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Radar Helps With Search For Georgia Prison Stockade

Deborah Fitts

(July 2007) MILLEN, Ga., - The exact location of Camp Lawton, a vast Confederate prison camp built to replace Andersonville, may slowly come to light under the eye of ground-penetrating radar.

Bill Giles, park manager at Magnolia Springs State Park, has invited a crew from the Georgia Department of Transportation to employ their specialized equipment on park grounds. The crew had previously done some work at Andersonville.

"The location of the prison is known generally," said Giles, and there is a 1-acre earthen guard fort that still stands on a hill overlooking the prison site. The fort features 10-foot walls and several exterior works.

But while the Official Records includes preconstruction plans for Camp Lawton, the exact whereabouts of the vast wooden stockade has never been known. The largest stockade in the South during the Civil War, it was built, held prisoners and was precipitously abandoned in four short months - August to November 1864.

The staggering death rate at Andersonville precipitated the call for Camp Lawton, according to Giles. By the summer of 1864 Confederate officials "knew they had to do something."

The first prisoners moved into Camp Lawton in October. Most came by rail from Andersonville, 150 miles distant. Built to hold 40,000, Lawton held a little over 10,000 men when the advance of Sherman's army forced the evacuation.

Giles said the impetus to locate the prison was provided by the book Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey, published in 2000. It features the diary, drawings and paintings of Union mapmaker and artist Robert Knox Sneden. Among the wartime experiences that Sneden recorded were those during his stay at Camp Lawton, where he worked outside the stockade as a paroled prisoner, helping the Confederate surgeons in the hospital and keeping the death record.

Giles said the drawings and information about Camp Lawton provided by Sneden prompted renewed interest in locating the site. Among the mysteries waiting to be solved is the record indicating that 500 prisoners died at Camp Lawton, while Sneden himself recorded 1,330 names.

"There's the possibility that there's an unexcavated burial trench here," Giles concluded.

The dead prisoners were originally buried at Camp Lawton, but after the war they were removed for reburial at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina.

Ground-penetrating radar has been used at Camp Lawton three times, starting in the fall of 2005. So far the crew has discovered a line "which could very possibly have been the stockade wall," and, last winter, they identified a "square feature" that could be the prison gate.

As the radar device is rolled over the surface it records anomalies in the soils beneath without disturbing the ground.

Magnolia Springs State Park, about 45 miles southwest of Augusta, attracts from 100,000 to 150,000 visitors a year, according to Giles. It includes a 1-mile historic trail in the fort area and a small museum and film focusing on Camp Lawton. Giles himself published a book of prisoner reminiscences that is available at the park.

Meanwhile, Giles is hoping that the ground-penetrating radar will help unlock more of Camp Lawton's secrets.

The Department of Transportation crew will eventually return for another go, he said, but no date has been set. "We kind of get them to do this in their spare time," he explained.

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