From September to November 1864, the sloping terrain north of Millen was transformed into a camp for Union prisoners of war evacuated from the crowded and notorious Andersonville Prison.
The new stockade, Camp Lawton was situated to take advantage of Magnolia Springs, a plentiful water supply, and built to hold 32,000 men.
Today, the site is occupied by Magnolia Springs State Park, where Georgia Southern University and the Department of Natural Resources are collaborating on a new exploration.
"It's very promising so far," said anthropology professor Sue Moore, the principal investigator. "We now have actual excavations opened."
During the past five years, studies using ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of the camp's stockade walls might lie beneath the sandy soil.
"We got what we were pretty sure was the southwest corner of the stockade wall," Moore said. "What we're finding now is just the shadowy outline of posts that have collapsed."
The research will be used to define the camp's borders and features and perhaps clear up discrepancies from accounts of its brief existence.
Records show Andersonville evacuees began flowing in by railcar in September 1864, and by Nov. 8, 1864, Camp Lawton's roster included 10,299 federal soldiers.
One of the site's perennial mysteries involves how many prisoners died and were buried there. Historical records indicate 685 prisoners were buried at Camp Lawton before being reburied at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C., after the war.
However, a Union soldier's diaries, which surfaced in Virginia in the 1990s, include anecdotal but firsthand accounts of life at Camp Lawton, including the deaths of 1,300 prisoners buried in linear trenches.
Though it is far too soon to resolve the mystery of how many casualties occurred there, the dig will give investigators a clearer picture of the camp's walls and boundaries, Moore said.
"The different numbers are still a mystery and we haven't tried to work on that at all," she said.
The original stockade walls, she said, were said to be 15 feet above the ground, with timbers embedded five feet into the ground. Finding them has been a challenge, as they were deeper than anticipated.
So far, students assisting in the dig have found very few artifacts.
"A few nails and some bullets -- not much at all," Moore said.
In addition to excavations at the stockade, archaeologists are testing nearby areas of the park to look for more signs of the prison camp, which was said to include numerous outbuildings and other structures.
"We will try to determine if there are any remains of these buildings," Moore said.
Camp Lawton was abandoned in late November 1864 when threatened by Sherman's drive on Savannah. The prisoners were moved to other locations.
On Dec. 3, 1864, Sherman's army captured the camp and the nearby town of Millen. It is believed the camp and its structures were then burned.
The dig has attracted plenty of onlookers, Moore said, and two days have been set aside -- April 17 and May 1 -- to accommodate visitors who want to see the work in progress.
Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and there is a $5 parking fee. More details are available at www.gastateparks.org/MagSpr or by calling (478) 982-1660.