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Race To Unearth Civil War-Era Artifacts Before Developer Digs In

Apr 23, 2014
Originally published on April 23, 2014 9:52 am

About a dozen archaeologists in downtown Columbia, S.C., are focused on a 165-acre sliver of land that was a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. Last summer, the property was sold, and the group is trying to recover artifacts before a developer builds condos and shops there.

"We're out here to salvage what we can in advance of that development," says Chester DePratter, a University of South Carolina archaeologist. Time is running out: DePratter and his team have a permit to excavate until April 30.

More than a thousand Union officers were imprisoned here during the winter of 1864. The site had been an exercise yard for patients at a mental health asylum, so the prison quickly became known as Camp Asylum.

Gen. Sherman was conducting a scorched-earth attack on the South, and DePratter says the Confederacy moved the prisoners around a lot to avoid Sherman's march.

"When they were let in through the gates here on Dec. 12, 1864, most of them had just a single blanket," says DePratter. "Their only option to get out of the wind and the cold, for many of them, was just to dig a hole in the ground."

These holes are what DePratter and his team are looking for, hoping to find anything the Union officers left behind.

Archaeologist Heathley Johnson is about waist-deep in a hole that workers discovered a few days earlier.

"I found a lead bale seal for like a bale of cotton or goods. And I've found another little piece of lead that looked like it had been flattened and folded over," says Johnson. "So they were just either idly carving on it or perhaps making a gaming piece or a chess piece."

They've also found some buttons, some combs and a piece of bright blue uniform fabric.

About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the Civil War, but only one prisoner died at Camp Asylum. Joe Long, a curator at the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum, suspects that the time of year could have had something to do with the low death rate.

"It was winter and that definitely meant the danger of exposure and hypothermia. But disease did not spread quickly in those months," Long says. They did what they could to keep their spirits up, he says.

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

Archaeologists have pored over diaries and letters from the prisoners, but most of them talk about the weather, lack of food and missing their families, rather than their possessions. There is very little information about what the Union prisoners might have left behind. So DePratter and his team dig. Sometimes the unexpected turns up.

"I just found this," says archaeologist Chris Parker, holding a small object in his hand, about 2 inches long. He's grinning.

"This is an interesting piece. It's not from the prison period," says DePratter. "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 probably a knife."

There is no telling what these archaeologists might find, but 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 be buried.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In South Carolina, archaeologists have embarked on a high speed dig - they're unearthing artifacts from a site where the Confederate Army held Union officers as prisoners during the Civil War - before real estate developers take it over. From member station WFAE, Kevin Kniestedt paid a visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

KEVIN KNIESTEDT, BYLINE: About a dozen or so archaeologists 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.

CHESTER DEPRATTER: We're out here to salvage what we can in advance of that development.

KNIESTEDT: University of South Carolina archaeologist Chester DePratter and his team are trying to salvage what's left of a Union officer POW camp. And time is running out.

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

KNIESTEDT: One-thousand, two hundred and fifty Union officers were imprisoned here during the winter of 1864. At the time, it was an exercise yard for the patients at what was then a mental health asylum, so the prison quickly became known as Camp Asylum. Gen. Sherman was conducting a scorched earth attack on the South, and Depratter says the Confederacy moved the prisoners around a lot to avoid 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. Their only option to get out of the wind and the cold, for many of them, was to just dig a hole in the ground.

KNIESTEDT: And these holes are what DePratter and his team are looking for, hoping to find anything that these Union officers left behind. Archaeologist Heathley Johnson is about waist-deep in a hole that workers discovered a few days earlier. He's found a few things so far.

HEATHLEY JOHNSON: I found a lead bale seal for like a bale of cotton or goods. And I found another little piece of lead that looked like it had been flattened and folded over. So they were either idly carving on it or perhaps making a gaming piece or a chess piece or something.

KNIESTEDT: They've also found some buttons, some combs, and a piece of bright blue uniform fabric. About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the Civil War, 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.

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

KNIESTEDT: 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 you can sing all of the federal or Yankee songs that you want, but you have to balance each one with a Confederate song.

KNIESTEDT: Archaeologists have poured over diaries and letters from the prisoners, but most of them talk about the weather, lack of food, and missing their families back home rather than possessions. There's very little information about what the Union prisoners might have left behind. So DePratter and his team dig. And sometimes the unexpected turns up.

CHRIS PARKER: I just found this.

DEPRATTER: Whatcha got?

KNIESTEDT: Archaeologist Chris Parker has a small object in his hand, about two inches long. A grin appears on DePratter's face.

DEPRATTER: 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 probably a knife.

KNIESTEDT: There's no telling what these archaeologists might find, but 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. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Kniestedt in Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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