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From the Director

“The ghostly pines there sigh over the unnoted graves of seven hundred boys, for whom life’s morning closed in the gloomiest shadows.”– John McElroy, Co. L, 16th Illinois Cavalry, November 1864

The story of Camp Lawton is a nexus for the various historical threads of the history of the American Civil War in Georgia, with its construction, use, and eventual abandonment tied to some of the most significant vignettes of the Georgia experience of the Civil War, from the Andersonville tragedy to Sherman’s march to the sea. And indeed, the POWs and the guards that occupied Camp Lawton are a microcosm of the experience of countless thousands of farmers, merchants, planters, and immigrants. Moreover, Camp Lawton, and other Civil War POW camps, are essential for understanding the historical and archaeological development and evolution of POW camps, as they represent the first permanently constructed and inhabited structures for housing prisoners of war, superseded only by the 1796-1814 camp at Norman Cross built by the British for French POWs from the Napoleonic Wars.

Indeed, at the outbreak of the war 1861, both sides were caught unprepared for the inevitable eventuality of POWS, as a result of the commonly held belief—as was the case for many wars—that it would be brief, and settled by Christmas of that same year. The thousands captured on the Union side alone at First Manassas (July 21st 1861) crushed this belief. An exchange system was established on July 22nd of 1862, alleviating the pressure of POWs on the resources of both sides. However, this system broke down within the year, with prisoner exchanges stopping in May 1863.

As a direct result of this stalemate, POW numbers increased on both sides, with the Confederacy holding around 50,000 prisoners by 1864, in unsecure, crowded facilities that were an alarming drain on Confederate resources, both in terms of manpower for guards, and supplies. Moreover, those facilities concentrated in the northern part of the Confederacy were a security risk, with the potential for mass escapes increasing in direct proportion to the number of POWs. In response, the Confederate government instituted plans to manage these issues, creating cheap, quickly constructed compounds in the form of log stockades enclosing an area in which the Union POWs would bivouac. Open to the elements, with poor sanitation, little in the way of supplies, medical care or subsistence, these rough log stockades were expedient solutions by a war time government against whom the tide of battle was beginning to turn, as each Confederate defeat strained scarce resources further.

Andersonville (Camp Sumter) resulted from these policies-by August of 1864, however, it held 33,000 men, three times its capacity. This directly led to the construction of what would be Camp Lawton began in August of 1864, with impressed slaves from the surrounding area building most, if not all, of what became a massive, sprawling complex consisting of earthen fortifications overlooking a huge stockade that enclosed 42 acres. In addition to the prisoners’ place of internment, support facilities were constructed for the Confederate guards, including a barracks, kitchens, hospitals for guards and POWs, and officers’ quarters. During the construction, attempts were made to alleviate some of the problems encountered at Andersonville and other camps, with a sluice for the proper disposal of human waste built into the Mill Spring Branch that bisected the stockade. Before the camp was even finished, the first Union POWs were moved into Camp Lawton from Andersonville on or about October 12th 1864.

However, as at Andersonville, food was reportedly still an issue, as attested to by multiple contemporary accounts from prisoners, with very little provided, consisting generally of coarse corn meal, little meat, and a lack of vegetables or fruit. The result were the various diseases of malnutrition, including scurvy. Furthermore, as at Andersonville, there was no shelter inside the stockade, with prisoners expected to construct their own from off cuts of pine and the various other construction detritus that littered the interior of the stockade. While initial arrivals reportedly made good use of such materials in constructing shelters, successive arrivals were literally out in the cold, with little clothing or shelter. The combination of malnutrition and exposure contributed to the high death toll at Camp Lawton, as the fall and winter were unusually and bitterly cold, with frost and snow reported. Perhaps mercifully however, the occupation was short lived; with the threat of Sherman’s force approaching from the northwest, the camp was abandoned on November 22nd.

Sherman’s army arrived at Millen in early December, and reportedly outraged at the state of the camp where many of their compatriots had been imprisoned, burned it and the nearby depot at Lawton to the ground. As a result, the narrative of POWs and Confederate guards still lies hidden, frozen in the soil just beneath the pines and grass of the modern park and fish hatchery.

Archaeological research is the key to unlocking these narratives, and answering the many of the questions that still haunt the experiences and history of both Confederate and Union POWs. Indeed, the integrity of the site’s archaeological record is arguably unique on a national scale–excepting Andersonville, and Johnson’s Island POW camps. Aside from these examples, the majority of Civil War-era POW camps—and indeed, POW and internment camps in general from the American Revolution to WWII—are poorly preserved, having been subject to the ravages of  development, and the heavy, shadowy hand of the relic collector.

As a result, Camp Lawton represents the significant preservation of a quickly vanishing aspect of the archaeological record; the archaeology of POWs has only recently begun to be investigated, with a rising tide of research and funding interest beginning in the last several years. In this respect, Camp Lawton is a significant and valuable heritage resource. It represents an ideal archaeological laboratory to ask questions about human behavior that still resonate with relevance in the modern world. Using scientific methods of archaeological excavation and analysis, we can address questions about prisoner treatment, interactions and relationships with guards, and many other issues. But the destructive nature of archaeological research also means we have an ethical responsibility to perform this research carefully, slowly, and methodically. Recording, mapping, and documenting all of our work is as equally important to telling the story of Camp Lawton as the excavations themselves. Indeed, this approach has uncovered substantial evidence showing day to day life at Camp Lawton as experienced by Confederate guards and Union POWs.

Successive excavations during Georgia Southern’s summer field schools has resulted in extensive public outreach and education, as well as uncovering several POW shelters, the remnants of three sections of the four stockade walls, and a potential Confederate camp site. Unearthed from these were deeply personal items—the frames from photos of loved ones, eating and clothing utensils—belonging to POWs, as well as military items from guards and POWs. Archaeology continues at Camp Lawton, investigating a frozen moment between August and November 1864, which has locked into the soil the stories and experiences of those who were guarded, and those who guarded them in the lonely Georgia pines as war raged ever closer.

This project is made possible with the strong support of multiple agencies and people; the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division has been an unceasing source of support since 2009, personified by Bryan Tucker. Similarly, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been a supportive and interested party in our research and its results, with Rick Kanaski as a supportive and cooperative representative of the USFWS. Last but not least, Georgia Southern University and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology have provided a massive level of institutional support. The project’s first Director, Dr. Sue Moore (2009-2012) achieved a herculean effort in student research, public education, and media outreach to launch the project. Dr. Lance Green (2012-15) developed and answered a host of new research questions, as well as supervising student research during his tenure as director, and Dr. Jared Wood (2015-16) provided a steady hand on the tiller of the project, maintaining both the site, and the important working relationships that went with it, while a search for a new director was conducted in 2016.

Archaeology at Camp Lawton has a bright future that will continue to cast a light into the shadows of the past, and we hope you will join us in our quest to tell its story.

Ryan K. McNutt, Ph.D
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Last updated: 5/4/2021