Camp Lawton - The Largest Prison in the World

On 3rd December 1864, Union Cavalry entered the empty stockade at Magnolia Springs in Georgia. They were already resolute and determined with rumours rife up North of desperate conditions in Confederate prison camps and they were eager to free their comrades. In addition, General Sherman was also eager to enlist thousands of Union prisoners to join his invading Army as they reeked destruction throughout the Deep South on their infamous "March to the Sea". On their arrival, the Yankee Cavalry became even more distraught as they realised the Rebels had beaten them to it by removing thousands of Yankee prisoners in the middle of the night just 4 days earlier. The site of a very hastily and freshly built shallow grave with the simple wooden sign "650 buried here" compounded this pent up anger. The stockade and everything inside was immediately burnt to the ground and the transportation railway hub and hotel at nearby Millen was also completely torched. The site was then totally lost to history with no-one having any interest in either the location or possible whereabouts of this Confederate prison camp. It remained a very minor and obscure footnote in the annals and history of the American Civil War.

Until, in December 2010, Kevin Chapman, a young graduate student at the Georgia Southern University decided to write a Thesis for his Archaeological Degree on Camp Lawton and its possible size and location. The result was to astonish Civil War historians and archaeologists alike with one of the most important finds in decades of American Civil War history. As not only had he discovered the exact location, size and dimensions of the Camp Lawson prison site but also numerous invaluable personal Union artefacts.

Camp Lawton was built in October 1864 and was specifically designed to accommodate the overspill of Union prisoners at Andersonville. It was located in Magnolia Springs, near Millen in Georgia approximately 50 miles south of Atlanta due to easy access to the Augusta and Savannah railroad. It was designed by Confederate General John. H. Winder and the camp itself covered more that 42 acres. It was estimated that the camp could accommodate over 40,000 Union prisoners. The camp itself was built in September 1864 by 300 Union prisoners and 500 slaves and was of 42 acres. It was a log stockade 12 to 15 feet high with guard towers known as "pigeon roosts" by the both the guards and inmates. Outside the stockade was a ditch dug with walls and then at least 3 earthworks on the higher ground for artillery placements with cannon to deter any mass breakouts. Inside the stockade was a 30 foot deadline of low pine scantlings to deter prisoners from approaching the walls. In addition, there was a guards camp and hospital, a sutlers cabin, a prisoner of war hospital and a log building for administrative purposes. Significantly, General Winder was promoted to Commissary-General of Prisons East of the Mississippi whilst based at Camp Lawton so this administrative log building became, for a short period, the centre of all the administrative duties for the whole of the Confederate prison system. On its completion, General Winder said "It is, I presume, the largest prison in the world". Camp Lawton, nr Millen, GA

Union prisoners started arriving in late October 1864 but had no living quarters. As such, they built lean twos, she-bangs, shelter halves and covers from all the scraps of pine and wood left over from building the log stockade. Although conditions were extremely poor, it did benefit from a fresh supply of water from Magnolia Springs which was regarded as a drastic improvement from Andersonville. By early November 1864, the only existing Confederate camp return record to Richmond indicated that the Camp held over 10,229 Union prisoners of whom 349 enlisted in the Confederate Army, 486 had died and 285 were working as parolee labourers inside the camp. Overall, it is estimated that between 750 and 1,200 prisoners died at Camp Lawton. Conditions of both the receiving long term prisoners from Andersonville and the winter months would have contributed to this. Due to scant existing Confederate records, it is thought the camp was guarded by the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Georgia Reserves (mainly poorly trained old men and teenage boys), the Florida Light Artillery and the 55th Georgia Regiment. The Confederate forces commander was Colonel Henry Forno and the Confederate camp commandant was Captain D.W. Volwes. The camp was only in existent for 10 weeks as with the rapid approaching Union Army under General Sherman, the Confederate Authorities were compelled to move the prisoners as soon as possible and they moved them further South by the end of the month and before the imminent arrival of the Union Cavalry. They were moved to various locations including Blackshear and Thomasville Camps in Georgia and some were transported back to Andersonville. In addition, some sick Union prisoners were later exchanged for sick Confederate prisoners at the port of Savannah in a formal mutual exchange.

At the present time, due to its extremely significant historical importance, Camp Lawton is being very carefully excavated. It is envisaged that excavation will now take many years due to its size and importance. Many professionals thought that due its short lived nature that there would be nothing left of worth. However, if as is now expected, the Union prisoners and Confederate guards were moved on in a hurry, many personal artefacts and historical items could still remain. Although less than 1% of the site has been excavated, the very recently discovered finds during 2011 have been fascinating. These include 2 coins of Austrian and German origin, spoon bowls and handles, makeshift pipes, bullets turned into gaming pieces, a well preserved tourniquet buckle, jewelry, keys, minie balls, various coins including a Michigan grocery token, brickwork installations for prisoners ovens, a suspender buckle from Massachusetts, a soldiers ring and a Corps badge with insignia of the Union Army 3 Corps. It is hoped that by identifying particular items with certain Union states, the location and grouping of regiments within the confines of the camp can be verified.

Whilst researching this article, I came across a record of a very rare letter sent from an inmate, John Ransom QM Sergeant 9th Michigan Cavalry at Camp Lawton to his family. I quote exactly verbatim from the letter as I think it says so much. "This morning we have drawn rations, both the sick and the well, which are good enough. The stockade is similar to Andersonville but in a more settled country, the ground high and grassy, with no swamp at all. A portion of the prison is timberland and the timber has been cut down and lays where it fell, and the men who arrived before us have been busily at work making shanties and places to sleep in. There are about 6 thousand prisoners here and I should judge there was room for twelve or fifteen thousand. Men say they are given food twice each day which consists of meal and fresh beef in rather small quantities but good and wholesome. The rebel officer in command is a sociable and kindly disposed man, and the guards are not strict, that is, not cruelly so. We are told our stay here will be short. A number of our men have been detailed to cook the food for the sick and their well-being is looked to by the rebel surgeon as well as our own men..... Barrels of molasses (nigger toe) have been rolled inside and it is being issued to the men, about one-fourth of a pint to each man, possibly a little more. Some of the men, luxuriously, put their allowances together and make molasses candy of it". By this letter, it indicates that Camp Lawton would appear to be a far improved environment than Andersonville.

The treatment of prisoners of war by both sides in the American Civil War reveals a deep and disturbing chapter in the annals of American history. Camp Lawton has recently now been revealed as part of that history. As such, it is vital that such places are preserved and interpreted in order that civil war historians, scholars, enthusiasts and archaeologists can reveal more about the stories and events that took place particularly in the Southern theatre of the War where few historically relevant places remain. Sites such as Camp Lawton are so extremely rare it is imperative that those authorities responsible do everything they can to protect the past for future generations and are financially supported despite the current economic difficulties. It is vital that the stories told from both sides are recorded for posterity. Fortunately, Camp Lawton is located within the Magnolia Springs State Park and this provides an element of statutory protection. In addition, the area is now fenced off and under close 24 hour surveillance to deter and preventing looting. I will keep everyone updated of further finds and developments.

Stewart "Goober" Douglas. Article

Sources: Civil War Prisons and Escapes. A Day to Day Chronicle by Robert. E. Denney.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Summer 2012