YEMASSEE — Three iron crosses honoring Confederate veterans were stolen from the historic Old Sheldon Church ruins, leaving the site's caretakers and state historians aghast.

Authentic "Southern Cross of Honor" markers are a black market collector's item. The theft also could be another example of "protest" vandalism sweeping the country. South Carolina and other states in the region are wrestling with how to balance heritage while placating a rise in anti-Confederate protests after the shootings at Emanuel AME Church and other recent events.

Whatever the case, the crime is a felony and one that disgusts the people who watch over such sites.

The pillared remnants of the church in the woods near Yemassee are an iconic Lowcountry landmark, a treasured destination for historians, photographers and cultural tours. But the site has been vandalized so much in recent years that university and preservation interests are trying to figure out how to protect it.

The crosses had been set in heavy concrete footings.

"Someone dug them up and took the footings. It's a despicable person who wants to desecrate graves," said Bill Sammons, a volunteer with St. Helena Church in Beaufort, who has helped look after the ruins.

"It's just wrong," said Jonathan Leader, state archaeologist. "It would be wrong if it were anybody's cemetery. It would be wrong if it were anybody's grave. It's doubly wrong that it's a veteran's grave."

The ruins of the nation’s first church built in a temple form stood quietly in remote woods here for more than a century. But now they are being vandalized by people trampling over graves, pocketing souvenirs, spray-painting walls or breaking headstones.

Old Sheldon Church is a National Historic Register site, one of the nation’s earliest and grandest religious buildings. It was first built between 1745 and 1753, slightly before St. Michael’s Church, downtown Charleston’s oldest surviving church building.

Each year, the Sheldon church caretakers host a Sunday-after-Easter service and picnic on the grounds that's open to the public, Sammons said.

Leader said he hopes a reward is offered, the markers returned and the violators prosecuted.

"If they damage anybody's history they damage everybody's history," he said. "You can't have this type of behavior."

Robert Behre of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.

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Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.