Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Excavations begin at site of little-known Confederate prison that replaced Andersonville

Hewn by at least 300 slaves and a platoon of prisoners, the pine timbers stood in mute testimony to the horrors they had witnessed.

Between 12 and 15 feet tall, the poles formed the stockade wall at little-known Camp Lawton, Ga., which helped replace the infamous Andersonville prison in fall 1864.

The timbers are long gone, but archaeologists and college students are trying to find remnants and signs of where they once stood.

Life at Lawton wasn’t much better than Andersonville, with the exception of plentiful water from a spring. In its six weeks' existence, between 685 and 1,330 men died at the Confederate prison camp a few miles north of Millen.

“It’s a side of the war you don’t hear about very often,” says Kevin Chapman an archaeology graduate student at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. “You don’t hear about the nastiness of the war.”

“Foul and fetid” Camp Lawton largely disappeared into history. There are no maps or photos. Few prisoner journals were found. Clara Barton chose Andersonville for reburials that would lead to a national cemetery.

And, unlike the case at Andersonville, where 13,000 died, Lawton’s commandant didn’t survive the war to face justice. Gen. John Winder, who left Andersonville to build Camp Lawton, died of a heart attack in Feburary 1865. His onetime subordinate at Andersonville, Maj. Henry H. Wirz, was hanged later that year.

Chapman and fellow Georgia Southern students, in partnership with the state Department of Natural Resources, this year began excavations at the site of Camp Lawton, which lies in Magnolia Springs State Park, about 80 miles northwest of Savannah.

They are working in two parallel trenches not far from the park office, looking for evidence of the 42-acre fort’s wall. The public is invited to join them this Saturday and on two other dates this spring.

The Union forces that burned the camp, the scavenging of materials and the passage of time haven’t helped the excavation effort.

Camp Lawton was built to hold up to 40,000 prisoners and relieve Andersonville’s overcrowding. It never reached that level because its 10,000 inhabitants were moved elsewhere when Sherman's army approached during the March to the Sea.

Union cavalry in early December 1864 found the empty prison, a freshly dug area and a board reading “650 buried here.”

Outraged, troops apparently burned much of the stockade and the camp buildings, and a depot and hotel in nearby Millen, which was a transportation hub.

“They saw the conditions and took it out on who was available and it happened to be Millen,” said Chapman, 35, a native of Summerville in North Georgia.

Georgia Department of Transportation archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar found subterranean features that may pinpoint the location of the stockade. The LAMAR Institute recently found an L-shaped feature that could be the southwest corner of the prison.

“My primary goal right now is to verify the footprint of the stockade,” said Chapman. Eventually, he and other students and volunteers hope to find the foundation of the hospital, commandant’s quarters, the Confederate camp, a butcher shop and other facilities.

Many of Magnolia Spring’s facilities, including a pool, houses, an aquarium and the main office, sit atop the prison site.

Few visitors to the state park, which features camping, boating and fishing, are aware of Camp Lawton’s existence, said park manager Andy Barrows, but he does get some who are interested in the history.

Barrows says some earthworks are intact. An information kiosk tells the camp's story.

Georgia Southern and the state hope the excavation will benefit impoverished Jenkins County.

“We’re helping them increase tourism,” said Chapman. Tourists want to see [evidence of] the stockade.

Chapman says the excavators are “looking for a feature, a disturbance in the ground.” Darker or stained soil may indicate evidence of the stockade. So far, the team has found nothing conclusive.

The public will be invited to view the progress of the excavations on specific Saturdays each month during the spring. This Saturday, they can join the dig at 9 a.m. and work until about 4 p.m. Under supervision, they can screen the spoil buckets for any evidence of soil disturbance.

Although two buttons and a minie ball have been found, Chapman cautions that most of the site has been picked over by relic hunters.

“There will be no golden monkey found in the trenches,” he said.

Camp Lawton may have been a historical footnote, save for the 5,000-page diary kept by Union Private Robert Knox Sneden, who detailed the misery and made paintings of camp life while he was a prisoner at Lawton and Andersonville (painting above).

"The weather has been rainy and cold at nights," he noted in his diary on Nov. 1, 1864. "Many prisoners have died from exposure, as not more than half of us have any shelter but a blanket propped upon sticks. . . . Our rations have grown smaller in bulk too, and we have the same hunger as of old."

Chapman says life at Lawton was terrible. The guards ate no better than their Union prisoners. Dysentery, malnutrition and the ravages of nature took their toll.

“A case of the flu could kill you,” he said.

Click here for more information of public days at Camp Lawton excavation.

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