Rob writes a weekly outdoors column and covers energy, environmental and nuclear issues (and lots of other topics) for the metro section. He has been an avid angler and hunter ever since he realized he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to take up golf. He has been a full-time journalist for 28 years, including 11 years as bureau chief in Columbia County. Before joining The Chronicle, he worked at newspapers in Columbia, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. He has edited or authored three reference books on antique fishing tackle; and his freelance work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Georgia Outdoor News. He lives in Evans.
Posted August 25, 2010 04:09 pm - Updated August 25, 2010 04:19 pm

Confederate Camp Lawton: a justifiable lesson in secrecy

Camp Lawton, built by the Confederates in the closing months of the Civil War to house Union prisoners, included earthworks and a stockade wall made from tall pine timbers. Sketches made after the war by Union Pvt. Robert Sneden helped archeologists in their quest to locate the camp's boundaries and features.

By the time archeologists announced last week they had located the remains of the Civil War's largest prison camp, most nearby residents already knew something special had been found.


Weeks earlier, federal authorities abruptly cordoned off the site within Magnolia Springs State Park and erected more than a mile of steel fence topped with barbed wire. Armed guards patrolled night and day and motion-sensors were programmed to activate hidden cameras.


The unusual measures were part of an "Interagency Law Enforcement Task Force" comprised of federal Fish & Wildlife Service agents, Georgia Department of Natural Resources officers and deputies from the Jenkins County Sheriff's Office, among others.


All that secrecy and security spawned rumors of hidden gold - or perhaps the undiscovered bodies of Union prisoners who perished at Camp Lawton.


Last week, Georgia Southern University's Kevin Chapman (now employed by the Fish & Wildlife Service) helped showed off the findings. There were no lost souls, and no chests of gold.


It was a different sort of treasure: bullets, buttons and belt buckles - and hundreds of other items left behind in November of 1864 when a small garrison of Confederate guards hastily evacuated the camp's 11,000 Union prisoners as Gen. William T. Sherman marched from Atlanta toward the sea.


Best of all, the scattering of artifacts was undisturbed - a remarkable condition, considering that most Civil War sites have been dug out and looted by collectors for more than a century.


So why all that security?


Chapman explained that most of the artifacts were not buried beneath several feet of earth. Rather, they were barely beneath the topsoil  -  and easily located with metal detectors. Had word gotten out, one of the best Civil War prison sites ever studied could have been transformed into a landscape pocked with more holes than a gopher colony.


Such losses would be like pages of a book being torn out  - leaving gaps in an otherwise complete story. And there is much more waiting to be discovered and shared.


Here is how Chapman - in his own essay about the project - described the initial surveys conducted with shovel samples and metal detectors:


"Georgia Southern archeologists launched into the metal detection investigation with a new detector and techniques taught by Dan Battle of Cypress Cultural Consultants. Battle has been an advocate for the use of the metal detector as a tool in the kit of archaeologists. The metal detector has suffered the stigma of being unscientific and the tool of the looter, not the archeologist. Battle however, has developed a system that limits the metal detector to the plow zone. The plow zone is the layer of soil that has been disturbed by plowing, and artifacts are not in their original location. By limiting the recovery to this zone, no original features like post holes or hut depressions will be disturbed.


"The results of the survey were immediate and stunning. 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. Some artifacts such as the pipe tell of the ingenuity of these soldiers in the face of adversity. The keepsake items speak of feelings of separation to which we can all relate. The tourniquet buckle and bullets are testaments to the horror of war to which these men were so well-acquainted. As a collection, they tell us about the lives of these men beyond their roles as soldiers and prisoners. Two of the coins are of German/Austrian origin and would have entered into Union service with the huge number of recent immigrants who enlisted on both sides. Artifacts such as a private coin minted in Columbus, Ohio or a New York State button give clues to geographic origin. In the future, it may even be possible to determine where individual units were encamped within the stockade, using artifact distribution patterns."


The artifacts uncovered at Camp Lawton will be available for public view beginning Sunday, Oct. 10, at 2 p.m. The Georgia Southern University Museum was chosen because it is the closest, accredited museum to the Camp Lawton site and is equipped with the proper climate controls necessary to house the collection.

Magnolia Springs State Park, meanwhile, remains open to visitors, although many people might still think the area is off limits, as much of it has been in recent months.


"Because there is a fence around the dig area, which is closed to the public, many people now think that the park itself is closed," said Kim Hatcher of Georgia's State Parks and Historic Sites Division. In fact, the park itself is open and visitors are welcome, she said.