Originally created 11/10/05

Radar tests give team clues to Civil War past



A high-tech probe of a Civil War prison camp site near Millen, Ga., has yielded clues that might enable archaeologists to locate stockade walls and other historic features.

"We may have found one of the remaining walls, but we still have more work to finish," said Debbie Wallsmith, interpretive supervisor for Georgia's State Parks & Historic Sites Division.

Archaeologists from the Georgia Department of Transportation used ground-penetrating radar last month to study Magnolia Springs State Park, where the Confederates held about 10,299 federal prisoners of war in November 1864, when the area was called Camp Lawton.

The radar technology identified at least two areas beneath the ground where linear changes in soil composition were detected.

"One of those lines matches up with the general direction we think the stockade walls went," Dr. Wallsmith said.

If the stockade walls can be found, it will help determine where other features of Camp Lawton, including the main gate, cooking areas and possibly burial trenches, were located.

"Once we find the walls, and especially one of the corners - and assuming the preconstruction drawings and measurements were accurate - then we could outline the entire stockade."

One of the site's lingering mysteries involves how many prisoners died and were buried there during the camp's brief existence during the fall of 1864.

Scant historical records indicate that 685 prisoners died and were buried at the site before being exhumed and reburied at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C., after the war.

However, a Union soldier's diaries that surfaced in Virginia in the 1990s include anecdotal - but firsthand - accounts of life at Camp Lawton, including the deaths of 1,300 prisoners.

If those accounts are correct, the remains of those 615 prisoners may still lie within the state park.

Dr. Wallsmith said the recent studies found nothing conclusive to indicate previously unknown burial or human remains.

"As far as doing further studies, though, the next step will involve digitizing some of the historic maps, including the preconstruction drawings," she said.

Then the radar findings from the recent study will be superimposed over those drawings in efforts to figure out precisely where the stockade walls - made from timbers and earthen berms - were located.

Although it may be impossible to determine with certainty whether additional remains are at the site, the information gleaned from the new studies will aid in preserving and protecting the area, which has been a state park since 1939.

"We're in the process of developing cultural resource management plans for all our properties," Dr. Wallsmith said.

"In other words, once these studies are complete, we know not to put a utility or sewer line in areas where we know there are cultural materials there," she said.

The final analysis from the Camp Lawton studies should be completed in two to four weeks, she said.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.