The Hunt for missing Civil War treasures: Ross Weiland and Tom Bennett

Feb 23, 2011

He's an agent, hunting down dealers with treasures that should be living in the National Archives. Whether they know it or not, the dealers may be trafficking in stolen government property. The heist may have taken place in 1865. Or last week. Or a document may not have been looted at all, but made its way into private hands instead of the Archives.

The Office of the Inspector General's Ross Weiland will be online Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 1 p.m. to talk about the Archive's quest to find missing Civil War documents, its more aggressive approach to recover treasures that have disappeared from its holdings, and how you can help.

More Civil War coverage from the Post.

Okay, we're here.  I'm Ross Weiland, Asst. IG for Investigations at the National Archives.  I'm here with Tom Bennett, our computer forensic analyst.

As a librarian, I sure hope you are expanding your staff and not reducing the people that are seeking to save historical documents. In that context, is the National Archives hiring, particularly at the regional level? My main contact with the National Archives came many years ago when we were seeking documents for a historical reconstruction. The battles were pretty bad as we tried to find materials for a mock trial reconstruction. After the bruising, we were surprised that the National Archives was a co-sponsor of the mock trial. We were a bit surprised.

The Office of Investigations is fully staffed.  In today's climate, we certainly don't anticipate any short term growth.  The Archival Recovery Team is staffed with two people who devote most of their time to ART.  However, my entire staff, at one time or another will work ART cases as the need arises.

I own drafts of legislation kept by a Civil War era Senator's secretary. These are handwritten drafts that the secretary saved, were kept by his family and ultimately sold to my parents half a century ago. Is there any reason to question the legality of a writer in the Civil War era (with a role in legislation) keeping his own personal notes?

If these are a secretary's personal notes, there's likely no ownership issue.  However, if they deal substantively with the legislation, they could have been intended for the records associated with that legislation.

If an item has been in circulation for some time and has had many previous owners, then it might have legally passed from government hands to private hands. For example, there was recently a flap over a fingerprint card that John Lennon filled out when he applied for citizenship in 1976. The uncompleted card was the original property of the government. Then Lennon completed it, and it was still the property of the government. But if the card was thrown into the garbage and retrieved by someone, it would not have transferred by theft. (The auction house did give it to the FBI upon their demand though.) Courts have also upheld the right of the police to sift through garbage, and news organizations have frequently based reports on documents retrieved from dumpsters. With these legal scenarios possible, how does the national archives establish an undisputable claim to an item?

There are countless legal scenarios possible in any case we pursue, and frequently, there are different, and valid opinions.  It can be a very arduous and time consuming task tracking the provenance of any particular item.  We have no desire to take property that doesn't belong to the United States, but if our work establishes a legitimate claim, we will do what we can to retrieve that item.

How do you typically search for these missing documents? And how do you know if they're legitimate? Is there a specific process that you use?

We use a variety of methods to search for the records.  As the article mentions, we attend memorabilia shows and talk with collectors.  We also monitor several of the large auction houses and periodically review eBay activity for historical memorabilia.  The challenge isn't finding documents to research but conducting the research to determine if the documents came from NARA holdings or should have been transferred to NARA.  Our team works with NARA archivists and staff to answer those questions.

What's been the most fascinating find so far?

This is tough.  It's all interesting to someone.  The Armistead resignation from the U.S. Army prior to joining the Confederate Army was unique.  It's really a subjective opinion.  Anything with Abe Lincoln's signature is by definition fascinating. 

Do you monitor Internet sales like ebay to see if missing documents turn out there? If so, have you ever found something being sold on ebay that was government property?

We regularly monitor Internet sales.  We have, on occasion, identified records for that we were able to deteremine came from NARA's holdings.  The best example was a case a couple of years ago involving an unpaid NARA intern named Denning McTague who took 164 documents from the NARA facility in Philadelphia and started selling the documents on eBay.

How do you determine if the documents are the property of the United States or personal property and what legal ramifications does each individual face if holding US property?

The legal ramifications depend on the circumstances of how the item left government control and arrived on someone's doorstep.  Obviously, if there's a theft, we work with the Department of Justice and seek prosecution.  If, as happens frequently, an ancestor left government service and took a stack of records when they left, and those records have been sitting in an attic for 200 years, we'll work with the possessor to get those items back to the Archives and preserved for use by generations to come.

Are there specific documents that you are currently researching relating to the Civil War that may have been lost or stolen?

There are a number of specific Civil War era documents that we are activity trying to locate.  A list of those documents (and other missing documents) is located on the following webpage:

How often do you find that a dealer has acquired a missing document by pure chance or by accident? Do many realize what gems they have?

Often and Yes.  One of the goals of the Archival Recovery Team is to "employ" the general public as sentinels and be on the look out for records that should be preserved and held by the Archives.  We frequently get calls from individuals who have discovered an item at their grandparents house, or have seen a document for sale on ebay.  Generally, when people contact us it is because they realize they may have stumbled on an item of historical significance.

What  jurisdiction do you have in trying to retreive historical documents that are no longer in the U.S.?

If a federal record that belongs in the National Archives exists anywhere on this planet, we will make every effort to recover it.  Obviously, when leaving the U.S., we would by necessity work with local law enforcement of that jurisdiction.  It certainly complicates the matter, but it would not prevent us from working the case.

(Ok, maybe a bit TIG) How do you get the truth out of people who would purloin the treasures of the nation? I am sure that this is a very genteel world, that of scholarly research. Library paste up the nose? Beat him over the wrists with parchment? Find some old dusty book and made him sneeze? Threaten to make him use the computer rather than the card catalog? Run over his toes with a book cart? Subject him to a hundred reading of "It was a dark and stormy night?" Or the hoary technique of paper cuts?

I'm pretty sure the Inspector General would not want me or my staff running over anyone's toes with a book cart.  However, the Office of Investigations is staffed with trained and qualified Special Agents, an Investigative Archivist, and Mr. Bennett, a forensic analyst.  Everyone is professionally trained, certified where required, and highly capable of performing there legitimate law enforcement duties.  While we all suffer the occasional paper cut, we don't inflict them on others.

As a re enactor of 28 years experience ... and as a National Archives employee ... what can I do to help if I see something FISHY when I do my travels for the upcoming 150th anniversary events? What should I be looking for? You all are familiar with the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association show that's coming up in April, I think ...

What you can do if you see something fishy is to give us a call.  That gives us an opportunity to research the document is question.  This is the same message to we give to all of the dealers and collectors that we meet at the shows we attend. 

Currently, how many official documents concerning the Civil War do we have in the Archives? And, do you have any idea how many may be 'out there'?

That's a great question that cannot be answered.  Take it out of the limited context of the Civil War and you're talking about billions of records.  As the Inspector General stated in the article, it's counting grains of sand.  As for what's "out there?" -- a bit of everything, patents, paintings, pardons -- if you can think of it, it could be out there. 

Here's the next show. I am hoping to be there with Company D, First US Artillery (volunteers at Fort Washington NHP, MD) to set up a recruiting table. Maybe I will see you all there!

We plan on attending.  Please stop by our table and say hello.

I will put your number into my cell phone but is that answered on weekends? Also, tell Mitch I said HI ... Hugh

The reader speaks of Mitch Yockelson, our intrepid and one-of-a-kind investigative archivist.  Visit our booth at one of the shows Tom mentioned and you'll likely see Mitch hard at work.  Our number always works.  If we're not here to answer, leave a message and an agent will certainly get in touch.

Ummm, just checked and its a 837 number. They are not there on weekends. I am wondering what if this is a time sensitive situation?

Our hotline is always available for messages.  301-837-3500 or 800-786-2551.  Call anytime.

What types of treasures are you finding that should be in the Archives?

We've discovered a number of interesting treasures.  One that I thought was interesting was a series of passport photos that were returned by the family of a former employee who had passed away.  The photos were discovered in a box in the attic and included 50s era photos of Hollywood celebrities including John Wayne and Lucille Ball.

This looks like a program that has a high chance of abuse in favor of the national archives. People who possess records of great historical value tend to be very good citizens. When they act to sell those records they own, they are subject to federal agents confronting them with the possibility that they're not actually the proud owners of historical documents, but petty theives (or kin thereto) in possession of items stolen as a cultural atrocity against America. And in under what circumstance would the federal agents most likely intimidate the citizens -- if the stuff is really cool and the archivists would like to have it for themselves. Look at the answers above-- 'anything with Abe Lincoln's signature' on it is potentially an item they'll lay claim to. Lincoln lived a lot of years before moving into the White House, and he sent a lot of letters he signed. But NARA will want it all for themselves, if they can get it. Oppose them, and you may be dragged into court. Gift it to them, and you'll get a letter of thanks-- from NARA.

I don't think you understand exactly what we do with the Archival Recovery Team.  It is quite possible that a person may come into possession of a stolen item legitimately.  That person is not a thief, but a victim of a crime that may have occurred several years and multiple owners earlier.  We don't accuse that person of being a thief.  We will certainly talk to that individual and investigate the provenance of the item, and try to work with that person to make sure the item is preserved in its proper place for all to see and utilize.  If we can't prove it belongs with the Archives, we're done.  There's no case for us to investigate.  It is exceedingly rare that non-criminal cases find there way to court.

Have any of your recovered treasures put to rest any interesting "urban legends" or myths? (For my own experience in researching family history I have found documents like old US Census records that have undone some family legends.)

I can' think of any cases in which records that we have identified have put to rest any urban legends or myths but I share your experience with respect to researching family history.  In 2009, we performed a review to assess security in NARA research rooms.  During that review, I played the part of a researcher and, while performing research, obtained records from the unit where my father served in Vietnam.  I discovered many original documents in the records in my father's own hand.     

Thanks to the Post for putting this webchat together and thanks to the readers for all your questions.  The success of the Archival Recovery Team depends largely on the assistance of the general public.  We rely on you to help us make sure that the records of our country  are preserved and made available for all the world to see.  We can't do it alone.  Come see us at a show, and check out our website and facebook page (search US Archival Recovery Team).  Thanks everyone.

In This Chat
Ross Weiland
Ross Weiland is the Assistant Inspector General for Investigations at the National Archives.

He graduated from Texas A&M University in 1987 with a degree in business management. He received his Master of Arts degree in journalism from Syracuse University in 1989 and his juris doctor from New York Law School in 1998. During law school he received a commission in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps and served six years on active duty, primarily as a prosecutor and criminal appellate litigator. In 2004, he left active duty and became Counsel to the Inspector General at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Office of Inspector General (OIG). In 2006, he was promoted to his current position as Assistant Inspector General for Investigations.
Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett is a computer forensic examiner for the National Archives.

Tom Bennett graduated from Michigan State University in 1985 with a degree in accounting. He began his federal career as a contract auditor in 1986 with the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA). In 1991 he joined the Office of Inspector General (OIG) community as an Information Technology auditor with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) OIG. By 1994 he joined the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) OIG, ultimately rising to the position of Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Assistant Inspector General for Universal Service Fund Oversight. In 2005, he joined the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) OIG as a computer forensic examiner.
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