Monday, October 21, 2013

They had names: Students want to tell story of slaves who built Confederate prison camp

Slave market in nearby Louisville, Ga. (Library of Congress)
One survey and excavation at a time, often in hot and muggy weather, Hubert Gibson is trying to unearth a story that has yet to be fully told.

“Whenever we think of Civil War memory, they talk about Confederacy, the Union, prisoners and guards -- and not address slavery,” said Gibson.

Gibson and other students at Georgia Southern University are trying to learn more about all of those who played a part at Camp Lawton, a Confederate prison camp north of Millen in east-central Georgia. 

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. 

Hubert Gibson at work at Camp Lawton site in Georgia
While prisoner accounts, mostly notably of Robert Knox Sneden, were published, almost nothing is known of  the slaves who helped build the huge stockade and other buildings.

Records on Lawton are scant or non-existent, including any drawings that may have aided in its construction in the summer of and autumn of 1864.

No one knows for sure exactly how many slaves were used to build Camp Lawton. Most estimates are about 500. Their names are long lost to history.

“They are not actively talked about,” said Gibson, 24, a master’s student who was an archaeology field school supervisor on site this past summer. “They were part of this very large undertaking.”

The Atlanta Campaign by Union Maj. Gen William T. Sherman and his aim to march to Savannah put pressure on the Confederacy to build sites away from Andersonville.

Brig. Gen. John Winder and others looked to Millen, which had a railroad line that could carry prisoners and supplies.

Brig. Gen. Winder
“The factors included railroad, access, water, timber, land…. and the potential of an area where there are slaves, said John K. Derden, professor emeritus at East Georgia College.

When war broke out, Burke County had more than 12,000 slaves and a white population of fewer than 6,000 according to records. (The prison site these days is in Jenkins County, carved out of Burke in the early 20th century)

Plantation owners were very hesitant about hiring out slaves for the construction and operation of Camp Lawton. They feared disease from the weakened Union prisoners.

“They felt it was a dangerous situation,” said Derden, author of the recent book “The World’s Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton.”

Winder resorted to impressing slave labor, from Burke County and beyond. 

“He has these plantations dotting the landscape,” according to Lance Greene, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University.

It’s not known how or whether slaveholders were compensated.

POW Sneden's map of Lawton (Library of Congress)
As the story goes, a family with more than 100 slaves near Camp Lawton did not receive a penny. 

Area resident Don Perkins, whose ancestors owned some slaves, believed that might have been the widow of prominent citizen Batt Jones.

Perkins, 79, lives in a community of the same name just north of Magnolia Springs State Park, the boundaries of which contain much of the site.

The retired advertising executive and historian and the local historical society could not recall the names of direct descendants of slaves who built the camp. “It is really hard to trace the slaves,” said Perkins.

“I have never known them (local African-Americans) to ever say their family worked building Fort Lawton,” Perkins recently told the Picket.

Perkins said his ancestors came to Burke County in 1800 from Wilmington, N.C. Cotton indeed was king.

Stockade feature
The slave population soared after the invention of the cotton gin, he said. “It was a very rich area with a lot of culture.”

Two Perkins men started a lumber company across from Magnolia Springs and supplied products for the Confederacy.

Derden echoed comments from others about the dearth of records about the slaves and was unaware of any oral histories. “I have not done a real hard search for that kind of material.”

About 300 Union prisoners are believed to have aided in the construction of Lawton, which was in operation for a scant six weeks.

Georgia Southern students studied three sections of the stockade trench. Much of the camp was burned by angry Union soldiers who found the camp empty after prisoners were evacuated.

A couple logs were found many years ago in the springs, and the digs over the past few years have yielded some small sections of post and many areas in the sediment that show signs of fire.

“Construction methods are very well done and planned out,” said Greene.

Courtesy of Hubert Gibson
Thousands of tall posts made of yellow pine – up to 20 to 25 feet long -- were placed 6 feet deep into the sand and clay soil on the side of trenches up to 4 feet wide. The posts were backfilled very tightly so they would not push out, increasing escape risks.

The stockade wall was one mile all the way around.

“This was not a small little camp the Confederacy threw together,” said Greene.

Of course, Camp Lawton is not the only place where slaves were used to build structures or fortifications for the South. In Georgia alone, they were used to build much of the defenses at Kennesaw Mountain and the so-called River Line just north of Atlanta, along the Chattahoochee River.

Gibson has studied construction techniques at Andersonville and Camp Ford, a Civil War prison in Tyler, Texas

Gibson at Blackshear, another Georgia Civil War
At Lawton, the builders used areas of clay in the area to buttress the stockade walls in what was normally sandy soil.

“They had a method or process for what they are doing. They were really thinking this through,” said Gibson. “You want to do it right because there could be a danger of post collapsing.”

Confederate officers probably had stronger POWs as part of the work crews. “Slaves were accustomed to doing these things every day of their lives,” according to Gibson.

The student, who grew up in Harriman, Tenn., west of Knoxville, has had an interest in the Civil War and slave history.

“Why not try to combine the two to try to interpret the life of slaves?” he told the Picket. “They were important as laborers for both sides. Some were forced or volunteered to work on fortifications or build roads.”

Sneden, the Union prisoner, mentioned gambling with slaves in his journals, according to Gibson, and there are some documents indicating slaves disregarded escape attempts.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division has no specific information on slaves at Lawton.

"We know that they were involved in building Camp Lawton  ... and that they drove wagons carrying food into the prison, but that is about all that is known," said DNR preservation specialist Debbie L. Wallsmith.

Courtesy of Hubert Gibson
"We also have very few specifics about the CSA soldiers who worked at the prison. I would love to hear from people who had family members associated with the prison so I can tell their story."

Gibson said the slaves also helped cook and build Confederate officer quarters.

He and others have been looking for remains of meals slaves might have consumed during stockade construction, but so found have found nothing in the trenches. Gibson has found no artifacts directly tied to slaves.

The grad student acknowledges the topic is an uncomfortable part of African-American history, but Camp Lawton shows that they are a vital piece of Civil War history.

“I think it provides a testament. The slaves were an active part of this process in building something so big. They were human, they were people. They were not just servants. They were thinking of this when they were digging it.”

Gibson said his thesis will be on stockade construction and interpreting the lives of slaves and prisoners.

Archaeology is a vital tool in telling those stories.

“It is important thing to bring to people’s awareness,” said Gibson. “Slavery is a nasty thing in our past, but in order to overcome and force this ghost in the past we have to face it.”

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