Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fascinating finds add to the story of Confederate prison camp in Georgia

Buckles found in the prisoner area ( U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Georgia Southern University. Click all photos to enlarge)

Lance Greene still remembers the smell of resin emanating from the Georgia pine posts.

A backhoe looking for evidence of a Civil War prison camp stockade exposed the remains of a half dozen posts last fall.

“They were just as solid as if you had gone out and cut a tree,” said Greene, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University. “Having done archaeology in the Southeast for decades, it really was one of the most overwhelming experiences I have had. You could just smell the pine.”

Greene, 49, is leading GSU students who are continuing their excavation of artifacts at Camp Lawton in Millen, Ga., and looking for evidence of Confederate barracks and other structures.

National and state archaeologists and officials nearly three years ago announced what they called the discovery of a trove of artifacts at the prison, which was only in existence for six weeks.

The site continues to live up to that billing, Greene told the Picket last week. Between 500 and 600 items belonging to prisoners – many of them clothing-related -- have been found, and more are expected to come in during the university’s summer field school.

Vertical stains of stockade posts (Ga. DNR/GSU)
Up to 10,000 Union men, most from the infamous Andersonville prison camp, were held at Lawton before they were moved elsewhere. Death estimates range from 685 to 1,330.

Greene spoke of several exciting developments for the project:

        --  A recently opened laboratory at Magnolia Springs State Park, home to much of the prison site, allows students to begin conservation of items immediately.

--- The remains of three prisoner huts intrigue archaeologists. “I want to get into these shebangs to find animal bones and seeds to see what kind of things they were eating,” said Greene.
      -- Researchers are working with a Statesboro animal hospital to X-ray metal artifacts to learn their status so that they can come up with a conservation plan.

-- The project is beginning to transition from a discovery phase to research that will more fully tell the story of Camp Lawton.

      -- Work was filmed by the PBS archaeology series “Time Team America.” No date has been set, but the program indicated it will probably be in the first half of 2014.

Camp Lawton was built to hold up to 40,000 prisoners and relieve Andersonville’s overcrowding. It never reached that level because its inhabitants were moved elsewhere when Union Gen. William T. 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.

While some of the camp was farmed over, the site is considered well-preserved.

Stepping up conservation efforts

Because archaeology is considered a destructive science, conserving items exposed to the air for the first time in 150 years is a challenge.

“The iron objects are starting to degrade,” said Greene.

A process called electrolysis, in which an electrical current runs through a solution holding artifacts, helps break up corrosion and saves the good metal.

 “Once we get the rust off and cleaned, we have to coat them with acrylic or different types of waxes to seal them air tight.”

In another conservation effort, Gateway Animal Hospital has done X-rays (right) of a dozen or few items.

“Some of the artifacts that we have discovered are extremely corroded which is making it difficult to identify what they are. The X-ray will enable us to clearly identify the shape of the artifact if the metal has not totally corroded away,” said Matt Newberry, a Georgia Southern graduate student working on the Camp Lawton project team.

X-rays of artifacts (GSU)
While a few items are on display at the university, officials hope some will be displayed at the Georgia state park.

Archaeologists have found manufactured and fashioned items that helped the prisoners during their daily existence: Buttons, pins, eating utensils and objects made from melted down bullets, including a pipe. “(A) tourniquet buckle is pretty overwhelming, showing the gritty everyday life people are living," said Greene.

Looking for the Confederates

Thus far, teams have found sections of the stockade trench. A major aim during the upcoming field school is finding remnants of the Confederate camp, including barracks, the commandant’s quarters, tools and trash.

The search is being aided by drawings by Union prisoner Robert Knox Sneden, but those structures have proven elusive. One drawing shoes a chimney on a building used by a Confederate surgeon.

 “We have very little material from Confederate encampments,” said Greene. “We haven’t definitely honed in.”

Several hundred guards served at Lawton, which was built by at least as many slaves. Not much is known about the latter.

“We really want to do more large excavation areas,” according to Greene. “We have located some important parts of the site.”

“We want to compare lives of these two sides, guards versus prisoners.”

How the prisoners lived

Stockade post remnant (Georgia DNR/GSU)
The area where prisoners lived is on the site of a former federal hatchery, and has been protected by tall fence and other measures since Lawton was rediscovered a few years ago.

“We get a lot of personal items that are pretty telling,” said Greene, noting remains of picture frames that held precious photos of family members.

Other items are decorative pieces of metal or portions of necklaces. “It brings it home that people are far removed from families, in a terrible situation, in a place far away,” he said.

Grocery coins from Columbus, Ohio, and other items from Europe are helping to give at least a basic picture of the prisoners’ backgrounds.

Prisoners, anxious to be protected from the cooling weather, dug about a foot into the ground. They then built structures above those foundations.

“You have different color sand and it is very compact with artifacts from the time period,” said Greene.

Archaeologists will be looking for food remains and other items inside them in order to reconstruct life at the prison. The three hut sites are well preserved.

Work that will continue for decades

Larger-scale excavations in the future will assist scholarly research.

“It really is amazing to me …. this has the potential to release a lot more material, especially metal artifacts, than anywhere I have worked for,” said Greene.

Company I pin and a nipple cover for gun (USFWS/GSU)
While many military installations drew civilians, such was not the case at the destroyed Camp Lawton. Its relative isolation and government ownership since the 1930s has helped keep its significance intact, although officials remain concerned about relic hunters.

“If we locate a barracks … we would have to excavate as much as possible during field school and remove the potential for looting,” said Greene.

The project allows the public to participate in occasional digs at the Civil War site, which totals 80 acres.

“We want to get across this idea that archaeology is more than digging up artifacts,” said Greene.

He’s interested in comparing Lawton to other prisoner sites in Georgia and in South Carolina.

“This site is unique in the sense that it is so well preserved, archaeologically,” said Greene. “It has incredible research potential.”

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