MILLEN, Ga. --- After months of secrecy, archaeologists Wednesday unveiled a stunning set of artifacts from the site of Camp Lawton, a Confederate stockade that housed thousands of Union prisoners in the closing months of the Civil War.
"I don't think I realized at first how important this site was," said Kevin Chapman, who as a Georgia Southern University graduate student helped launch a series of digs that is yielding new insight into the lives of prisoners who lived and died at the 42-acre camp in 1864.
During a well-attended ceremony and news conference at Magnolia Springs State Park -- which occupies the site of the former prison camp -- Chapman and officials from Georgia's Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service showed off case after case of tools, buttons, utensils and other items left behind by soldiers who occupied the stockade that autumn.
"We're here to talk about a great discovery -- one of the most pristine archaeological sites of the Civil War has been found here," said Mark Musaus, the Fish & Wildlife Service's deputy regional director. Much of the site, he added, lies within the federally owned Bo Ginn Fish Hatchery within Magnolia Springs State Park.
Georgia natural resources Commissioner Chris Clark said there had been months of speculation about the findings -- much of which was fueled by extensive security measures taken to protect the site.
"I've heard every possible rumor," he said. Talk of undiscovered graves, munitions -- even the legendary missing Confederate gold -- preceded Wednesday's announcement.
The presence of such a rich site, he added, will help educate future generations about the Civil War and attract new visitors to middle Georgia.
Chapman, who is now a Fish & Wildlife Service employee, said relatively little has been done to explore the few Civil War prison camps that existed on both sides.
"This may be our only chance -- the one last site to tell this story," he said. "It's not a story of great generals and charging cavalry. It's little stories. It's the story of men trying to survive."
Among the array of artifacts is a tourniquet buckle -- manufactured by a famous New York medical equipment maker. When Chapman and his colleagues pulled it from the sandy soil, it still had shreds of fabric clinging to the metal band.
Tourniquets were critical during the war and used most frequently for amputations -- a common treatment for battle wounds.
"This would have been wrapped around the arms and legs of many servicemen as they lost their arms or legs," Chapman said. "It spoke to me."
Another important find is an improvised pipe, fashioned from a broken clay stem. Its creative maker melted lead from bullets and cast the metal into a bowl.
"There was a soldier here who had a need," Chapman said. "He actually wore grooves into that white clay pipe. He grasped it in his teeth with such tenacity that it left little grooves behind. His name has been lost, but his story has not. You can see him, 150 years ago, during that cold November back in 1864, and he sat next to his fire, with a little tobacco perhaps he bartered from a guard."
Dr. John Derden, professor emeritus at East Georgia College and the author of an upcoming book about Camp Lawton, said the discoveries unearthed so far will help humanize the history behind the ugly confrontation in which Americans were holding other Americans as prisoners.
"Virtually all the issues related to the POW existence, both North and South, are encapsulated here," he said. "There is so much more here that we can learn."
Today's state park, established in 1939, offers lush forests and landscaped picnic grounds and shelters.
"A hundred and 46 years ago, things were very different," he said, describing a stark, treeless horizon with thousands of prisoners packed into the hastily constructed compound. There were ovens for bread, a slaughterhouse, leatherworks -- even a burial pit for the dead.
Although some might be disappointed that the discoveries did not include the bodies of prisoners or gold, those rumors are still true in a way, Derden said.
"What about the bodies and the gold? They're here," he said. "This site contains a body of evidence -- of the past."
The gold, he said, is here, too -- in the form of the rich archaeological treasures that will shed new light on an important part of our past.
Sue Moore, a Georgia Southern professor who coordinated much of the archaeological work, said that digs will continue at the site and that the artifacts will be curated for display to allow the public to enjoy and learn from them.
Shortly after its construction in 1864 to alleviate the horrendous crowding at Andersonville, Camp Lawton was hastily abandoned and the prisoners evacuated when threatened by Gen. William Sherman's march on Savannah. For nearly 150 years, the site has been relatively undisturbed, and the exact location of the camp's stockade was lost to time. Archaeologists had long ago dismissed the possibility of significant findings mainly because of the short time it was used.
The Fish & Wildlife Service, Georgia Southern University and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are discussing long-term plans for making the artifacts available for public viewing. The Georgia Southern Museum (www.georgiasouthern.edu/museum) in Statesboro, will hold a public display in the fall; details will be announced soon.
Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery -- on the park premises -- is not operating, but is expected to be back in operation in the spring. The 127-acre hatchery will serve as a refuge for endangered species.
Magnolia Springs State Park is open daily and is known for its crystal-clear springs, boardwalk and 28-acre lake available for boating and fishing. The earthen breastworks, which guarded Camp Lawton, can still be seen at the park.