A Confederate Military Prison

Archaeology at Camp Lawton

When Georgia Southern University was asked to conduct a survey of Camp Lawton at Magnolia Springs State Park, we began by establishing a plan that would attempt to locate the various aspects of the camp infrastructure. While not all portions of the survey are complete, two are well underway and have yielded amazing results. These two sections include one which was intended to locate the stockade wall itself and another that was intended to examine the prisoner occupation area within the stockade.

The first area of the survey was targeted at one corner of the prison stockade. This would have been the left front corner of the stockade as you walked into the main gates. This corner would have been overlooked by the earthworks that are still present at Magnolia Springs State Park. These earthworks presented a valuable clue to the corner’s location, since it would have been situated so that the cannon located there would have had a clear field of fire down both walls. After the area for the survey was decided upon, a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey was conducted by Dan Elliot of the LAMAR Institute. Based on the initial results of this survey, two excavation trenches were placed in the grassy area near the park offices and pool to locate a large “L” shaped feature (see GPR photo, pg. 5).

The first trench was one meter wide and 10 meters long. Results in this first trench were limited, although it did provide valuable insight into the soil stratigraphy of the location. A second wider trench was opened, this one measuring two meters wide and four meters long. After opening the first trench we received additional information from the GPR survey indicating the top of the feature was 1.5 meters deep. A feature this deep is very unusual for historic sites in the southeastern United States, which left us with as many questions as answers when we first began. As the GPR survey indicated, we found a historic ground surface and a highly disturbed linear feature consistent with a stockade wall at this depth. The mystery was solved soon after, when we studied a topographic map dating back to 1920. That map showed a large depression where the excavation trench was placed, most likely a limestone sink that is common in the area. The sink had been filled since the map was made, likely during Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work at the park. In the future, additional trenches will be opened to fully delineate this corner and then to locate other corners and the stockade’s main gate structure.

The second survey area was intended to explore the prisoner occupation area on the opposite side of Magnolia Springs Creek. Work began by laying in eight straight lines, or transects, six of which are 220 meters long and two that are 180 meters long. The transects are 20 meters apart and run east to west. We used two methods of survey in this area: shovel testing and metal detecting. Shovel testing is a traditional archaeological technique where a series of holes are dug, usually in a grid pattern, to explore the subsurface. At Camp Lawton, we decided on one shovel test every 20 meters along the transect which resulted in 92 shovel tests.

Each shovel test was 50cm x 50cm (20in x 20in) and to a depth of 80cm (32in). All of the soil was screened through ¼-inch screen to find possible artifacts. It was thought, prior to the beginning of the survey, that results of the shovel testing would be sparse due to the site’s short-lived occupation and the supposed lack of prisoner’s material possessions. As the shovel testing progressed, very positive results started to unfold. The shovel tests yielded a minié ball, the common bullet of the day, and a Union soldier’s coat button, both directly related to the Civil War occupation of the site. Other artifacts were less obvious in their relation. One artifact is an iron spoon bowl. Later testing yielded a number of these spoon bowls and also spoon handles. Due to the number found, it is thought they most likely date to the prisoner occupation. In one shovel test, a number of bricks were found that appear to still be in place with mortar beneath. During the construction of the camp, up to six brick ovens were built for use by the prisoners. These bricks may be the remains of one of those ovens.

Unlike shovel testing, metal detection survey is not a traditional archaeological technique. Metal detection on prehistoric sites in the southeastern United States is pointless due to the almost total lack of metal artifacts. Even in historic sites the metal detector has only been used to a very limited extent. The field where metal detecting has seen the most use is in the archaeology of military encampments and battlefields. The high incidence of metal artifacts and the overall ephemeral nature of these sites make them ideal for metal detection.

Southern archaeologists launched into the metal detection investigation with a new detector and techniques taught by Dan Battle of Cypress Cultural Consultants. Battle has been an advocate for the use of the metal detector as a tool in the kit of archaeologists. The metal detector has suffered the stigma of being unscientific and the tool of the looter, not the archaeologist  Battle however, has developed a system that limits the metal detector to the plow zone. The plow zone is the layer of soil that has been disturbed by plowing, and artifacts are not in their original location. By limiting the recovery to this zone, no original features like post holes or hut depressions will be disturbed. The survey was conducted by sweeping a band along the transects, one meter wide, to the south of the transect line. Only hits inside this area were recovered and only to a depth of 25cm, which we had established as the minimum plow zone depth during the shovel testing survey.

The results of the survey were immediateness and stunning. We began to retrieve an amazing collection of artifacts proving that the site was of unexpected importance. The artifacts are not only visually impressive, but they also tell an incredible story individually and as a whole. Some artifacts such as the pipe tell of the ingenuity of these soldiers in the face of adversity. The keepsake items speak of feelings of separation to which we can all relate. The tourniquet buckle and bullets are testaments to the horror of war to which these men were so well-acquainted. As a collection, they tell us about the lives of these men beyond their roles as soldiers and prisoners. Two of the coins are of German/Austrian origin and would have entered into Union service with the huge number of recent immigrants who enlisted on both sides. Artifacts such as a private coin minted in Columbus, Ohio or a New York State button give clues to geographic origin. In the future, it may even be possible to determine where individual units were encamped within the stockade, using artifact distribution patterns.

The archaeological work being conducted at Camp Lawton gives us a unique opportunity to explore a forgotten chapter of the American Civil War. The research conducted at this site will shed light on the little understood lives of prisoners throughout the Confederate and Union prison systems and military internment in all periods of history.

-J. Kevin Chapman


Camp Lawton • P.O. Box 8051 Statesboro, GA 30460-8142 • (912) 478-2587
Artifact Photography by Amanda L. Morrow
Access to artifact collection courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, custodians.