From the Director
“The weather has been rainy and very cold at nights. Many prisoners have died from exposure, as not more than half of us have any shelter but a ragged blanket propped upon sticks, under which the rain drizzles through like spray, completely wetting the occupants before many hours.” Robert Knox Sneden, November 1, 1864.
Robert Knox Sneden was held at Camp Lawton as a Union POW for six weeks in October and November, 1864. His story, like the stories of more than 10,000 other prisoners, is one of a daily struggle to survive a lack of shelter, food, clothing, and medicine. It is a narrative of fighting loneliness, vulnerability, uncertainty, and boredom. The prisoners hailed from many northern states and represented various ethnicities. Many were recent immigrants. They used varied strategies to survive, to get food and shelter, to fight boredom and loneliness, and to interact with prisoners and guards. Of the roughly 10,000 men held in the prison “pen”, about 700 died and were buried in nearby mass graves.
The American Civil War has caused, since its beginning, a continued and often emotional debate regarding its causes and the moral justifications for its massive toll in lives, and no subject has been more hotly contested than the treatment of its prisoners. For northerners, Andersonville became synonymous with all that was immoral about the South. In turn, northern prisons such as Elmira in New York were used as evidence by southern supporters of northern hypocrisy. Outrageously high death rates of prisoners have been used to the present day as evidence of the horrors of the Civil War, as well as continued “evidence” of alleged atrocities perpetrated by both sides. Accounts by Union prisoners, published as early as 1865 and continuing into the late nineteenth century, helped to “wave the bloody shirt”, to maintain a northern perception of the South as a place of immorality and violence. In contrast, southerners, argued that they had done the best they could under adverse conditions. Many argued that prisoners had received the same rations at their guards.
Camp Lawton serves as a microcosm of this argument. Eyewitness accounts from the camp tell how rations, meager to start with, dwindled rapidly in quality and quantity. They tell of an especially sparse supply of meat, often consisting only of what they could catch and kill within the stockade, such as small alligators, snakes, and tortoises, sometimes supplemented with the heads of cattle, the only part their captors didn’t want when processing beef commandeered from local plantations. Prisoners recounted being so protein starved that they would burn the bones until they could be eaten. By early November, prisoners recounted that they would regularly see corpses nearly every morning, victims of not only starvation but of hypothermia. Confederate officers claimed that the POW commandants supplied prisoners with adequate rations and supplies equal to those given the guards. In addition, they claimed these supplies were limited only by dwindling supply lines, especially after Sherman began his March to the Sea, and they therefore publicly blamed the North for the prisoners’ terrible conditions. This acidic rhetoric has continued unabated for the past 150 years. Archaeological research potentially holds the key to answering, in a detailed and unbiased way, this question.
The Camp Lawton archaeological project undertaken by Georgia Southern University has two main goals. Public education and outreach has been central to the project since its inception. “Public days” at the site, educational events for children, speaking engagements, and media coverage have been used to inform the public about the history and archaeology of the site, as well as the importance of archaeological resources and research.
Archaeological research has also been a central goal of the project. Scientific methods of archaeological survey, excavation, and analysis are needed if we want to address the questions about prisoner treatment and other issues in the camps. The archaeological remains of Camp Lawton are extremely well preserved. In most cases, POW camps, like most Civil War-era sites, have been damaged by development and looting. Although parts of the site have been disturbed, much of Camp Lawton is relatively untouched. As such, it is our ethical responsibility to protect the site and to be extremely careful and methodical in our approach to excavations. While it sometimes seems to the public that we are moving slowly on our work at the site, it is this method that will enable us to tell the narratives of those prisoners, those who survived and those who did not. In this way we can also provide insight into the broader study of incarceration, of how people adapt, economically, socially, and emotionally, to harsh conditions of imprisonment.
We are in the process of updating the website, and will be regularly adding new information. We hope that these pages will provide readers with not only historical and archaeological information about Camp Lawton, but also on how we do archaeology, in the field and in the lab, and why these methods are so important.
There are numerous agencies and individuals who have made this work possible. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division has been a strong source of support since 2009. In the same way, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been supportive of the fieldwork and the directions and goals of our research. In particular, Bryan Tucker of the DNR HPD and Rick Kanaski of the USFWS have been incredibly supportive of our research at the site. Georgia Southern University has provided strong institutional support from the beginning. Dr. Sue Moore, director of the project from 2009-2012, did an amazing job in organizing student research, public education, and the media. She has also been incredibly supportive as personnel and project goals continue to transition and develop. The students at Georgia Southern provide countless volunteer hours in the field and lab, and working with them is a rewarding experience.
Last updated: 10/13/2014