When Mike Mull, a lover of and expert in the history of the Confederacy and Civil War, first heard about an exciting new find in the archeology dig at Magnolia Spring State Park, he knew the rumors would start flying.
Excavations at the Camp Lawton Civil War prison site have been ongoing for several years inside the park near Millen. The work has been handled mostly by Georgia Southern professors and students under the watchful eye of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The dig picked up more interest and volunteers at the beginning of the summer and in early July, something was found.
What that something is, however, no one who does know is saying. And after barbed wire went up and a police car was stationed in front of the Magnolia Springs Park entrance, the rumors started building.
“Some think they found gold taken by General Sherman from the Confederacy at the site,” Mull said. “But the craziest one I heard is that the real remains of General Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveler were found. I’m not sure what they found, but I know it’s not those two things.”
What actually was found at the dig will be revealed Wednesday first on a live Web cast at 10 a.m. on www.georgiasouthern.edu and then at the park at 1 p.m. during an open house that will last until 5 p.m. Everyone is invited to the open house hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Southern University.
Kevin Chapman, an archaeology graduate student at Georgia Southern, helps oversee work at the Camp Lawton site. Chapman won’t say what was found, but he did say “There’s no question it will be of great historical significance to anyone with an interest in this site in particular and the Civil War in general.”
Not much remains of Camp Lawton, the largest prison built near the end of the Civil War, but recent discoveries have suggested that there is still much more there than meets the eye.
Camp Lawton was built in 1864 to receive prisoners from the overcrowded and disease-ridden facility at Andersonville, where it’s estimated that some 13,000 Union soldiers died during the 15 months the prison was operational.
It was constructed over 42 acres by 300 Union prisoners and 500 slaves to hold 40,000 men. The prison was located at the site north of Millen because of the readily available spring water and the close proximity — one mile — of the Augusta railroad.
The camp was a log stockade, with guard towers on the walls, and a ditch dug as the last stopping point before the walls. Also, three earthen forts were built with cannons to guard from attack.
At its height in November 1864, Lawton housed 10,000 prisoners. The prisoners were moved when Sherman’s army approached in early
December 1864. His cavalry found the empty prison and burned much of the stockade and the camp buildings.
Very little was known about Camp Lawton until the mid-1990s when a memoir by Robert K. Sneden, a topographical engineer in the Union’s
Army of the Potomac, was discovered. Sneden was captured by Confederate forces in 1863, and spent much of his captivity in Georgia Confederate prisons, including Camp Lawton and Andersonville.
Using the more detailed information from Sneden, a small team of Georgia Department of Transportation archaeologists went to the site in 2005 to try to locate evidence of the stockade walls. Using ground penetrating radar equipment that provided a 3D image of what’s in the ground, data showed two strong linear features that could have been the stockade walls. While artifacts were found, no major sections of Camp Lawton were found.
In the spring earlier this year, Chapman and a group of GSU students began looking once again for the stockade walls and members of the public were invited to be part of the excavations on certain weekends.
It was clear something of interest was found in early July when the barbed wire and police car showed up.
Daryl Drake is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Buckhead-Lawton Camp that is based in Millen. He has studied the history of the camp closely and has made many trips to the site. He has one theory about what was found.
Sherman’s men burned just about everything, but there is a significant part of the camp that would have survived fire,” Drake said. “There were several very large brick ovens built for cooking. I have heard an area near the fish hatchery part of the park is where whatever was found is located. That would be where the ovens were, according to the map. It’s just a theory. It sure is fun to speculate.”
Mull also hopes the new piece of history unveiled Wednesday will make the park a place to attract more history buffs and some tourists to the Millen area.
“The folks up in Jenkins County have been hit real hard by the economy,” Mull said. “It might add a few jobs or bring some people to Millen who’ll spend some money.”
But Mull also is fascinated by what was found and how it will add to the history of Camp Lawton and the Confederacy.
“I know I’ll be there to find out,” he said.
Mull said rumors also are flying about who will attend a 9 a.m. VIP meeting at the dig site.
“We’ve heard the governor will be there,” he said. “We’ve heard possibly U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar will be there.”
Following the 9 a.m. meeting, the site will be opened to the press at 10 a.m., which will be broadcast on the Georgia Southern Web site. The public will get its chance at 1 p.m.
Chapman said he’ll be glad when the secret is out.
“I’ve had so many people tell me we found a huge stash of Confederate gold,” he said. “I can tell you it’s not gold, but I know people sure will find it interesting.”