|By Jim Rutledge
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Protests halted the auction of a skull of a purported Civil War soldier who died at the Battle of Gettysburg nearly 151 years to the day. At the last moment, the skull was pulled from the auction and turned over to the National Park Service for future burial at the national battlefield cemetery.
More than 164,000 soldiers fought during the three-day battle July l-3, 1863, leaving 46,286 Union and Confederate soldiers killed or injured during the battle that historians believe was the turning point in the Civil War.
The skull, with 13 other Civil War artifacts, was priced at $50,000 to $250,000 in the June 3 auction by the Estate Auction Company of Harrisburg. Prior to the sale, 56-year-old auctioneer Thomas Taylor had hopes the artifacts would have been won by a private collector or museum.
However, once the sale became public, protests from across the nation flooded the auction house with outrage and threats to picket the auction.
At the last moment, the anonymous owner of the skull decided to donate the remains to the National Park Service (NPS). Park Service officials said everyone had been “overwhelmed” by “an unprecedented outcry from concerned citizens.”
“We are extremely grateful to the owners of the collection for making this decision,” Taylor said, “and for helping to make it happen.”
Joanne Hanley, president of the Gettysburg Foundation, picked up the soldier’s remains from the auction company on June 3 and delivered them to the NPS. “It truly was the right decision,” Hanley said, “to return these remains to Gettysburg, providing the integrity and dignity this veteran deserves.”
The skull and assorted Civil War artifacts were found in 1949 – Taylor said by someone tilling a local garden – on private land near Benner’s Farm, the site of a Confederate field hospital during the three-day battle. A soldier’s breastplate found nearby came from a Louisiana fighting unit of the Confederate Army.
After the remains have been authenticated, officials say, the soldier will be interred with full military honors in the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Park Service spokeswoman Katie Lawhon told a local newspaper she had never heard of a soldier’s remains being offered for sale and called the planned auction “very unfortunate.”
“Our mission at Gettysburg is to respect the memory of those who fought and died,” she said. “This was a spectacle.”
Park Service officials believe there are still undiscovered soldier remains at Gettysburg and treat the entire battlefield as a sacred burial ground, Lawhon said.
The most recent discovery of Civil War soldier remains was in 1996. Those were interred with full military honors at the national cemetery dedicated by President Abraham Lincoln with his famous Gettysburg Address.