Sunday, August 22, 2010

Incredible Find

The weather has been rainy and cold at nights.  Many prisoners have died from exposure, as not more than half of us have any shelter but a blanket propped upon sticks. . . . Our rations have grown smaller in bulk too, and we have the same hunger as of old.

So wrote Private Robert Knox Sneden.  A Union soldier, he survived the confinement and  went on to add his artistic talents and journals to that horrible chapter in our history - the Civil War.  He was imprisoned at  Andersonville and wrote this passage in his diary on Nov. 1, 1864.

Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumpter, was a complete hole.   The  most infamous and one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the Confederacy during the Civil War, it was used for 14 months.  During that time, 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there. Sad to say, almost 13,000 never left (including a distant uncle of mine - Harry Stemple). Only 26 acres in size, thousands of men were stuffed in there at any one time.  They died from disease and malnutrition brought on from over-crowding, poor sanitation, and exposure.   Some died because they chose to cross the "line of death" near the stockade wall and get shot by the guards.  Apparently, over 40% of Union Prisoner of War casualties occurred here.    August of 1864 was said to be the most hellish time.  One can only imagine the filth, the stench, and the oppressive heat of the Deep South's summer.  (The picture below is Andersonville.)

I should probably tell you that the Private's quote was not from his time at Andersonville. 

Read on......

With such massive overcrowding, more camps were built.   (We'll just have to forget that the Rebels had no way to manage camps of any size; resources late in the war were minimal.)  One was called Camp Lawton .  Within a matter of months,  General  William Tecumseh Sherman,  plowing his way through the guts of the Confederacy, came across the freshly abandoned camp.  Furious with what they found, including the board on a fresh pile of dirt marked "650 buried here", they torched it and the "town" of Millen just up the road.  The quote at the beginning of this post and the image below are from  Sneden's collection.

As the decades ticked by and memories faded, the exact location of the camp was lost.  Everybody was pretty sure that it was in or near Magnolia Springs State Park (south of Augusta, Georgia), but nobody knew exactly where.  Yeah, there were some earthworks that remained in the area but that did not seem to help much.  The state of Georgia even went to the extent of installing interpretive markers, but they really had no clue where the camp was, as odd as that sounds.   After all, it was only used for a few weeks, so most scholars never really cared to find it.

Well, last week, an announcement was made by Kevin Chapman, a graduate student from Georgia Southern University. 

Yeah, he found it.  

Sure, the logs that made up the stockade walls were have long since rotted, but archaeologists can easily figure out where they stood. After determining the location of the stockade, imagine their surprise when their test trenches brought up coins, pipes (with toothmarks),  and a tourniquet buckle (a simple gizmo used to tighten the straps during an amputation).   

The site is intact.  For a century and a half, it sat there and nobody looted the place. It is now being called one of the most significant Civil War discoveries in decades.  Now, qualified archaeologists, instead of treasure hunters and hacks, can use to state of the art technology and techniques to uncover stories from one of the most incredible chapters in American history.

This story is unfolding and it's gonna be cool.  You can read about it here on the website set up by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  It seems pretty complete. Check it regularly.

I will.

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