The Last Confederate Prison

PrintPrintEmailEmail

November 17, 1864—Three of our men were frozen to death last night in the stockade! Large fires are going, but many are so reduced in vitality that they easily froze notwithstanding,” wrote Union Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden while imprisoned at Camp Lawton in Millen, Georgia, an overflow camp for the infamous Andersonville prison 160 miles to its west.

Historians know much about this prison camp because Sneden, a 32-year-old former mapmaker and member of the 40th New York Regiment, kept a meticulous diary and drew detailed sketches with pencils on scraps of paper. (After the war he would turn more than 500 of his drawings into watercolors.) Seven hundred men died of starvation and disease in Camp Lawton during its six weeks of operations. Yet after the war, the camp’s name and location disappeared from popular memory. That’s proved a blessing in disguise for the archaeologists who have recently discovered the fort on the grounds of Magnolia Springs State Park.

From January until May, archaeologist Sue Moore and her team of students from Georgia Southern University, following the recommendation of Chris Clark, the commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, excavated the remnants of the 15-foot-high pine stockade that enclosed the 40-acre prison area. The first 30 minutes of excavation yielded a coat button, a musket ball, and a U.S. large cent, a penny measuring more than an inch in diameter and last minted in 1857. “Once we found that cent, we knew we had an undisturbed site,” said Kevin Chapman, Moore’s gradute student.

Chapman believes that the archaeological record will add important details about prison life. “From the personal accounts, we know it was a cold winter, for example,” he says. “But from an archaeological perspective, now we know soldiers had currency to barter with each other and the Confederate guards. They tried to make their lives a little better by inventing things like a homemade pipe.”