigators soon figured out who he was.
Hamilton could have been prosecuted for violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, a federal law providing criminal penalties for excavating, damaging or removing any archaeological resources found on public or Indian lands without a permit.
He had found the remains in a location noted by historians for intense fighting during the battle.
Officials who later restored the embankment examined the skeletal remains, which they judged to be only 29 percent complete. Although they couldn’t determine the sex of the individual, officials believed the bones belonged to a Confederate soldier who was at least 20 years old at death.
Investigators also recovered eight machine-tooled buttons next to the skeleton’s ankles. These buttons were determined to have been manufactured between 1800 and 1865, and appeared to be attachments for instep tabs often used by mounted troops during that period.
Mounted, infantry and artillery units are thought to have been near where the remains were found, which was just north of a road crossing the creek, according to a report. Further, the shallow grave in which the bones were found “suggested an expedient but respectful interment, head to the west in concert with Christian practices of the time.”
Historical information detailing the disposal of the battle’s dead suggested that this individual was part of the Confederate forces killed during the battle and buried quickly thereafter.
Under federal law, Hamilton could have been subject to a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to $20,000.
“It’s a serious offense to disturb an archaeological site and to remove remains or artifacts,” David M. Ketchmark, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said in a statement Wednesday.
“We hope this incident will serve to educate the public about the laws that protect our priceless archaeological resources.”
Across the country, battlefield visitors have rarely spotted Civil War soldiers’ remains in recent decades.
In 1996, a tourist who happened to also be a National Park ranger found nearly intact remains of an unknown soldier at Railroad Cut, Pa., an area that experienced fierce fighting during the battle of Gettysburg. It marked the first time in nearly 60 years that Gettysburg remains had been found.
In 2008, a hiker from Oklahoma stumbled across a partial jawbone and other bone fragments, apparently unearthed by a burrowing groundhog, on the grounds of the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland. The hiker immediately took the bones to Park Service officials. Experts later determined they belonged to an unknown but young Union soldier from New York.
Civil War scholars in the Kansas City area couldn’t recall a similar episode.
Mike Calvert, president of the Civil War Round Table of Western Missouri, has heard anecdotal stories of possible trench graves or unmarked burial sites connected to Civil War actions near the Little Blue River in eastern Jackson County.
But he’s never heard of any local incident like this.
“It definitely should not be done,” Calvert said, referring to such scavenging. “Not just because it is a National Park Service site, but there is also such a thing as the consecrated dead.
“This man should have known better.”