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Archaeologists Race Against Clock To Unearth Civil War's 'Camp Asylum'

James Legg

Archaeological work requires a lot of patience. Move too fast or dig too much, and you can destroy the precious artifacts you are trying to find. In Columbia, South Carolina, archaeologists are up against a deadline and must move quickly in an effort to excavate a 150 year old Civil War POW camp.

About a dozen or so archeologists are focused on a sliver of this 165-acres in downtown Columbia. Since the 19th century, this has been South Carolina state property. About a decade ago, the property was declared surplus, and last summer, the property was sold and planned for development.

DePratter: And we’re out here to salvage what we can in advance of that development.

University of South Carolina archeologist Chester DePratter is trying to salvage are the remains of a one hundred and fifty year old Civil War Union officer prisoner of war camp. And he and his team don’t have a whole lot of time to get this done.

Depratter: We’re out here right now for a four month field season. So I started on January 6th, and my permit to be here doing excavations ends on April 30th.

Credit James Legg
An archaeologist in one of the holes recovered at Camp Asylum.

To put that in perspective…

Depratter: If this were a project that were being done by an archaeological consulting firm, it would probably be a million dollar project and take a full year at least with a much larger crew than I have.

Instead, DePratter is working with a budget of around $100,000.

Credit James Legg

DePratter and his team are digging on this particular part of the property because 1,250 Union officers were imprisoned here during the winter of 1864. At the time, it was an exercise yard for the patients at what was the mental health asylum, so the prison quickly became known as “Camp Asylum.”

The officers had been held at camps in Richmond, Virginia, Macon, Georgia, then on to Savannah, and Charleston, before arriving in Columbia. The Confederacy moved them around a lot to avoid General Sherman’s march.

Depratter: So when they were let in through the gates here on December 12, 1864, most of them had just a single blanket, or two at most, that they could use to wrap around themselves to keep warm. Their only option, for many of them, was to just dig a hole in the ground.

Credit James Legg
Combs and a button found at Camp Asylum.

And these holes are what DePratter and his team are looking for. Find the holes that these Union officers dug for shelter, and they might find anything that the soldiers left behind.

The holes that were there have been filled in and covered with whatever ground cover has come along over the last 150 years. The archaeologists are peeling away the top layers to get down to this red clay floor. This is something that would typically be done by hand, but in one area of the camp, the clay floor is underneath a compacted gravel parking lot 5 inches thick. To dig this out by hand would take time that the archaeologists don’t have, so DePratter brought in some machinery. That made DePratter a little nervous.

Credit James Legg
Buttons recovered at Camp Asylum.

Depratter: In my career, which is more than 40 years in archaeology, I’ve only resorted to machinery once before. And it was a similar kind of situation where there was some urgency, and we didn’t want to leave important features in the ground if we could get them using machinery judiciously.

The gamble paid off. The machinery’s removal of the top layer revealed several dark spots amongst a sea of bright red clay, a sign of hitting pay dirt.

Credit James Legg
Half Dime and a New York state seal button, both recovered from Camp Asylum.

Archeologist Heathley Johnson is about waist-deep in a hole that workers discovered a few days earlier. These holes are called “shebangs.”

Johnson: I’m excavating this shebang where these soldiers would have lived and slept in. So slowly digging the dirt out, taking the floor down, then screening the dirt to see what’s inside of it.

Johnson has found a few things so far, but nothing extraordinary.

Credit James Legg

Johnson: I found a lead bale seal. For like a bale of cotton or goods. It would have tied it up and clamped to a little lead seal around the strings so basically you would know if it’s been tampered with or opened. And I’ve found another little piece of lead that looked like it had been flattened or folded over. So they were just either idly carving on it or perhaps making a gaming piece or a chess piece or something.

They’ve also found some buttons, some combs, and a piece of bright blue uniform fabric. Chester DePratter says what you find can be kind of a crapshoot.

DePratter: As in archeology always, you never can anticipate what you’re going to find. You just have to keep digging and have a larger sample, and then as you do that, you get a wider variety of materials. 

Credit James Legg

About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the war, accounting for almost 10 percent of all Civil War fatalities, according to The Oxford Companion To American Military History, but only one prisoner died at Camp Asylum.

Joe Long suspects that the time of year could have had something to do with the low death rate.  He’s a curator at the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum.

Long: It was winter, and that definitely mean the danger of exposure and hypothermia. But disease did not spread quickly in those months.

Long also says that, as officers, these men were very well organized. Plus they were used to harsh conditions from battle. The officers were limited to a tin cup or an edge of a plate to dig out their underground shelters. And, Long says, they did what they could to keep their spirits up.

Long: There was a glee club, at the camp, for instance. The informal rule was that you could sing all of the Federal, or Yankee songs that you want, but you have to balance each one with a Confederate song.

None of this, however, gives lead archaeologist Chester DePratter and his team any indication of what possessions might have been left behind. DePratter has poured over diaries and letters from the prisoners, but almost none of them talk about what they might have had on hand. Instead they talk about the weather, lack of food, and missing their families back home.

So DePratter and his team dig.  And sometimes the unexpected turns up.

Parker: I just found this.

DePratter: Whatcha got?

Archaeologist Chris Parker has a small object in his hand, about two inches long. A grin appears on DePratters face.

DePratter: Ha ha. This is an interesting piece. It’s not from the prison period. This is a piece of flake stone probably thousands of years old from Indians who lived here on the site long before the prison was here. It’s flaked along one edge, so it’s really not a spear point. It was probably a knife.

This dig gets some help from University of South Carolina archaeology students, and DePratter welcomes it. By the end of April, this project will be over, developers will be in to build condos, stores, and perhaps even a baseball stadium, and any artifacts remaining underground will likely be buried forever.