BLACKSHEAR, Ga. — A historical marker sits shaded by trees on the shoulder of Georgia 203, where city outskirts fade to full country.
The marker is the only indication that 5,000 Union prisoners of war and their 700 Confederate guards once bedded down on land that slopes down gently to what was once a free flowing creek. The creek has dried up and trees cover most of the 35-acre site.
But local and state officials think there’s evidence in the ground and they want an archaeological study done to find it. The county owns 2.7 acres of the site and two separate owners the rest.
Barry Brown, a historical tourism specialist for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, said being fully undeveloped, the grounds are in the best possible condition for a study.
Tommy Lowmon, who directs in tourism development for Blackshear, says from all accounts the land is pretty much as it was — except for some farming and volunteer trees — since the POWs were moved after a two-month stay.
The POWs were moved from the infamous camp at Andersonville during Sherman’s march through Georgia, Brown said.
Because Sherman’s route was unknown to the Confederates, they didn’t want to take a chance on his going to Andersonville, Brown said.
“They didn’t want to see Sherman coming to Georgia and releasing 30,000 Union prisoners,” Brown said.
In November and December of 1864, the Confederates moved about 5,000 each to Thomasville and Blackshear and about 10,000 to Millen at what is now Magnolia Springs State Park, he said.
The site of the Thomasville camp is preserved and the earthen berms are still visible, Brown said.
Beginning about five years ago, the Georgia Southern University archaeology department began an archaeological dig at Magnolia Springs based on old drawings and watercolors of the camp, Brown said.
“They found a lot of artifacts,” he said.
Who knows what they would find at the Blackshear site, but Lowmon said some people have been known to look.
“There were stories about kids throwing cannon balls in the creek,” and one of the private landowners said he’s run off people with metal detectors, Lowmon said.
There are also written accounts of some prisoners dying and being buried on the grounds, which Brown said was realistic given the POWs’ horrid living conditions and poor diets at Andersonville.
“They died on the train ride over. They died in the camp,” he said.
Twenty-seven who were buried there were disinterred and their remains moved to a federal cemetery in Beaufort, S.C., Brown said.
Brown said he would like some ground-penetrating radar used at the site to determine if there are artifacts. If so an archaeology team from a state university could do a study.
“It would require a lot of precision work,” he said.
Lowmon said he at least would like for someone to find the location of the burial ground, thought to be in a wooded area.
Were the site developed, it would become a stop for historic tourists, especially for those with an interest in the Civil War, Lowmon said.
The pity is that it wasn’t done before the 150th anniversary of the war began but there’s still time left, he said.
Establishing the site also has historic value, Brown said.
“It places the Civil War front farther out,” he said.