Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Camp Lawton artifacts: Will they help answer questions about guards and prisoners?

One of two brass harmonica reeds found at Lawton (GSU)
Cruel? Indifferent? Empathetic?

Those are some of the questions archaeology students in Georgia have pondered regarding the Confederate officers and soldiers who guarded over 10,000 Union prisoners for six weeks in late 1864.

This past summer’s Georgia Southern University field school at Camp Lawton yielded even more Civil War treasures that will give voice to Americans long gone.

A friendship ring, brass harmonica reeds, a keg tap and glass fragments from bottles – among many other items -- have been added to the collection of hundreds of artifacts found at the site, located in a portion of Magnolia Springs State Park and an adjoining federal fish hatchery near Millen, Ga.

Friendship ring found in likely Confederate area (GSU)
Students worked on the possible location of the Confederate officers’ quarters, or barracks, and got a closer look at two sites home to “shebangs” -- the improvised structures made of cloth and other materials and used by Union POWs at Andersonville (Camp Sumter) and Lawton.

They also exposed several trenches where the stockade once stood. 

“The preservation in the stockade trenches is really amazing,” said Lance Greene, an assistant professor of anthropology who oversees the Lawton project for Georgia Southern. “Even where the posts have rotted out, we have dark stains in the ground, where the organic material has rotted out.”

Officials are particularly excited about upcoming digs at the shebangs and what they might say about life in camp. 

Excavation in what may have been Confederate barracks (GSU)
And a museum will allow visitors to Magnolia Springs State Park to learn more about the site.

The Magnolia Springs History Center is expected to open in early 2014, said Dustin Fuller, site manager of the state park. Visitors will be see rotating artifacts, audio/visual presentations, a medical kit, lists of soldiers and a reproduction of a shebang.

It’s way too early to make firm conclusions on the exact conditions the foes faced, but it’s known that disease, hunger and unusually cold and moist conditions that year exacted a toll, with 700 or more prisoners dying before they were shipped off in the middle of the night to other Confederate prisons.

“We focused a lot on where the Union soldiers were, but looking at how Confederate soldiers were living will help determine what it was like there,” said participant Megan Kise. “It is very early (in the studies), but I feel that the Confederates probably lived pretty decently…. (but) probably not that great.”

Glass, bottle fragments
The ongoing work at the preserved site provides an opportunity to help answer questions raised by soldiers and scholars.

 “(We are) comparing this question of what were the prisoners lives’ like compared to the Confederate soldiers who were guarding them?” said Greene. “Were Confederates intentionally abusing and mistreating, or were they doing the best they could with limited resources?”

Camp Lawton expert John Derden said the guards, many reservists with limited training, did not have an easy task.

“I am sure there were monsters who were guards, and I am sure there were those who were sympathetic.”

Andersonville’s “big little sister”

Don Perkins, who lives within a couple miles of the state park, said his grandmother’s much older brothers would visit Camp Lawton during its brief existence.

“When they were children they would slip off to the fort and take them bags of food and hand it to them (the prisoners),” Perkins, 79, told the Civil War Picket recently.

Perkins, an amateur historian, said of the prisoners: “Most of them were almost dead when they got there from Andersonville.”

But he argued, prisons in the North we no better.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Overcrowded conditions at the infamous Andersonville prison camp and Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's March to the Sea put pressure on the Confederacy to move POWs to other sites. Andersonville at one time held more than 30,000 Union soldiers.

Brig. Gen. John Winder looked to Millen, which had a railroad line that could carry people and supplies. He moved a large portion of Andersonville's POWs, some 10,000 men, to Camp Lawton, where they had more more space, better sanitation and fresh water. But conditions deteriorated rapidly.

“I describe Lawton as Andersonville’s big little sister. It shows the [Confederate] prison command is learning the lessons of this place,” says Eric Leonard, chief of interpretation at Andersonville National Historic Site.

Lawton was not as clear cut of trees as Andersonville and Winder built ovens for prisoners. The Confederates also made it more difficult for tunneling or escapes by setting the “dead line” at 30 feet at Lawton, as opposed to 15 feet for Andersonville. Prisoners who crossed that line between their primitive living area and the stockade wall would be shot.

“Guards and POWs don’t typically know each other on a first-hand basis,” said Derden, professor emeritus at East Georgia College.

By and large, he said, Union soldiers had genuine disregard for their Confederate captors. ”They often describe the guards as ignorant fools and they like to tell stories of how they fooled them.”

Guards and POWs did trade items, even though they were not supposed to. 

POW shebangs at Andersonville (Library of Congress)
It’s known that Winder did not like the reserve units he depended on by this late part of the war, thinking they were not capable soldiers.

Union prisoner Robert Knox Sneden kept a journal and made illustrations of his experiences at Andersonville, and later, Lawton. 

“Sneden has disdain for Confederate administrations, but when he sat around with the guards, he found them to be good-natured,” according to Derden.

“Sometimes the guards felt they were doing a task that was thankless,” said Derden. “Being a prison guard is not a very glorious thing. Family doesn’t want to hear about that. They want to hear about Pickett’s Charge.”

Did Confederate officers enjoy amenities?

Early on, the food was better at Millen than at Andersonville. But that, too, went downhill.

The ravenous prisoners had about a half dozen ovens for cooking for 10,000 men. They weren’t often used for their purpose. Some were used as sleeping spots, while others were pilfered by prisoners to support their huts.

Keg tap found in possible Confederate barracks area (GSU)
A civilian sutler inside the stockade “supposedly did a really good business,” said Greene. POWS fortunate to have money could buy pies, meats and potatoes.

Guard H.C. Harris complained about poor rations. 

“The officers probably had their own wherewithal and could secure food from local plantations,” said Derden.

The Lawton project believes it has found evidence that showed Confederate officers may have enjoyed that kind of comfort. Students worked on what’s believed to be the officer’s quarters, or barracks, but that not has been confirmed, says Greene, adding the building also was used after the war, up to about 1880.

A map by Sneden showed a large two-story frame house in the middle of the officer’s quarters.

“We discovered that the part of the site has never been plowed and that is pretty exciting,” says Greene. “We immediately came up material with a Civil War encampment of some kind.”

Flattened brass cylinder's exact use is unknown (GSU)
Discoveries included portions of thick, undecorated dishes -- durable china consistent with 1860s. Sherds of ironstone, some about 4 inches long, indicated large platters and other serving ware were used.

“By the 1860s, you have an expanded belief in cleanliness.” according to Greene. “People wanted to see that their dishes were clean and they started making these plain, white dishes.” 

The barracks site has yielded few military accoutrements, though brass boot heels could have belonged to an officer’s boots.

Excavated container glass includes rum and whiskey bottle fragments. “Officers and enlisted men are drinking a lot,” Greene told the Picket.

Researchers want to find the site where enlisted Confederates lived to see how they managed.

Prisoners made do with whatever they could find

Brig Gen. John Winder
Inside the prison, largely denuded of trees and cover, desperate Union soldiers made do with their few, hoarded belongings and any material that could provide shelter.

“There was very little in the stockade. For housing, they fended completely for themselves,” said Greene.

Prisoners used tree limbs, chunks of wood and clothing, blankets or tent halves to construct huts, or shebangs, which were dug into the ground and are discernible rectangles.

 “One shebang has a layer of bricks in one corner,” Greene said, indicating they were “borrowed” from one of the camp ovens.

The students have focused on exposing two of three identified shebangs located on the now-fenced and secured site of the federal fish hatchery.

Artifacts already have been found in the sandy soil, including part of a large folding knife and well-preserved animal bones.

“We want to know what they were eating. They were so starved they were burning animal bones and consuming bone meal,” according to Greene.

Experts say Camp Lawton is a remarkable site for artifacts, given its remote location and the fact the land has been government property for more than 80 years.

Sherman’s troops raced toward Camp Lawton in late November 1864, but arrived too late to stop the transfer of POWs to other Confederate prison sites in the closing months of the war. 

“These prisoners were awoken in the middle of the night and were marched away,” says Greene. “A lot of material was likely left behind. “It is a good thing for me, but it was a terrible thing for them.”

Magnolia Springs History Center will open in early 2014
Troopers saw a couple of bodies in the camp, perhaps victims of hypothermia, and after seeing the conditions at the camp they burned it to the ground, leaving evidence of burned wood in stockade trenches and campsites.

“Union soldiers see this horrible site, some bodies unburied and they burned a lot of the structures,” said Greene.

Not so easy to compare prisons in North, South 

Scholars have long debated the relative conditions at Northern and Southern prison camps. Neither side was prepared for a mass of prisoners, and the situation worsened when exchanges dropped steeply in the middle of the war.

“We dehumanize the people we consider our enemy and opposition. That is happening on both sides,” said Leonard, of Andersonville National Historic Site.

He argues observers should compare Southern prisons to Southern prisons, and Northern to Northern.

Each side had very different logistics, supplies and management systems for their prisons, according to Leonard.

The top-down, heavily centralized Confederate system led to the disaster at Andersonville, built to relieve a site in Richmond, Va. There was just one problem. Andersonville was built to house the same number of prisoners as Richmond – 10,000 – but had more than 30,000 at one point living in squalor. Almost 13,000 captives died at Andersonville died over 14 months. 

Main exhibit room at future state museum (Ga. DNR)
People should consider the scale and size of an operation, Leonard advised.

The North’s Elmira, New York, prison had a population of about 12,000 – about the number of dead alone at Andersonville. But its death rate of 24 percent wasn’t appreciably better than Andersonville’s 29 percent.

Leonard said Winder is portrayed as a “callous” or “invisible” villain who would have been prosecuted after the war for his role in overseeing Andersonville and Lawton had he survived. 

Confederate Maj. Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville, was tried on charges of conspiracy and murder and hanged. Defenders said he was a scapegoat for conditions he could not control.

Derden, author of the recent book “The World’s Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton,” said conditions at Camp Lawton “reflect abilities and disabilities of the Confederacy in the last days of the war effort.” 

There were not sufficient rations.

“Toward the end of its existence, the soldiers were suffering pretty badly.”

Union POW’s diaries and accounts have told a large part of their side of the story. But researchers also want to learn more about the daily lives and quarters for the enlisted Confederates who guarded over them.

“There are dozens of prisoner accounts that were published and republished … they paint this picture of intentional Confederate abuse, lack of any kind of support or empathy by soldiers and officers,” said Greene.

Confederate officials painted a different picture – that their soldiers suffered, too, and were limited by the Union blockade in providing adequate food and supplies for the prisoners.

“You have these two extreme sides that very rarely meet in the middle," said Greene

Thus far, the unbiased, scientific methods of archaeology have been unable to determine who is right, or whether the topic will remain steeped in shades of gray.

Still, observers say the Camp Lawton site will make for years of discovery of analysis.

Will all of the voices of the past be heard – the prisoners, the guards and the slaves that helped build the massive site?

Georgia Southern graduate Megan Kise, now a contract archaeologist, will be keeping up with her colleagues as they continue their work.

“I personally think that there is something more that Camp Lawton is ready to tell us. There are still many missing pieces.”

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