During the last days of the Civil War, Confederate forces built a prisoner of war camp in Millen, Ga., to relieve the horrific overcrowding at nearby Andersonville.
Though Camp Lawton eventually held 10,000 prisoners, it was barely six weeks old in November, 1864, when Gen. Sherman's troops arrived in south Georgia. The camp was abruptly abandoned, the prisoners evacuated in the middle of the night, and the stockade was partially burned by Union troops.
A pine forest grew up and Camp Lawton disappeared. Over the years, archaeologists have "shovel tested" the area to locate the stockade walls, but because the camp existed so briefly it was considered to be a low priority, a footnote to the nightmare story of Andersonville.
That changed early this year when a Georgia Southern professor and a graduate student located the stockade, and in the process unearthed hundreds of artifacts in what's being described as a significant find.
“This is one of the most exciting and intriguing Civil War discoveries of the modern era,” said Dr. Sue Moore, anthropology professor at Georgia Southern.
In January, working from documents of the era, Moore and graduate student Kevin Chapman began using ground radar to locate the stockade walls at the site, south of Augusta, that had become a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hatchery in 1948, and had ceased operations in 1996.
Chapman expected to find some post holes. But during his first day of sifting dirt, he found a Union button, then a musket ball, then a large U.S. cent, the size of a half-dollar. "The results have been stunning," he said.
As a part of the Bo Ginn National Fish Hatchery, the site has been protected from amateur diggers, which increases its value, said Mark Musaus, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's one of the most significant finds in recent decades because of its pristine nature."
Chapman said the stockade and other occupied structures comprise less than 10 percent of the 42-acre camp. Of that stockade area, only 1 percent has been studied, he said.
Among the artifacts unearthed is an improvised tobacco pipe, with a bowl made from melted lead bullets and a 3-inch clay stem that bears the teeth-marks of the prisoner who used it.
"When you hold that pipe, you can reach back through history and feel that man," Chapman said. "I'll never get to know his name, but I'll be able to tell a little of his story."
Prisoners were hustled out of the camp with no warning and left most of their meager belongings behind. Researchers found iron nails, a tourniquet buckle, an empty picture frame, bullets, a pocket knife and eating utensils. They were temporarily displayed at the adjoining Magnolia Springs State Park, and later will go on display at the Georgia Southern museum in Statesboro.
While the federal government plans to reopen the hatchery, the Civil War site has been fenced off and will be the subject of continued archaeological surveys for years, Musaus said. U.S. officials postponed announcing the find until this month so that the area could be secured against pilfering.