Follow @listofsurprises Revisiting Camp Lawton
My name is Kate, and I am a historical sight-seeing junkie. I’ve admired bed pans in 18th century homes, teared up at the sight of John Adams’s library, packed turkey sandwiches in paper bags decorated like turkeys for a day at Plimoth Plantation, mentally planned the elaborate parties I will totally figure out a way to host at the Newport mansions (keep your eyes peeled for an e-vite), watched in horror as a pair of Midwestern tourists insisted on rifling through the drawers in Woodrow Wilson’s house, and posed for awkward photographs with historical re-enactors at Mount Vernon.
I get a kick out of standing in the same spot where Thomas Jefferson dreamed up the Declaration, drinking my coke on the lawn where Teddy Roosevelt rough-housed with his kids, or preventing my friends from please God going home already in the same spot where Puritan children were prevented from please God going home already during the third hour of their Sunday sermon. There’s something about seeing where history happened that makes its stories seem real, be they sad, inspiring, or both. Thanks to Georgia Southern University grad student Kevin Chapman, I have a new sight to add to my travel list. With the help of a team of archaeologists, he has begun to excavate a miraculously intact Confederate POW camp.
No aspect of the Civil War was pretty, but the treatment of prisoners on both sides stands out as a particularly ugly facet of the conflict. POW’s were malnourished, poorly clothed, exposed to the elements, and plagued by disease. Nowhere were these bad conditions more apparent than at Andersonville, VA’s Camp Sumpter. Designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, the camp’s numbers had swelled to over 30,000 by 1863. Prisoner photos reveal emaciation similar to that seen at concentration camps, and almost 13,000 Union soldiers died during their miserable time at the camp. "As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. "Can this be hell?" "God protect us!" and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place,” wrote one survivor.
Those who did make it out alive did not necessarily find freedom. As it began to look increasingly likely that the Union would overtake Virginia, thousands of Andersonville prisoners were re-located to other Confederate camps in the fall of 1864. That September, roughly 10,000 men left Andersonville with the belief that they were being released in a prisoner exchange. When they reached their destination 150 miles away, they were devastated to find themselves at the gate of yet another camp. “We were ordered out of the cars, and marching a few rods, came in sight of another of those hateful Stockades, which seemed to be as natural products of the Sterile sand of that dreary land as its desolate woods and its breed of boy murderers and gray-headed assassins,” wrote Union soldier John McElroy.
The 42-acre camp in Millen, GA had been hastily constructed to house the displaced Andersonville prisoners. It offered its new inhabitants familiar sorrows and new struggles. While Andersonville had been marked by unbearable heat, the fall brought biting cold to Camp Lawton. John Vaughter recalled laying his quilt down on the bare ground to sleep, nothing but “the cold gray mists of a November night” above his head. “Thousands lay about us who had not even the comfort that we derived from our quilt, but chilled and shook the night away, with nothing but a ragged shirt and pants to shield their starving bodies," he wrote. "We ought have been thankful, but we were not.” He was horrified by the “thousand naked backs, turning purple in the cold.” No shelters were provided for the prisoners. The men constructed their own “shebangs” out of whatever meager materials they had or could scavenge.
Vaughter was disheartened by the fact that the Union didn’t seem to be in a hurry to negotiate prisoners’ release. “There seemed to be no prospect of escape,” he wrote. “The prospect of staying alive in there was about as hopeless.” He was right. The camp lasted a mere six weeks, with Sherman’s approach closing Lawton’s gates in just November. That short period of time was long enough to cause the death of roughly one in ten of Lawton’s prisoners, their lives cut short by disease, starvation, and cold.
Those who survived were mostly relocated back to Andersonville, to Savannah, or to camps in South Carolina. When Sherman’s men found the camp’s remains that winter, they were horrified by the evidence of gross mistreatment. They described it as “foul and fetid,” full of “miserable hovels, hardly fit for swine to live in.” The outraged troops burned Camp Latwon to the ground.
While Andersonville’s horrors have been well-documented and remembered, Camp Lawton’s short lifespan relegated it to the shadows of Civil War history. In 1939, Magnolia Springs State Park was constructed on its site. While the location of the camp was remembered, experts assumed there were no artifacts to bother searching for. Last year, Georgia Southern anthropology professor Sue Moore suggested that Kevin Chapman look into the site. As he began to dig, he discovered what has been hailed as the most pristine Civil War find in decades. While only 1% of the camp has been excavated thus far, it has already yielded over 200 artifacts. Here’s just a small sample: a penny, bullet, pipe, clasp, knapsack hook, fork, piece of jewelery, and bronze star.
Chapman, an army vet, is fascinated by the camp. “It’s the story of the men who didn’t write it down,” he said. “It’s the story of the men who went home and went on with their lives.” As digs continue, the story will continue to reveal itself. While the prison camp was the place of unbelievable suffering, it’s pretty amazing to see the the ways its inhabitants managed to survive in the face of all odds.
I'm leaving- leaving!- on a midnight train to Georgia.
Derden, John K. “Camp Lawton.” Georgia Southern University. http://www.georgiasouthern.edu/camplawton/index.php/about
Gast, Phil. “Major Archeological Find at Site of Civil War Prison.” CNN. 17 August 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/08/14/georgia.civil.war.camp/?hpt=T2
Giles, William. Disease, Starvation, and Death: Personal Accounts of Camp Lawton. http://books.google.com/books?id=EJ29J5TwkNgC&pg=PA9&dq=%22camp+lawton%22&hl=en&ei=FHxwTOGxJcOclgfmj9nlDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false
Prann, Elizabeth. “Civil War History Disovered.” Fox News. 20 August 2010. http://liveshots.blogs.foxnews.com/2010/08/20/civil-war-history-discovered/#
Vaughter, John B. Prison Life in Dixie: Giving a Short History of the Inhuman and Barbarous Treatment of our Soldiers by Rebel Authorities. Chicago: Central Book Concern, 1880. http://books.google.com/books?id=9g3VAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA126&dq=%22camp+lawton%22&hl=en&ei=cXdwTJe1GIT7lwePj42uDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CF4Q6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=%22camp%20lawton%22&f=false