COLUMBIA, S.C. – The caretaker of the ruins of a 260-year old South Carolina church is convinced that the theft of three iron crosses from the graves of Confederate soldiers was an act of vandalism, meant to insult the valor of the men after the shooting of nine black worshippers.
"It's disgusting that someone would desecrate graves," Bill Sammons said. "My gut feeling is, someone wanted to destroy these symbols of the Confederacy because of that shooting in Charleston."
Police said that's possible, but they also are investigating a second theory — that the crosses were stolen by someone seeking a piece of history, either for themselves or to sell in the brisk market of hard-to-trace Civil War memorabilia.
The three Southern Crosses of Honor could have been stolen from the remote grounds of the Old Sheldon Church near Yemassee any time in the month before the thefts were reported on Monday, Beaufort County Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Bob Brummage said.
The thieves didn't leave behind a note, graffiti or anything else to suggest why the special grave markers were taken, he said.
"Until we have suspects, we won't have a motive. And we don't have suspects," Brummage said.
The cast iron crosses have been placed on thousands of graves across the South over several decades by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They are available for the final resting places of anyone who fought for the South in the Civil War.
Sammons himself installed the crosses about five years ago, mounting them in concrete. He said it would have required quite an effort to remove them. He plans to replace them once the ruckus over the thefts calms down.
The Old Sheldon Church was built between 1745 and 1753. Built in the style of a Greek Temple, its walls still stand. The inside of the church was gutted in 1865 when Union General William Sherman burned it on his March to the Sea.
If the thieves did plan to make money selling the crosses, they won't get it from reputable Civil War memorabilia dealers, said Howard Alligood, who runs Arsenal Artifacts in Sylva, North Carolina.
"They belong only one place — that's a grave," Alligood said. "All these iron crosses are stolen, period. We will confiscate them if we see them for sale."
The Southern Crosses of Honor stolen from the church have no personalized markings, making them almost impossible to trace. Memorabilia dealers who buy coats, belt buckles, cups, artillery shells or other items have to rely on trust and their instincts when buying items because they have no serial numbers or other identifying marks, said Alligood, who also is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"You don't know and you won't know where these things come from," Alligood said. "You expect the best and you deal with the worst."
The ruins of the Old Sheldon Church sit on a remote, wooded road well away from any homes. The site has security lights, but is always open, Sammons said.
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