Camp Lawton Prison
Camp Lawton POW prison during the Civil War housed around 10,000 Union Troops from Oct. 10 – Nov. 22, 1864. It was designed as the “world’s largest prison” by Gen. John H. Winder, a 42-acre open-air stockade. It was built originally to relieve the overcrowded and infamous Andersonville prison (Camp Sumter) and to prevent Gen. Sherman’s forces from freeing large numbers of soldiers in his “March to the Sea” campaign. Recently, Georgia State University archaeologists unearthed several artifacts from prisoners at the camp as well as discovered the original 15-foot pine wall structure that surrounded the prison. Since then the site has been off limits to visitors while researchers continue to excavate artifacts.
Backstory and Context
The Camp Lawton prison was a safeguard against Gen. Sherman’s advance in Georgia. It split the prison population between Lawton and Andersonville to prevent Sherman from freeing too many POWs. Lawton was also 1-mile from Augusta railroad that would have helped evacuate the prisoners in the event that Sherman arrived. The prison’s Commandant, Captain D.W. Vowles, only made one report to Richmond in the prison’s six-week tenure. In it Vowles reported that there were 10,299 POWs and 349 had switched allegiance to the Confederacy.
Camp Lawton was built by 300 prisoners and 500 slaves with 40,000 prisoners in mind, but few provisions were made to care for the prisoners besides a stream that ran right through the middle of the camp. It is suggested that it was built to remedy the sickness and death from the overcrowding at Andersonville; however, there were 725 total deaths at Lawton in just six weeks from exposure (subzero temperatures), lack of shelter, low rations, and poor medical care. Prisoners had to build shelter from scavenging the barren area or rely on provisions brought with them to the prison. “Shebangs” were the structures that prisoners made from scrap cloth, papers, and sticks to shield them from the elements. There were 15-foot walls encasing the entire 42 acres and a separate wall built 30 feet inward from the main wall to establish a “dead line” to keep prisoners from escaping. There were also three earthen forts surrounding the prison equipped with canons in the event of mutiny.
Gen. Sherman’s Left Wing (14th and 20th corps.) did eventually reach Camp Lawton. The prison was abandoned just four days prior to their arrival though. The Confederates had had reports that Sherman was marching in their direction and evacuated Lawton with its prisoners. The Left Wing entered the camp and saw a sign reading “650 buried here” next to a pit. They burned every structure on the land before leaving.