Saturday, August 20, 2016

What new Camp Lawton dig director wants to learn about Union POWs, Rebel guards

Ryan McNutt
Ryan McNutt found that when one door closes, a really cool one opens.

The conflict archaeologist’s teaching contract at the University of Glasgow was coming to an end late last year. McNutt had earned his master’s degree and doctorate at the UK university and while in Europe had done research on the locations of battlefields from the Middle Ages. Through the school's Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, McNutt had helped excavate a World War I site (Somme in France) and others from World War II (Stalag Luft III in Poland and aircraft crash sites in Scotland).

McNutt, 33, ran across a job posting back in the States. Georgia Southern University in Statesboro was looking for an assistant professor of anthropology. Duties include overseeing the school’s Camp Lawton project.

“Lawton was the main thing that attracted me to the job,” said McNutt, who will oversee GSU research and archaeological excavations at the Confederate prison site a few miles north of Millen.

The camp broke into the news in 2010 when federal, state and campus officials announced that its location had been confirmed and it was already yielding a trove of artifacts.

But there’s been no activity on the site in more than a year. McNutt’s predecessor, Lance Greene, took a position at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, after the summer 2015 field school.

Excavation at Camp Lawton (Courtesy of Hubert Gibson)

For McNutt, who worked on projects in the U.S. Southeast before going abroad, serving as the Lawton director is an opportunity to continue Greene’s work and explore some of his own questions about the prison, which was open for only six weeks in fall 1864.

“Preservation is so bad on U.S. Civil War prison sites, especially Confederate ones,” said the Alabama native. But not at Camp Lawton. Archaeologists have been helped by the remote location of the stockade and relatively minor disturbances of the soil.

McNutt told the Picket about some of his objectives:

-- Prisoner of war camps are “excellent places to hide contraband, personal items you are not supposed to have. If you are rousted in camp, left on a train early in the morning, as they were (at Lawton) those are the kinds of things that are to be left behind.” McNutt wants to know whether some of the shelter areas include digging tools, stashes of forbidden resources or items used in trade with guards. “That leads back to what are these guys doing to cope with aspects of confinement and how are they resisting. How are they mentally resisting the fact they are stuck here in this camp.” Contraband, McNutt said, can be “a relatively powerful victory.”

-- He wants to document how the 10,000 Union soldiers divided themselves up. The men were to be grouped by regiments and companies. “That is the official standpoint of Confederacy.” But there are good indications that at nearby Andersonville (Camp Sumter), there was internal sorting by ethnicity. European coins or tokens have been found at Camp Lawton and it is known there were many prisoners of Irish descent.

Friendship ring found at Lawton (Courtesy of Georgia Southern U.)

-- McNutt wants to learn more about how prisoners used the space available to them. It was a cold, wet autumn and hundreds died. Getting the perspective from the fort (Confederate) side of the camp will allow students to ascertain places that could not be seen by guards.

Over three years, Greene and his students worked on confirming the location of the stockade walls and spent a lot of time in the prisoner area, uncovering a communal brick oven and a dwelling hut. They excavated what is believed to be a Confederate officers’ barracks, but were not able to identify other Rebel portions of the site, including where the enlisted men lived.

Greene told the Picket last summer that a big focus of the Camp Lawton project is understanding the difference in the quality of life and the relationship between prisoners and guards. McNutt concurs.

“There is no glass or ceramics in the prison area. They are having to do with tin cups,” Greene said. “The Confederacy is giving them nothing and they are getting bad cuts of meat if they get anything at all. A tin cup was used for water and to eat soup. They have nothing else. They reused items, railroad piece and metal scrap.

McNutt said he, too, will concentrate on the precise locations of Federal and Confederate structures, including the stockade. He wants to find and excavate potential corners.

Brass keg tap (Courtesy of Georgia Southern U.)

The presumed Confederate barracks “is in the gray area.” Artifacts fit the time period. “They are of a high-quality enough goods they were likely from the kind of stuff the officers would have had around them.” Accounts by Union prisoner Robert Knox Sneden indicate that the area should have been surrounded by kitchens, cookhouses and cabins.

McNutt said conflict or battle archaeology can be tough. The 1745 Battle of Prestonpans in Scotland was over in hours. But such locations, where activity occurred in a single day or over a few weeks, can provide exciting research opportunities, he said.

“It is such a short burst of activity; they are almost perfect time capsules. You get these really nice frozen moments in time. The occupation is so short you can tie this down to specific weeks. Sometimes to specific regiments. I think there is a lot of that at Camp Lawton.”

So a relatively short time capsule may demonstrate how the prisoners coped with food shortages, boredom and loneliness.

McNutt expects to meet next month with Georgia and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologists about objectives and research designs for the next phase of archaeology. (A portion of the prison is in Magnolia Springs State Park and the remainder is on the fenced site of an old federal fish hatchery.)

Barracks excavation a couple of years ago (Courtesy of Georgia Southern U.)

The Camp Lawton director would like to see the earth turned again sometime in 2017 and a campaign launched to renew public interest. “When exactly that starts is kind of up in the air.”

McNutt has written what he loves about archaeology: “Researching the past, thinking about the way people interact with each other, how we use objects, and objects use us. How we create the present from the past, and craft national and group identities from these created pasts. And how as archaeologists, we can pick these themes apart.

He’s conscious of Camp Lawton’s ties to other prison sites in Georgia, including Blackshear and Thomasville. Lawton was evacuated during Sherman’s March to the Sea and prisoners were sent elsewhere. “I see all three of those sites interlinked. They are all part of the same story. Camp Lawton can inform on them and Thomasville and Blackshear can inform back to Camp Lawton.”

McNutt also wants to restore public days at Magnolia Springs. Visitors can help in the archaeology on certain weekends and visit a Camp Lawton museum just yards away.

“I believe archaeology … should exist for education of my students and education of the public at large,” he said.

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