Sifting soil in the woods at Magnolia Springs State Park, Georgia Southern University archaeology students are sifting back through 154½ years to when Confederate forces camped there, north of Millen, briefly holding more than 10,000 U.S. Army prisoners of war in the Camp Lawton stockade.
The earthwork "fort" where a Confederate artillery unit placed its cannons has long been visible as turf-covered embankments not far from the park office. In August 2010, the first season’s work by Georgia Southern archaeologists — initiated by then-student Kevin Chapman as his master's degree thesis project — paid off with firm evidence of walls of the 42-acre stockade where the Union POW’s were held.
Artifacts such as a fragment of a 19th century clay tobacco pipe with a makeshift lead bowl, uniform buttons, the buckle from a soldier's kepi and a bronze “parole star” that may have marked a POW for privileges, soon showed up for public viewing, first at the Georgia Southern Museum on campus, and now in a little museum at Magnolia Springs.
Field work in 2013-14 established the probable site of some Confederate officers' quarters, including a cabin. But Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ryan McNutt, Ph.D., who took over as director of the Camp Lawton project in 2016, suspects that the area his students crisscrossed with metal detectors spring semester and where they are systematically digging this summer is where Confederate enlisted men, the guards, camped.
“These guys are mapping out what looks like possibly some soil discoloration that might be a feature,” McNutt said, standing near an “excavation unit,” where three students were working.
Like the other two units nearby along the present-day park’s Lime Sink Trail, the unit was a two-meter square, shallow hole in the ground that students had “shovel skimmed” until it was roughly level on the bottom.
“This area is where we found bits and pieces of cast iron stove during the metal detector survey, so they’re going down to see if there’s any kind of tent structure under it, and what they’ve come down to here is this kind of oval stain on the floor, which looks like it might be a footing for a cast-iron stove,” McNutt said.
Past in the present
In a Civil War-period photo he shared on an electronic tablet, soldiers were using an oval-shaped iron stove with a flat top fitted with square iron grates. A nearly intact, square iron grate was found at this location during the spring semester metal detector survey.
Little surveyor’s flags placed at that time still mark places finds were made, but these spots were also mapped using a Global Positioning System device with sub-centimeter precision, and the flags will soon be removed.
Spring semester, students did field work each Friday. But for students who signed up for the summer session field school, the dig goes on Monday through Friday for five weeks, through June 20. They leave the Statesboro campus about 8 a.m. and are generally on the site 9-to-4 unless extreme heat prompts a shortened workday.
Elizabeth Bentley, 25, a student from Statesboro, was drawing the map of the unit “floor” where the slightly darker oval shape was apparent. Majoring in anthropology — archaeology is a branch of anthropology — and minoring in art history, she will be starting her senior year fall semester.
No Indiana Jones
“I grew up on ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Tomb Raider,’ and those are two completely different things than the actual, like, archeology field,” Bentley said. “So it’s been very interesting to learn the process of excavating and recording data, because archeology is a destructive science, so we have to be very, like tedious in what we record.”
“Patient” is another word for it. When shovel skimming, the students use flat-ended shovels to scrape away a layer of soil a fraction of an inch thick. At other moments, they stretch out a cord with a small spirit level attached and then measure down to found objects.
What may once have been the stove’s sides were now lumps of iron rust in a pile outside the hole.
“That’s the feature we found. We found a lot of charcoal around that, and brick fragments,” said Sawyer Davis, 23, another anthropology major in his junior year. “From the top layer we found some scattered pottery, glass and a couple of pieces of dog bone, most likely, though we don’t know if that’s period or newer.”
At one point during the May 30 visit by journalists, McNutt thumped the floor of this particular square hole in different spots and suggested that a variation in sound indicated hard-packed versus looser soil.
“Well, we’ll see what it shakes into, but it could well be that this may be a portion of one of the cookhouses … which could be fairly interesting because the primary accounts are fairly clear that the Confederate guards aren’t cooking their own food, it’s being cooked for them by slaves,” he told students.
History & archeology
Davis, from Portal, is closest to home of any students working at the site. Others on the dig hail from other parts of Georgia.
Clint Harvey, 19, who was sifting soil at another of the units, is originally from New York state.
The week before, he had found a fragment of a plate, which McNutt said was labeled “England” underneath, with part of a maker’s mark that could be from the 1850s or 1860s.
“This is much more involvement than I ever thought I’d get,” said Harvey, who is majoring in history but minoring in anthropology.
Where students opened a third excavation unit, among the roots of a tree, the metal detector survey had turned up a 19th century sash buckle with St. George’s cross and Tudor rose designs. Half of another buckle, with a different design, was found nearby.
Too light to hold up britches, the sashes may have served as marks of rank among Confederate militias, McNutt said. Often informally equipped, these reserve units consisted of boys under age 18 and men over 35. Detachments of a regular unit, the 55th Georgia, also served at Camp Lawton, as did Dyke’s Light Artillery Company, from Florida.
Where the current exploration is taking place, enlisted men may have lived in “A-frame” tents with canvas stretched to the ground. The men dug down a few inches under the tents for winter encampments, McNutt said. POW accounts record a cold, damp autumn in 1864, with frost and snow flurries.
Camp Lawton was established that September, when Confederate forces evacuated Union POWs from the fatally crowded, starving prison camp at Andersonville in southwestern Georgia.
But with the approach of the Union army under Gen. William T. Sherman, the Confederates evacuated Camp Lawton itself by Nov. 20-22, 1864, and the site was empty when Sherman’s main corps arrived at the beginning of December. More than 700 U.S. soldiers had died in captivity and been buried in trenches there, but were later reburied at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina.
You can visit
From now until the June 20 close of the field school, the excavation is open for visitors to see while the archaeologists are working, generally 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, McNutt said. This Saturday, June 15, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., will be a special public day, as was yesterday.
“Public archeology and the public outreach is a huge component of the project,” McNutt said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.