Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Petersburg Battlefield Looter Gets Prison

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on March 23, 2012

This guy was not a visitor who, on a whim, pocketed a couple of Minié balls he found lying on the ground. He also kept a detailed, day-by-day journal of his looting activities. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

By his own account, Santo wrote that he recovered more than 18,000 bullets, 68 fuses, 31 cannonballs and shells, 13 buckles, seven breastplates, five saber tips and 91 buttons over 1,014 days.

“The defendant’s journal is a tell-all of his misconduct, identifying with a high degree of specification where he engaged in metal detecting/relic hunting and when and what he recovered,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney N. George Metcalf in federal court papers. “He even kept a running tally of the items he found from day to day on a yearly basis.”

Santo’s handwritten journal, recovered during a July 10, 2011, search of his Petersburg home, proved to be his undoing. On Wednesday, the 52-year-old unemployed Pennsylvania native was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Richmond to one year and one day in a federal prison.

He pleaded guilty in December to two counts of damaging archaeological resources and one count of pillaging Petersburg National Battlefield Park.

Santo is regarded as the park’s most prolific relic thief.

Unfortunately, Santo’s conviction still leaves important, unanswered questions:

[Park historian Jimmy] Blankenship said one of the issues that concerned the court was the amount of relics Santo apparently sold. “We know he found over 18,000 bullets,” Blankenship said. “We only confiscated something like 8,500. So what happened to the other 10,000 bullets?”

But archaeology, as opposed to private treasure hunting on public land, remains a hard sell to the general public. As one archaeologist notes on the Historical Archaeology e-mail list,

If you want to see where the public perception of archaeology is, or if you have wondered who would watch and champion shows like Digger or American Digger, just read the comments at the end of the article. To nearly all commenters, the perpetrator is a hero who has rescued the artifacts from the ground, something the power-loving authorities and archaeologists have no desire to do so.

Trust me, professional archaeologists would love to have the resources to devote to a systematic study of sites like Petersburg, but they don’t. (And note that comprehensive study of a battlefield site can completely revise our understanding of well-known engagements, as Doug Scott’s study of the Little Bighorn and the THC’s work to reconstruct the Red River War both attest.) But there’s little public support for investing in that sort of work, which requires a lot of time by highly-trained people, and is therefore expensive. Buckets of Minié balls and uniform buttons, looted from public land — which is to say, stolen from us — don’t do a damn thing to improve our knowledge or understanding of the conflict.

One additional note: Santo’s 366-day sentence is common in the federal system for low-level, non-violent criminals. The federal system does not have parole, but does allow some credit for inmates with good behavior or who participate in rehab or educational programs while incarcerated. This can knock, I believe, about 15% off the time they actually spend in jail. But to be eligible for this, the law requires that the prisoner be sentence to “more than a year” behind bars — thus the sentence of 366 days. Santo will likely serve about ten-and-a-half months, and then be put on some form of supervised release.

Image: Containers of Civil War era bullets and park boundary markers (enclosed in plastic that he took as trophies). Via Petersburg National Battlefield Park.

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