Wednesday, November 6, 2013

At new Georgia sites, you'll learn of soldiers, civilians and assume a POW's identity

My memory of visiting Civil War battlefields during my youth largely consists of those large iron signs, depicting Union forces in blue, Confederates in red.

Silhouette for Resaca panel
The disposition of fighting units, of course, is integral to telling the story of why a battle occurred at that spot and its tactical or strategic importance.

But recent years have witnessed a more inclusive story – of combatants, yes, but also the impact of war on civilians and their way of life. 

Even within the military realm, much is to be written about the operation of Civil War prisons and the larger questions of how humans treat each other during difficult circumstances.

In time for 150th anniversary observations, the state of Georgia is preparing to open a park and a museum that will help tell that fuller story.

Resaca Battlefield State Historic Site, along a stretch of Interstate 75 in northwest Georgia, is expected to open in early 2014, a few months behind an earlier projection. The contractor is finalizing work, including the installation of about 20 interpretive panels.

The site, to be operated by Gordon County, will have loop trails, two kiosks, three pulloff areas, picnic tables and a comfort station, though no museum -- due to budgetary limitations.

Well to the south, near Millen, the Magnolia Springs History Center will have a soft opening, possibly in January, although officials say opening dates are estimates and subject to several factors. (January 14 update: The center is not yet open; no firm timetable)

That museum, in a renovated building at Magnolia Springs State Park, will tell the story of Camp Lawton, a Confederate prison built to handle the overflow at Andersonville. It held more than 10,000 Union soldiers for six weeks in the autumn of 1864. Among the planned displays will be artifacts recovered from the site.

One of the interpretive panels for Resaca (Ga. DNR)

State and local officials hope both venues also will be an economic boon to those regions.

Interstate 75 literally cuts through the Resaca battlefield; visitors will be able to exit and be inside the park within a couple minutes.

On May 13-15, 1864, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Tennessee bloodied each other at Resaca. There was no clear winner, but Sherman continued his march toward Atlanta, which he took several months later.

The state site covers a portion of the western side of the clash.

Debbie Wallsmith
“When you pull off the highway area, before you head downhill into the river bottom, there will be three interpretive panels that will get you oriented and provide the basic background,” said Debbie Wallsmith, interpretive specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division.

“One of the neat things we have gotten are life-sized silhouettes of cannons and soldiers and a cavalryman,” she told the Picket. While driving or walking, “You will come across someone pointing a gun at you.”

The low-lying site can be fairly soggy at times and trails were set back from a stream.

Among the interpretive panels will be ones “designed just for kids. They explain the difference between the flags and the uniforms and why they were fighting in the first place.”

Others will explain the impact on townsfolk in Resaca and the history of the Confederate cemetery in town. The Friends of Resaca assisted in the project.

And while there are battle maps, with red and blue lines, Wallsmith believes visitors will have several points of entry.

Georgia DNR
“We discuss it in terms of the battle that really shouldn’t have happened. It was a matter of circumstance that it took place.”

She said there likely will be a major event at the site in May 2014, the actual sesquicentennial of the battle.

Dusty Fuller, site manager of Magnolia Springs State Park, is excited about the addition of the museum, which will be within sight of the main park office.

It will tell the story of the springs, Millen and the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was in place from the mid-1930s until 1942. Its principal focus is Camp Lawton, which sat on the park property and what became a federal fish hatchery across the springs.

Most of the park’s visitors currently come for camping, fishing and family reunions.

For those who want to know about the Civil War, Fuller gives them an orientation at the park office and walks them to the approximate location of the stockade wall.

One of the planned exhibit rooms at Magnolia Springs State Park (DNR)
“From there, we go to the fort, explaining how many soldiers were outside (the prison area),” he told the Picket. “From the fort, usually we progress back down to the plain to a couple of excavation trenches,” referring to ongoing work by Georgia Southern University archaeology students.

“The last thing I do is we go across the plain, following the stockade wall down to where it would have crossed the stream.” He talks about the use of water for drinking and bathing and latrine use.

The history center will appeal especially to the “hard-core enthusiast. For several years, we have not had much to show them,” according to Fuller.

Patrons will see a visual presentation, likely a photo slideshow, providing an overview of the POW camp and ongoing excavations and research.

Another area in the museum, which will feature state-of-the-art security, will provide timelines, including the construction of Lawton.

To personalize the experience, visitors will be checked in as an actual Camp Lawton prisoner.

Artifacts found at Lawton (Georgia Southern University)
Most will be from the 14th and 15th Illinois infantry regiments, said Wallsmith, citing an excellent online database that provides hometowns, height, hair and eye color and marital status and occupation. The state has 1,200 names to assign. Most soldiers survived, although an estimated 700 died at the prison.

The “roll call” room will feature a Civil War-era field desk, information on diarists and a mannequin in Confederate clothing.

The main room features a reproduction amputation kit, copies of prisoner “shebangs,” or shelters, and displays, among others, about food and health, the stockade and the economy within the Union ranks.

Interestingly, the prisoners conducted their own voting for president in 1864, choosing between incumbent Abraham Lincoln and former Gen. George B. McClellan, who was considered a peace candidate.

“Even though a lot were distraught over the fact they had not been paroled or exchanged -- they were beginning to feel they were forgotten -- they still voted for Lincoln,” said Wallsmith.

As they prepare to leave, visitors will check on the status of the prisoner’s identity they had assumed.

“If you died in prison, there will be a number of the gravesite in Beaufort, South Carolina,” where bodies were moved after the war.

As part of her research, Wallsmith traveled to the Virginia Historial Society and was able to handle the diaries and drawings of prisoner Robert Knox Sneden, the most famous diarist at Camp Lawton.

“The last time I shook (that much) when I held artifacts is when I had to move effigy figures at Etowah,” she said, referring to a state Indian mounds site.

Rear entrance of Magnolia Springs History Center
For artifacts display, the DNR is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has oversight of the hatchery  built over the main prisoner encampment.

Officials hope to eventually rotate the numerous artifacts found at the hatchery site and at the state park. The Confederate officer’s quarters and related buildings are on the state side.

Fuller said he is pleased visitors finally will see “real artifacts, with real professional research.”

Overall visitation at Magnolia Springs State Park has been in decline over the past several years, in part due to other swimming areas and the opening of large water parks. And only about 10 percent of patrons come to learn about the prison site.

Fuller hopes those doing quick getaways will enjoy renovated cottages and check out the park’s rich Civil War story. Perhaps, he said, there could be a new dynamic.

“To come for the history, and stay for the overnight facilities.”

No comments:

Post a Comment