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Missing history: Relics of America's military past have vanished without a trace

Jim Bender has become to go-to expert in Civil-war era artillery (Photo: Jim Bender)
Jim Bender has become to go-to expert in Civil-war era artillery (Photo: Jim Bender)
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DAYTON, Ohio (SBG) — This Veterans' Day, Inside Your World Investigates explored the mystery of thousands of relics of this nation's military past that are currently missing. Many of the artifacts were sold, given, or loaned by the Army and Navy to communities across the nation for public display, and now, no one knows where they are.

Military artifacts are scattered across the country, in front of government buildings, in local parks, and at veterans' organizations. Many are on loan from the federal government, and all serve a purpose of remembrance.

It's something veteran Fred Lynch is passionate about. We met him in Dayton, Ohio where he oversees Old Greencastle Cemetery, the oldest in the city, a resting place for approximately 300 veterans, dating all the way back to the American Revolution.

Lynch told us about a rare 10-ton Navy mortar that used to stand on that very ground. It's known as the "seacoast mortar."

"The seacoast mortar was a grave marker honoring all of the veterans here," veteran Fred Lynch told us. "And it was meant to stay here."

But the mortar didn't stay on that hallowed ground.

Instead, it changed hands twice, including being mistakenly sold to a private collector.

What a sad day that was for local history," cemetery caretaker Fred Lynch told us about the day the Seacoast mortar was removed. "We were not here to protect it. Had we been here, we would've most strenuously objected to this act.

For Lynch, it's a tragic loss. He told Inside Your World Investigates he puts the loss of the naval mortar in the same category as desecrating a grave.

Inside Your World Investigates discovered that vanishing artifacts aren't just a concern for the Navy. The Army also concedes it has lost track of thousands of pieces of its history, particularly those artifacts that pre-date World War II. Many of the losses are due to sloppy record-keeping in the past.

Regardless of the branch, these missing relics leave holes in US history.

To give you a sense of the historical importance of the seacoast mortar, here's a timeline leading up to its placement in Dayton:

  • 1862 — Cast (manufactured) at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh, Penn.)
  • March 1862 — Placed on U.S.S. John Griffith (114 ft. mortar schooner)
  • April 1862 — Battle of New Orleans
  • July 1862 — Battle of Vicksburg, Miss.
  • August 1862 - August 1864 — Operations in the Gulf of Mexico
  • August-December 1864 — Operations off the South Carolina & Georgia coasts
  • April 1865 —Civil War ends
  • August 1865 — U.S.S. John Griffith decommissioned
  • March 1870 — Congress authorized a loan to Dayton
  • 1896 — Seacoast mortar loaned to Dayton

When it comes to the mystery of the missing seacoast mortar, we took our questions to Rear Adm. Samuel Cox (Ret.), the Director of Naval History and Heritage Command.

"It's the only one like that that I'm aware of," he told us. "This mortar that could fire over ramparts from a ship at that size was pretty significant." Asked how much it would be worth, his answer was simple: "Priceless."

The paper trail of exactly what happened to it goes cold," Cox told us. "But you don't hide something like that. Somebody's got it somewhere.

Inside Your World Investigates has been trying to track down the location of the mortar.

  • We know that in June 1998, it was somehow mistakenly sold to a private collector just outside of Allentown, Penn.
  • Then, between 2016 and 2019, it was sold again, but the buyer's identity is unknown.

Samuel Cox told us that the Navy is willing to work with people who would like to return missing relics, and said he'd like to hear from whoever possesses that Seacoast mortar today.

We're told most of the missing pieces of history end up in the hands of private collectors. Hundreds of pieces of civil war artillery have been tracked down by Jim Bender.

As a passion project, he's documented 5,812 cannons that survived the Civil War. Bender told us 524 are in private hands.

Bender is now considered the go-to expert on these old pieces of history. He told us he gets a new tip nearly every month from people who have stumbled across another cannon and want to report it.

It's exciting," Jim Bender told us about discovering Civil-War era cannons throughout the US. "Here's a piece that eluded quite a few people for 50, 60 years and here's an opportunity to add a new one the list, so it's always exciting.

As of right now, efforts to track down that 10-ton Navy seacoast mortar have been unsuccessful, but the hunt goes on to locate it, and thousands of other military treasures, before they disappear for good.

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If you know where the seacoast mortar can be found, or have another piece of history to report, you can contact Naval History and Heritage Command by clicking here.

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