Members of the Bulloch County Historical Society were shown a presentation Monday apprising them of ongoing work at Camp Lawton by a man who literally wrote the book on the Confederate prison.
Dr. John Derden, a history professor at East Georgia State College and author of “The World’s Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton,” spoke to the Bulloch County organization during its regular monthly meeting at RJ’s Steakery.
Derden presented a slide show highlighting historical documents and several discovered artifacts to update the story of Camp Lawton, a Civil War Confederate prisoner of war camp located at modern-day Magnolia Springs State Park near Millen.
“I started writing my book in 2008 because I felt the time had come when I could write a book. I was not thinking about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and I was not aware that Georgia Southern University would very soon be excavating Camp Lawton,” Derden told the crowd. “I just wanted to write a book about something that I had been working on since 1973.”
The professor’s individual research has led him to become the foremost historian on Camp Lawton and an integral part of ongoing archaeological work at the site, which is being led by Georgia Southern University.
On Monday, Derden shared some of his finds, and those being made by dig teams at Magnolia Springs.
He presented photographs of coins, silverware and other metal items found at Camp Lawton; and poured through Civil War-era drawings and maps sketched by multiple prisoners.
One slide featured grocery store coins from an address in Ohio — presumably dropped by an immigrant Union soldier; another showed a tourniquet buckle, the manufacturer’s name still visible on the side.
Other slides included belts, a smoking pipe, and 150-year-old bricks that were once part of giant caldrons located inside the prison grounds.
Using evidence gathered, Derden provided insight into what life was like for more than 10,000 prisoners who occupied the camp for the approximately six weeks it operated — Sherman’s March to the Sea forced the evacuation of all POWs a little more than a month after the prison’s construction.
“These items are just a sample of what we’ve seen,” Derden said. “Hundreds of things have been found.”
The 42-acre Camp Lawton compound was constructed in 1864 and was framed by a 15-foot-high stockade wall.
Confederate Gen. John H. Winder noted Camp Lawton could easily hold at least 32,000 prisoners.
“It is, I presume, the largest prison in the world," he wrote.
Archaeologists and historians treasure the site for how well it has been preserved in the 150 years since it was burned to the ground.
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.