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S.C. archaeologists race to uncover Civil War prison

Feb. 26, 2014 - 10:56AM   |  
University of South Carolina research archaeologist Chester DePratter stands by the archaeological dig of 'Camp Asylum,' the Civil War-era prison that once held 1,500 Union officers on the grounds of the state mental hospital in Columbia, S.C.
University of South Carolina research archaeologist Chester DePratter stands by the archaeological dig of 'Camp Asylum,' the Civil War-era prison that once held 1,500 Union officers on the grounds of the state mental hospital in Columbia, S.C. (Susanne Schafer/AP)
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Racing against time, South Carolina archaeologists are digging to uncover the remnants of a Civil War-era prisoner-of-war camp before the site in downtown Columbia is cleared to make room for development.

The researchers have been given four months to excavate a small portion of the 165-acre grounds of the former South Carolina State Hospital to find the remnants of what once was known as “Camp Asylum.” Conditions at the camp, which held 1,500 Union Army officers during the winter of 1864-’65, were so dire that soldiers dug and lived in holes in the ground, which provided shelter against the cold.

The site was sold to a developer for $15 million last summer, amid hopes it becomes an urban campus of shops and apartments and possibly a minor league baseball field.

Chief archaeologist Chester DePratter said researchers are digging through soil to locate the holes — the largest being 7 feet long, 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep — as well as whatever possessions the officers may have left behind.

“Almost everybody lived in holes, although the Confederacy did try to procure tents along the way, as they could obtain them,” said DePratter, a research archaeologist with the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

DePratter said he’s been able to track down about 40 diaries written by camp survivors, telling tales of suffering and survival, as well as dozens of letters written by the prisoners about their experiences. He said they came from states across the North, and from many different military units.

“It’s hard to imagine. They all talk about their clothing being threadbare, many of them had no shoes. They shared the blankets they had, three or four together spoon-fashion, and put a blanket over them” to stay warm, DePratter said. “They wrote about how every prisoner in the camp would walk about at night to keep from freezing to death.”

Amazingly, only one officer died there.

Officers were useful for prisoner exchanges, so they were shuttled from site to site as the war progressed. After a yellow fever outbreak in Charleston, they were taken to Columbia, where they were put in an open field dubbed “Camp Sorghum” on the western side of the Congaree River across from Columbia. But when hundreds started escaping into the surrounding countryside, they were shifted to the mental hospital’s grounds surrounded by a 10-foot brick wall.

As the researchers dig and sift the reddish earth, they uncover buttons, combs, remnants of clothing and utensils presumably used by the prisoners. One hole contained crudely made bricks the prisoners fashioned by hand, which they stacked for protection from the wind and rain.

Tours — set up through the Historic Columbia Foundation at $10 per person — are being conducted to help bring attention to the archaeology project.

“Prisoners of war are an example of the extraordinary cost of war,” said Eric Leonard, the director of education at the Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia, which also houses a prisoner-of-war museum. “It’s not an easy story to tell, and it’s not a happy story. But it delves into the consequences of war.”

Three days before Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces entered the city, the men were moved to Charlotte, and then to Wilmington, N.C. Shortly thereafter the war ended, and prisoners on both sides were freed.

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