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Life on the Inside

Open for only six weeks toward the end of the Civil War, Camp Lawton preserves a record of wartime prison life

November/December 2013



Camp Lawton had been on the mind of John Derden, a professor emeritus of history at East Georgia College, for decades, ever since he visited Magnolia Springs State Park in 1973. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources had turned the springs, which produce seven million gallons of crystal-clear water a day, into a state park in 1939. Some 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, Magnolia Springs is also the location of Camp Lawton, a surprisingly undisturbed Civil War site, where Confederate forces, for a brief time, imprisoned Union enlisted men.


“When I made that first visit, I saw a tablet in the park about the camp,” Derden recalls. He discovered that some rudimentary archaeological surveys—a few shovel tests over the years—had essentially turned up no remains from the nineteenth century. Only some of the surrounding earthworks, where manned munitions had been mounted and aimed menacingly toward the prison population, still stood. Derden, like pretty much everyone else, assumed no significant remains were left to help advance any chronicle of the camp and its inhabitants.


Nonetheless convinced of a worthy narrative, Derden plugged away at putting one together, relying on other sources, such as diaries and letters from the time, including the drawings and accounts of Private Robert Knox Sneden, a Union prisoner in the camp. Derden’s research revealed that Camp Lawton, a functioning prison for only six weeks, would end up being burned to the ground at the hands of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in December 1864 as the Civil War drew toward its end. The prison had held upwards of 10,000 individuals on more than 42 acres fortified by an imposing pine-log stockade. Of those 10,000 Union prisoners, more than 700 died during their brief time at Camp Lawton. The survivors were evacuated in a hasty nighttime maneuver just one month before Sherman swept through the region. After these events, the camp was pretty much forgotten.


Derden’s scholarship resulted in a completed manuscript, The World’s Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton. As it was about sent to the publisher in 2010, in an interesting twist, Derden and other historians, archaeologists, Civil War buffs, and locals were stunned to learn that Kevin Chapman, a graduate student at nearby Georgia Southern University, just 40 minutes down the road from the site, not only had discovered intriguing Civil War–era artifacts, but also had successfully located pieces of the prison’s burned stockade wall. As news hit The New York Times, CNN, and other national outlets, Derden had just enough time to tuck a final chapter into his book. Excavation of the site then cranked into full gear, led by Lance Greene, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern, with Derden serving as an ad hoc adviser and expert. Archaeological evidence can now be brought to bear on nuances of daily subsistence in a community that existed for a mere month and a half in the fall of 1864. “This might be the last chance to look at a debate that still rages,” says Greene. “Who was to blame for dying prisoners? Were Confederates trying to starve them out?” Looking for answers to these questions is just a piece of the effort. The archaeologists are also searching for clues as to whether life was better or worse, depending on which side of the stockade wall a person found himself.



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