Archaeologists now have more than buried artifacts to piece together the story of Camp Lawton, where Union prisoners were housed in the final weeks of the Civil War.
“We have an actual letter, sent by a prisoner to his family back in the North,” said Georgia Southern University archeologist Kevin Chapman.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of a new exhibit devoted to the camp, which occupied 42 acres in Jenkins County within today’s Magnolia Springs State Park.
Excavations have yielded dozens of tiny treasures—from buttons and buckles to knife blades and jewelry—that will help solve only a part of the puzzle.
“The mind-set of the prisoners is hard to learn from archeology,” Chapman said. “And here is the mind-set of a man, sitting in the dirt right here at Camp Lawton, on Nov. 14, 1864.”
The writer was Charles Knox, a carpenter from Schroon Lake, N.Y., who enlisted in the Union Army, was captured in Virginia and sent to Georgia.
He ended up at Camp Lawton, where 10,299 prisoners were held—and where at least 685 of them died.
His letter, acquired recently by Georgia Southern’s museum, shows the concern he had for his family, and his longing for home.
“Haveing a chance to send a line into God’s Land & hopeing you may hear from me by it I write a few lines hopeing they will reach you in safety,” Knox wrote to his wife, Frances. “I have written to you every month since I was captured the 5th of May, last, and have seen hard times since.”
He offers his wife hope that he may be soon exchanged for Confederate prisoners—and instructs her to “sell the cow” if money is sparse.
“To hold this letter in your hand, that this man wrote, is a special feeling,” said Chapman. “And his greatest concern isn’t about himself or his situation, but that his wife could be suffering from his absence.”
Just eight days after the letter was written, Camp Lawton was hastily evacuated ahead of Gen. Sherman’s advancing Union army. Knox was returned to another prison camp in Andersonville, Ga., where he was held until Feb. 27, 1865.
After a recuperative stay at Tilton General Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, he was discharged from the army as a seregeant.
He returned to his home in Schroon Lake, N.Y., and resumed his life as a carpenter. He died Feb. 27, 1895, at the age of 70.
In addition to the letter, new artifacts pulled the Lawton site are also being studied.
Among the more significant discoveries was a badge from the Union’s Third Army Corps, whose emblem was an elongated diamond-shape.
Barely 10 feet away, a copper ring was found with a similar design, Chapman said, which could indicate prisoners from the same units were housed together.
“As they were brought in, they were divided into 100-member groups, known as messes, and they were often soldiers from the same group,” he said, noting that the practice later spawned the term “mess hall.”
Other important new items include a Civil War-era token from a grocer in Niles, Michigan and a suspender buckle that was patented in 1855 in Boston.
As studies at the site continue efforts will be made to identify the original stockade walls, and also to locate the Confederate quarters, where an estimated 1,200 men lived while guarding the prison population.
“There was a significant Confederate encampment,” Chapman said. “Guards would have lived there, and there were two to three hospitals, a commissary, a commander’s headquarter building, things like that. It would be a large complex, perhaps a combination of existing home sites commandeered for use, along with tents and temporary buildings.”
Actual digging will proceed slowly, due to the need to carefully map and interpret the findings.
“We have only begun to tell this story,” he said. “Even after an entire year, we have only cracked the door to peek in at the story of Camp Lawton.”
Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.