Mismanagement blamed in loss of military relics

Cannons, swords, machine guns vanish in black market Civil War items are hot 'People don't realize how much some of this stuff is worth,' investigator says

Gettysburg : A Remembrance

July 02, 2000|By Brendan Lyons | Brendan Lyons,albany times union

WATERVLIET, N.Y. -- Hundreds of valuable military artifacts have disappeared from armories and small museums in New York after decades of mismanagement and shoddy bookkeeping at these facilities, which collectively contain one of the nation's most prestigious military collections.

The state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, operating out of the Watervliet arsenal, has launched an intensive project to recover the artifacts, which are being meticulously catalogued and stored in two giant warehouses.

"No one has ever done anything effective about this," said Col. R. H. von Hasweln, history director for the Division of Military and Naval Affairs. "It was not properly inventoried and not properly protected."

The artifacts, many of which have real historical significance, have been targeted by professional thieves or misplaced over decades, officials said.

In other cases, collectibles have been tracked to former armory employees and even the offices of state legislators, investigators say, though they declined to identify the lawmakers. Often, an item will reappear after investigators begin making inquiries.

The recovery effort began five years ago and is relying heavily on State Police investigators to help track down dozens of stolen and missing items. Some have been found offered for sale on the Internet.

The New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs is responsible for oversight of the estimated 300,000 pieces of military memorabilia that are kept primarily at armories statewide.

Civil War items

Some of the items date back to the 1600s. The collections include the uniform of the first soldier killed in the Civil War -- complete with the hole from the bullet that felled him -- to documents signed by George Washington. There are machine guns, howitzers, Civil War flags with cannonball holes in them, sterling silver plaques, swords and thousands of other wartime memorabilia.

Many items were stolen or misplaced so long ago that police officers tracing their trail have found themselves interviewing residents of nursing homes and reading obituaries in search of leads.

There are 65 state armories. Many of the armories served both as recruiting offices during wartime and local museums for military artifacts that were meaningful to their communities, historians said. Historically, regiments and other units often were raised locally and came back with war booty.

"What has happened with the closing down of many of these facilities is it took an already bad situation and made it worse by forcing more and more artifacts into the hands of administrators who had to make a decision about what to do with them," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, an Albany Democrat who is the former Albany County historian.

When the inventory effort began, state historians found priceless artifacts stuffed in the attics, basements and even closed-down bathrooms of some armories.

Missing cannon

"I've been in parts of buildings that most people never knew existed," said Michael Aikey, a librarian and archivist for the New York State Military Museum.

"The first door I walked into was the Schenectady Armory. By the time I walked out the next day, they knew [at armories] in Buffalo that something was going on," Aikey said.

Aikey and others involved in the project say it was not unusual to find that a former caretaker had given away items, sometimes to local veterans groups that would hang them in private lodges like trophies.

"We found one field piece [a Civil War cannon] missing out of Rochester that was in somebody's garage," said State Police Capt. John Byrne, a Civil War buff who is helping lead the recovery effort.

The value of memorabilia from that conflict has skyrocketed in recent years, officials said.

"There's such a market in military hardware that people don't realize how much some of this stuff is worth," Byrne said.

No one has been arrested in connection with the recovery of an artifact, primarily because the new owner usually doesn't know it was stolen.

Recently, New York State Police found a silver plaque offered for sale on the Internet auction site eBay.

On June 2, 1898, the plaque had been given by the Sons of the Revolution to an infantry regiment that had fought in the Spanish-American War. The small sterling silver plaque apparently had been taken off a memorial flagpole in New York City years ago.

The police did not charge the Long Island man who was willing to sell it for $275 -- the bid made by undercover investigators. The man quickly turned it over to investigators when he was informed that it was state property, Byrne said. The plaque had changed hands so many times among antiques dealers that investigators gave up trying to find who stole it.

In recent months, State Police have been visiting gun shows around the state looking for pilfered antique weapons. With the assistance of military historians, investigators also have entered the serial numbers of missing guns in a nationwide police computer system.

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