U.S. Prisoner Artifacts Found At Georgia Site; Camp Lawton Explored
By Scott C. Boyd
(October 2010 Civil War News)
MILLEN, Ga. – The site of Camp Lawton, a Union soldier prisoner-of-war camp near Millen, is “pristine,” according to East Georgia College Professor Emeritus of History Dr. John K. Derden.
Robert Knox Sneden painted this watercolor interior view of the Millen Prison’s Main Street with brick ovens. (Courtesy Virginia Historical Society, Mss5.1.Sn237.1.Vol6.0127.jpg)
On Aug. 18, the unexpected discovery of numerous artifacts from the camp was announced by Georgia Southern University and the two other major organizations involved.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) operates Magnolia Springs State Park, where the majority of Camp Lawton’s remains are.
The rest are in the adjacent Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers. The artifacts were found on this site.
The DNR commissioned the archeological work by Georgia Southern University which led to the discoveries.
The team is led by Georgia Southern graduate student J. Kevin Chapman. His faculty mentor, Professor of Anthropology Dr. Sue M. Moore, supervises Chapman and five other graduate students.
Derden, who is writing a book about Camp Lawton, said he was “adopted as the project historian” when he spoke with Chapman, a former student of his, about their mutual interest in the site.
Magnolia Springs State Park has long displayed informational signs about Camp Lawton being there. Earthworks from the fortifications that overlooked the 42-acre wooden prison stockade remain visible. The stockade disappeared over time.
The first serious archeological work at the site was done in 2005-2007 (see CWN July 2007). Nearby U.S. Route 25 was being widened. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) was used to determine if any historically-valuable land in the park would be disturbed by the upcoming road project, according to Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) archeologist Sara H. Gale.
“They had some down time,” former Magnolia Springs State park manager Bill Giles said of the GPR crew in a recent interview.
Because of the close working relationship between the DNR and DOT, the DOT officials agreed to scan the park for traces of Camp Lawton’s wooden stockade as a favor, said DOT’s Gale.
“We didn’t know exactly where the stockade was,” Giles said. The outline of the camp’s main gate may have been located under a parking lot in a 2006 scan, he said. The effort was not pursued after 2007.
Prof. Moore says the current archeological effort was initiated in the spring of 2009 when DNR Commissioner Chris Clark asked her to conduct a survey of Camp Lawton.
When Kevin Chapman told Moore he wanted to return to Georgia Southern for a master’s degree in anthropology, he recalls she said, “Great. I’ve got just the project for you.”
She described a little community service project at the park and hatchery. “There won’t be a whole lot to it because there’s not a whole lot there.”
The work began in December 2009. “We originally thought we would find features, things like the stockade walls and maybe the footing for the brick ovens, but we did not expect to find artifacts,” Moore said.
“We had pretty much assumed those were already gone. It turned out when we excavated they were not, in fact, gone.”
They were found in the spring on the hatchery side of the camp.
Chapman wrote on the project Web site: “We began to retrieve an amazing collection of artifacts proving that the site was of unexpected importance. The artifacts are not only visually impressive, but they also tell an incredible story individually and as a whole.”
He estimates they have found 350 artifacts so far. Some of them will go on display at the Georgia Southern University Museum Oct. 10.
A clay tobacco pipe with an improvised lead bowl is Chapman’s favorite artifact so far. “The idea of a lead bowl on a pipe is kind of baffling until you think that’s probably the only alternative that soldier had.”
A tourniquet buckle is one of Moore’s favorite finds, she said, “because it tells you a little about things that are going on there, whether it’s the medical care or whether it’s that somebody maybe had a tourniquet buckle that they reused to hold something else, we don’t know yet.”
She said it has preserved cloth in it. “That’s a real rare thing for us to be able to find.”
As far as Confederate prisons go, Camp Lawton was one-of-a-kind, according to Chapman. He said the Confederacy had 36 major prisons, 18 of which had stockades.
Camp Lawton is the only prison stockade with its remains intact, he said. The rest have been looted or ploughed over.
The camp’s 42-acre stockade was also the largest, exceeding the 26.5 acres at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Ga.
When constructed, the man who ordered it built, Confederate Brig. Gen. John H. Winder, wrote to his superior, “It is, I presume, the largest prison in the world.” (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II, Vol. VII, page 869.)
The impetus for the camp’s construction was to relieve the overcrowding at Andersonville.
Millen is in eastern Georgia near South Carolina, between Augusta and Savannah.
Camp Lawton work began after its site was selected by Captains D.W. Vowles and W.S. Winder, as noted in their Aug. 5, 1864, message to Gen. Samuel Cooper, Confederate Adjutant General. (Official Records, Series II, Vol. VII, page 546.)
Although some accounts claim it was named for Gen. Alexander Robert Lawton, the Confederate Quartermaster-General, “I always doubted that because no other prison stockade had ever been named for a person,” Chapman said.
Before the war, Lawton was president of a nearby railroad and founded Lawton Station, where the town of Lawton grew up, Chapman said. This is what the prison was named for, “indirectly for General Lawton, but directly for that town.”
The stockade surrounding the 42 acres where the Union prisoners would live was built so quickly that it was made of unhewn pine from a local forest, according to Giles, the former Magnolia Springs manager.
“They took everything wrong with Andersonville and tried to fix it with Camp Lawton,” he said. An example is the poor drainage at Andersonville compared with that at Lawton.
The prisoners arrived by train in the first week of October and left the same way on Nov. 22, 1864, Prof. Derden said, as Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army approached.
He hypothesizes many artifacts were left “because the prisoners were rousted out late at night without a chance to get all their belongings.”
Most of the prisoners were shipped to Florence, S.C. Some were sent back to Andersonville, which had just been evacuated.
There was even an attempt to liberate the prisoners. Derden said that historian Noah Andre Trudeau, in his book Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea, cites an account published in the National Tribune after the war about a flying column of Union cavalry that raided Camp Lawton, but found it abandoned.
The only headcount for the prison, dated Nov. 8, 1864, gives a total of 10,229 prisoners. Of those, 486 were said to have died there and 349 enlisted in the Confederate Army (with 285 of those working at the camp), leaving 9,394 imprisoned. (Official Records Series II, Vol. VII, pages 1113-1114.)
So much remains to be learned about Camp Lawton that Chapman expects research will continue for three or four decades.
One of the big mysteries is how many prisoners died there, Derden said. Besides the 486 dead in the Official Records report, the Union prisoner who kept the death register said there were between 900 and 1,300 dead.
That prisoner was artist Robert Knox Sneden. He turned his wartime sketches, including several of Camp Lawton, into watercolors after the war. They were published in the books Eye of the Storm (2000) and Images from the Storm (2001).
Another mystery Derden noted is the shape of the prison stockade. A drawing in the Official Records shows it nearly square, while two drawings by Sneden show it to be distinctly rectangular.
“Sneden was in several prison camps and I have the feeling he confuses some things,” Derden said.
Something no guest at Magnolia Springs State Park should be confused about is the prohibition against digging for artifacts.
Even possession of a metal detector on the property is illegal, much less using one, Chapman said.
Besides a fence, there are passive infrared tripwire cameras, ground-vibration sensors and other precautions Chapman declined to specify protecting the excavation site. “Very high-tech security measures” are in both in the park and the fish hatchery properties.
For information about the camp go to