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Civil War Prison Camp Uncovered in Rural Georgia

August 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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This week archaeologists unveiled the discovery of a Confederate prison camp in a rural part of Georgia. This story is part of a project called NewsHour Connect, where the best of public broadcasting from around the country is showcased. Rickey Bevington of Georgia Public Broadcasting has the story.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a Civil War discovery in rural Georgia. This week, archaeologists unveiled their remnants of a Confederate prison camp. Our story comes from a project we call NewsHour Connect. That’s where we showcase the best of public broadcasting from around the country. Rickey Bevington of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: The Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery is a remote spot deep in the south Georgia woods. Being a federal facility, there are some administrative buildings, uniformed rangers, but also something unexpected.

Running right through the middle of a driveway is a brand-new, eight-foot-high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. It’s protecting one of the most important Civil War finds in decades.

KEVIN CHAPMAN, Georgia Southern University: This may be our only chance, the one last site to tell this story.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: It’s the story of Camp Lawton, one of the 36 war prisons run by the Confederacy. Kevin Chapman and Dr. Sue Moore oversee a team of student archaeologists from Georgia Southern University.

During an exploratory dig earlier this year, they discovered the long-lost prison stockade.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: And that was a collective oh, gosh moment, where we all kind of backed up and and stopped and decided how we needed to go forward.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: In November 1864, about 10,000 Northern prisoners would have been living here, behind a solid wall of high tree trunks in an open-air stockade the size of about a dozen football fields. They only had a small nearby creek for sanitation.

Camp Lawton was evacuated after only a few weeks because federal forces were pushing deeper into the state. After that, it was essentially forgotten. The community living here at the time of the Civil War died out after the turn of the century, and, with it, farming on this land. These artifacts have lain untouched for a century-and-a-half, until now.

DR. SUE MOORE, Georgia Southern University: The significance of finding the artifacts in the ground is that you’re able to recover not just the artifact, but the information about how the artifact was left.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: European coins show researchers that German and Austrian immigrants of an Ohio regiment lived in the stockade. The coins’ location shows where in the stockade they lived. There are buttons, buckles, a tourniquet, jewelry. Another find is unique among Civil War artifacts: a modified white clay pipe.

KEVIN CHAPMAN: It’s a short piece of a white clay pipe. It didn’t have a bowl on it, but there was a soldier here who had the stem, and he had a need. He liked to smoke. So, he melted down musket balls, and he cast a bowl to replace the bowl that had been lost.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: A Civil War pipe can go for hundreds of dollars on the Internet, and that explains the tight security, to keep out the curious and relic hunters.

Tell me about this really intense security system that you all put in place as soon as you knew what you had found here.

DR. SUE MOORE: The security was put in place essentially to protect the portion of the site that’s on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property, because this was the area where we were finding a lot of the personal artifacts. And we wanted to make sure that they were kept safe.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: There’s the barbed wire atop the fence, hidden infrared motion detectors that trip security cameras, and round-the-clock patrols by local police. The artifacts are priceless to Civil War scholarship.

Historian John Derden says POW studies have long focused on Georgia’s other, more notorious prison, where 13,000 union men died at Andersonville. At 42 acres, Camp Lawton was twice the size, with a better water supply and living conditions. But Derden says it’s only now that that legacy can take hold.

JOHN DERDEN, historian: It might kind of redress the balance in the popular mind that tends to view the Confederate prison system as just terrible, terrible, and the union prisons perhaps were better. But most scholarship, modern scholarship today, essentially has come to the conclusion that POWs were poorly treated, both North and South.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: Historians hope to find untold new sources of information from Camp Lawton. So far, less than 1 percent of the site is excavated, leaving many stories that have yet to be taken from the earth. <-->