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New unearthed artifacts tell more stories about Civil War prison camp

Camp Lawton

Camp Lawton is being called one of the most significant finds in the history of Georgia, and it's right in our back yard. (WRDW-TV / Aug. 18, 2011)

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011

STATESBORO, Ga. -- Exactly one year ago we got our first look at artifacts from the nearly 150-year-old camp in Millen. It's a project that was started by faculty and students at Georgia Southern University.

Camp Lawton is being called one of the most significant finds in the history of Georgia, and it's right in our back yard.

GSU graduate student Matthew Newberry loves digging for mysteries.

"It never gets old, that sense of discovery, of finding something that you're the first person to touch it in 150 years," Newberry said.

Back in July, Newberry unearthed this small copper ring, believed to be from a prisoner from the Union Army's 3rd Corps.

"I knew when I saw it that it was not just a regular ring, it meant something and I think it's going to tell us a lot," he said.

Crews have spent the last 18 months locating the walls and excavating tiny treasures from the site of Camp Lawton, the largest Civil War prison camp.

One by one, each artifact tells a story.

"You get coins that were minted specifically for Niles, Mich. So, you know that the man who brought it there was from Niles, Mich," said GSU graduate student Kevin Chapman. "You think, well maybe one of them came to Camp Lawton and maybe he didn't go home after he came to Camp Lawton."

Brooks Keel, president of GSU, said it's not just about objects.

"It's objects that are tied to individuals that have an actual story to tell," he said.

Also dug up through private collections is the one and only known letter written by a soldier while at Camp Lawton.

"It can tell us a lot about the conditions, about what the prisoner was thinking because even though we have these artifacts that tell us about these prisoners -- this is their words, this is their writing," Newberry said.

In 1864, Cpl. Charles Knox, of New York, wrote to his wife just eight days before the camp was evacuated. He writes about family finances and asks about their 4-year-old son. It's a small glimpse inside the walls of Camp Lawton.

"The letter can tell you much more about the prisoner himself, it's his own words and putting that with artifacts really can tell a good story," Newberry said.

And this team has only just scratched the surface.

"We'll be working there for decades; this isn't a project of years, this is a project of decades," Chapman said.

By the way, Knox did eventually make it back home to New York.

Back in Jenkins County, they've surveyed less than 1 percent of the 16 acres of Camp Lawton, which is now Magnolia Springs State Park.

Search crews never expected they would find this many artifacts, but say the potential is endless. They assumed anything left was lost, looted or destroyed over the years.

Camp Lawton was built to replace the notorious prison in Andersonville, Ga. It housed more than 10,000 Union prisoners but was only used for six weeks. It was evacuated during Sherman's March to the Sea. Their quick exit may be why so many things are still in the ground.

The new artifacts will be added to the others at the Georgia Southern University Museum and will be on display in October.

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