Archaeology students trying to learn more about a Confederate prison that operated for less
than two months in southern Georgia are exploring where Federal soldiers were
held captive, and they’ve thus far turned up buckles, nails, a Rebel musket
ball and intriguing turtle remains.
Nails may have had multiple uses, a Federal trouser buckle (Camp Lawton Archaeological Project)
Georgia Southern University Associate Professor Ryan McNutt said this season’s dig on the site of Camp Lawton began in January and will go through April or early May. This is the first time the project has been on the Federal side of the stockade since 2014.
Hundreds of POWs died at Lawton during its brief existence in fall 1864. Prisoners were shuttled among several Southern prisons, most notably Andersonville as Union forces advanced on Savannah. The camp was built near Millen; a portion lies within Magnolia Springs State Park and the rest is on the grounds of a former federal fish hatchery.
Since the announcement in 2010 of the discovery of the Lawton site, GSU has studied several areas to get a better understanding of prisoner and guard life. McNutt responded this month to a series of questions from the Civil War Picket. His responses have been edited.
Q. One (Facebook) post said a prime focus is the sutler's cabin. Was it within the prison area (where Federal soldiers roamed)? What does the record say about the cabin, its purpose and operation? Why would you like to find evidence of the cabin?
A. The sutler cabin seems to have been across the stream
from the gate, and directly in line with it on the main west-east running road
(in modern cardinal directions, not Robert Knox Sneden's). The record is
frustratingly quite vague.
Sutler cabin (top) at Camp Sumter/Andersonville (Library of Congress)
We know there was one, as there was at Andersonville (photo above, log structure with slanted roof), as POWs discuss it.
Sneden (see Union POW’s drawing below of Camp Lawton) seems to place it in the same general location, though in at least several instances he places it on opposite sides of the road leading to the bridge.
at Andersonville seems to have been a James Selman Jr., followed by a James
Duncan, who may have been a Confederate guard and was possibly replaced again
by a James Selman. One of these individuals likely ran the sutler's
(cabin) at Camp Lawton. They were authorized by the prison commandants to sell
to the prisoners authorized items. From their stories, prisoners with
money that they were able to hang on to, or make, could buy eggs, flour, bacon,
cornbread, beans, baking soda, and blackberries; soap, shaving equipment,
clothing, tobacco, tobacco pipes, cigars, reading material, and so on -- for
eyewatering prices that were much higher than regular marker prices. Examples:
Fifty cents an egg, six dollars for a pound of bacon, and 25 cents a spoon for
Detail of Sneden's drawing shows sutler cabin, police area in center (Library of Congress)
We're looking for evidence of the cabin as part of a graduate student's thesis work, which is focused on shadow and underground economies inside prison camps. As one of the only sources of goods coming into the prison, it's like the sutler's cabin was the center point of much of the legal and illegal trade between prisoners, guards and prisoners and the sutler.
We're hoping to find evidence of this in the material culture around the cabin, to get an idea of how heavily trafficked and used it may have been. Sneden certainly seems to imply the area around the cabin was always crowded.
Q. What else are the students
concentrating on this spring?
Students sift through soil (Camp Lawton Archaeological Project)
A. Essentially, just the area around the bank on the west side of the stream. Interestingly, while Sneden shows it lightly occupied, he does show an area of shebangs labeled 'Police' with no explanation, as well as potentially a chapel, though this might be reading too much into Sneden's maps and images.
We're also getting a better idea of how densely the camp was occupied, where we have evidence of POW activity, and in a very real way, the extent of past impacts on the site during its transition from timberland to state and then federal fish hatchery, and CCC work.
We used Lidar data to pinpoint potential anomalies that might be the sutler's cabin, and the students are learning how to locate those on the ground, test them and get an understanding that even with the most accurate technology you can get, archaeologists still have to dig to confirm our guess of flat areas and odd shapes that show up in Lidar.
Q. Can you briefly summarize what has been learned thus far in this field school? And what more you want to work on for the remainder of this session.
Q. So far we've got clear indications of a lightly occupied area of the stockade, and our current grid is likely just off of where the sutler’s cabin should be, but we have another area just west that might have more promise. We're working from our known to our unknown, from areas that were lightly tested in the past to areas that the project has never looked at before. We're almost finished with our current grid, which has clearly showed some POW occupation. Turtle bones and shells (left) possibly came from a hearth, and we have a few other spots that might be POW shelters. We'll explore these with test units, and we'll establish another area over our area of interest that might be closer to the sutler's cabin and the main road.
But we also clearly have empty spots, with no artifacts at all that seem to indicate the presence of roads and paths shown on the plan created by the Confederates as the camp was being built, and Sneden's water colors.
Q. Social media photos by the project show numerous buckles -- trousers, knapsack or elsewhere. Are these believed to be from Union POWs? What about the iron nails --- suspected use for them?
A. So far, we have one whole and one partial trouser buckle, as well as three that are likely haversack or knapsack buckles. We also have some different files -- metal and wood working, that seem to have been fairly degraded when they were dropped. As well as one piece of ceramic and some fragments of glass bottles. One of which was likely a pickle or sauce bottle. These were all probably dropped by POWs. The trouser buckles are standard issue on several Federal trouser types, and the buckles match Federal issued equipment. While this isn't to say they are absolutely from POWs, the Confederates present at the camp do not seem to ever have been issued anything close to uniform items.
Some of the iron nails (right) are interesting, in that they fall into two groups. A couple (of them) are big enough to be structural and used to pin the corners of wooden structures together. Most, however, are of the size to come from express boxes (like those used on US Sanitary Commission aid boxes), and may represent the distribution of this material to the POWs, who are then repurposing the boxes.
The nails may have just been dropped -- most of them seem to have been pulled and bent, and aren't modified in any clear way. But we haven't done a full analysis yet.
We've also found a host of unknown items, and some personal effects such as what is possibly part of a match safe, and maybe even a cigar case.
[An] unexpected moment was one of our artifacts that is also the most puzzling. An iron strap with copper rivets, and a hinge on one side, and a threaded rod on the other, it still has preserved leather around several of the rivets. And it looks as though whatever it is, it may be period.
(The GSU team also found what appears to be a spent Confederate bullet. The Picket will have a separate article about this soon.)
|Cast copper alloy buckle with iron tongue (Camp Lawton Project)|
Q. Anything else readers might want to know?
A. I'd be interested in being contacted by anyone who might have an ancestor inside the stockade who left any memories, or anyone with photos of Magnolia Springs State Park and the stream going back to the CCC activity. Individuals are also always welcome to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions, and I'll get back as soon as I can. They're also welcome to stop by the site, even if we're not running a public day. (The GSU team usually is on site Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during this field school.)
COMING SOON: Recovered Confederate bullets at Camp Lawton raise questions about how often and why guards fired upon prisoners there, at Andersonville and other sites.