Robert and Linda Melancon spent years sifting for clues and spreading the word about the old flintlock rifle they acquired from an antiques store in the French Quarter. 

They scrutinized microfilm records for details about the life of the man who owned it originally, a volunteer who carried it at the Battle of New Orleans. 

Robert Melancon, 77, traveled as far as Pennsylvania to speak in front of the Kentucky Rifle Association, a group of collectors with a particular interest in the type of gun that helped Andrew Jackson's forces triumph over the British in New Orleans in January 1815. 

And then, one day in November while they were out of town visiting a sick relative, they found out something else about their prized antique: It had been stolen from a museum decades ago. 

While they were away, Robert Melancon said, the FBI raided their home in Thibodaux and took it back on behalf of the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans.  

"There's no doubt about it — it's their gun, and I'm glad they have it," Robert Melancon said.

Authorities announced the rifle's recovery on Monday, the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. 

And while Melancon said he is happy to see the rifle returned to its rightful owner, the whole episode has left a bad taste in his mouth, not least because he thought he obtained it lawfully in 1982. 

"It's heartbreaking," he said. "It really is. We got that gun in good faith. And that rifle gained prominence because of what we did."

The rifle, owned originally by a William Ross, has an estimated value of $650,000. It's the only one still in existence that is known to have been used during the 1815 battle.

Melancon recalls a fellow collector telling him about "a heck of weapon for sale" at the James H. Cohen and Sons Inc. shop on Royal Street. The shop indicated it believed the rifle had belonged to a man whose name was possibly William Bess. 

Melancon said he and his wife exchanged about $18,000 worth of other antique guns for the rifle, which had an inscription on the stock mentioning the battle, as well as a military company under the command of a Capt. Thomas Beale.

Through a family friend who reviewed records in Chalmette of the volunteers who served under Beale, the Melancons learned only one had a surname ending in a double S: William Ross, rather than William Bess. 

Turning to the National Archives, the Melancons learned that Ross earned $23.48 fighting under Jackson. Local records, including old newspapers, mentioned that Ross lived out the rest of his life in New Orleans, occasionally getting involved in legal disputes with business associates. 

The couple eagerly shared their findings at showcases across the country held by the Kentucky Rifle Association, including at its national meeting in Pennsylvania. 

The type of gun Ross carried — built by renowned Virginia rifle-maker John Scheetz — was relatively accurate for its time and is credited with giving Jackson's troops an edge over the British invaders.

Both the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Jackson Barracks museum later exhibited the weapon. Historical writer Mark Sage wrote a feature about the gun and the Melancons for the National Rifle Association's magazine in 2013.

One of Ross' relatives spotted Sage's article and reached out to the Melancons with more information. Having come to the U.S. from Ireland, Ross spent time in New Jersey and Ohio before moving to New Orleans to work as a flour inspector. He had a son named James and a grandson named Elijah.

Officials at the Confederate Memorial Hall also saw Sage's article. They had records showing Elijah Ross, a Confederate soldier, had inherited his grandfather's gun before donating it to the Civil War museum a few years after it opened in 1891.

It remained there until more than 35 years ago, when someone made off with it, the museum said. No one knows who took it or when it or how it turned up in the Cohen shop. 

Neither the shop nor the president of Confederate Memorial Hall's board immediately responded to messages Tuesday.

After spotting the magazine article, museum officials asked the FBI for help in getting the rifle back. Officials said the Melancons were fully cooperative with their investigation. Neither they nor the shop where they bought the rifle is suspected of wrongdoing, officials said. 

Still, Melancon said it was demoralizing to be confronted with papers showing the rifle belonged to the museum. He said he was confused why it took so long for the rifle's owners to claim it when he and his wife made no secret of having the weapon and in fact tried to share its story as widely as possible.

Melancon declined to discuss whether he may seek to be compensated for his loss. He emphasized that he wasn't casting aspersions on anybody and had no second thoughts about giving the rifle back.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm upset, and my wife is appalled this is happening, too," Melancon said. "But if it's stolen, I don't want anything to do with it." 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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