THE TOWN THAT WAS

An archaeologist’s dream: Exploring Camp Asylum

dhinshaw@thestate.com August 4, 2013 

  • ‘Prison Life in the South’ by A.O. Abbott

    One of the most complete diaries that USC archaeologist Chester DePratter has come across in his research on Camp Asylum was published in 1865 by a Union lieutenant, who documented life at nine Southern prisoner of war camps, including in Columbia. Excerpts follow:

    COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA – “ASYLUM PRISON”

    “True to their promise ‘that, if we did not stop escaping, they would put us in a pen, as the enlisted men were,’ the 11th of December, a cold, cheerless and windy day, an order came for us to be ready to move the following day to the city (of Columbia).”

    “We were marched through the principal street of the city, yet, compared with Northern cities, it had the appearance of a Sabbath. Men, women and children looked out upon us as we passed, indulging in coarse, vulgar jest at our expense, that occasionally met our ears.”

    “We reached the Insane Asylum yard about 3 p.m., and after some delay were sent inside. There we found for our accommodation two small buildings to be used as hospitals, and a shell of another, 24 feet square, with a part of a roof on. But it was of no use to repine or grumble. We must make the best of our situation by improving upon it all we could.

    “The yard contained about 2 acres, surrounded by a brick wall on three sides 10 feet high and 2 feet thick. The fourth side was a board fence, which separated us from the asylum.”

    QUARTERS

    “(T)hey sent in some old tents and pieces of tents, which were used to the best advantage possible, and, by digging holes in the ground, crawling under the buildings, and making clay houses, nearly all had some place they called ‘quarters.’ Yet many, very many of them were no better than the open air, for they were poor protection against the storm and cold. The weather at this time was cold and freezing, our clothing was growing thinner and thinner, and it was not an unusual thing to find officers walking at all times of the night to keep warm.”

    RATIONS

    “The following ‘bill of fare’ was an average of the day’s meals at this place. Breakfast, hot mush and sorghum, or corn-meal cakes and sorghum; dinner and supper together, cold mush and sorghum, or corn-meal cakes, with a little rice in them, once in five days, with sorghum; dessert, pone and sorghum (if you could borrow a skillet to bake in). . . . Those who had money, or could get it, of course fared better, being able to buy a little meat, sweet potatoes, flour, beans, pepper, etc.”

    AMUSEMENTS

    “The principal amusement here was furnished by a ‘band’ and ‘glee-club.’ ... The instruments were bought while we were in Charleston, and were furnished by contribution, costing some $800 Confederate money. Pleasant evenings they would assemble on the stoop of the hospital, and discourse sweet music to us for hours at a time. Quite often gentlemen and ladies from the city would come up to listen, and see the Yankees. “The ‘glee-club’ was a splendid affair .... ‘Twas by them ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea’ was first sung, bringing down the house with tremendous applause.”

    MEETINGS

    “Dr. Palmer, formerly of New Orleans, came in and preached two very good sermons for us to large and attentive audiences, and another minister from the city came in once. We had a Bible class every day at 12, which was well attended, and very interesting and profitable. Had prayer-meetings on Sabbath evening, and also on Thursday evening. ... Matters at this time seemed to be growing worse and worse. Many of the officers were getting sick, the rations were notoriously small and poor, our clothing was about all gone, and there was no immediate prospect of exchange.”

    “(A) committee was appointed to address a letter to President Lincoln upon the subject, asking that something might be done for us. True, we had heard that each government was to supply its own prisoners with necessaries, but we could not learn that any thing was being done for us.”

  • More information

    Want to donate?

    Chester DePratter has set up a fund for private donations to his archaeological exploration of Columbia’s Camp Asylum. Checks, made out to “USC Educational Foundation,” may be sent to Chester DePratter, S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1321 Pendleton St., University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, 29208. Jot “for prison camp research” in the memo line.

    Tours of the grounds

    So many people are expressing interest in visiting the State Hospital property on Bull Street, the S.C. Department of Mental Health is preparing a page on its website to explain the process for gaining access to the grounds and to make registration forms available online, spokeswoman Tracy LaPointe said.

    The web address is www.state.sc.us/dmh/

    For now, though, visitors should call the main office at (803) 898-8581 for permission to walk the property. The agency does not conduct guided tours.

Chester DePratter is committed to uncovering personal items that Union soldiers may have discarded or dropped on the ground as prisoners of war, held captive inside the walls of Columbia’s state mental hospital.

The 1,200 men weren’t held there long, just two months. But period drawings from what was called Camp Asylum show where they were corralled as the calendar turned from the Christmas season of 1864 to the New Year of 1865.

Many wrote of their experiences in letters home. Dozens either kept diaries or wrote memoirs. Some lectured on their experiences after the war, their accounts captured by newspaper reporters and magazine writers, said DePratter, head of the research division at the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

So while many Columbians don’t know about Camp Asylum — DePratter only heard about it for the first time four years ago — it’s well-documented: The archaeologist has filled 31 2-inch notebooks with firsthand accounts and stories about people who lived in the makeshift camp on the grounds of the mental hospital on today’s Bull Street.

The prisoners lived in barracks or tents, if they were lucky, many bedding down in shallow holes they dug for themselves on the 3.5-acre field.

Now, as Greenville developer Bob Hughes contemplates building a minor-league baseball park, shops and houses on the property he’s set to buy, DePratter is scrambling to raise money for an archaeological dig at Camp Asylum.

He says it will cost $300,000 to $400,000 to excavate the site and process the collections – money he doesn’t have time to raise through the traditional avenue of grants.

He’s been guaranteed four months to do field work, and hopes to start by the end of the year.

‘I had no idea’

For the past decade, there’s been serious talk about developing the State Hospital property on Bull Street.

But with Hughes’ plans now on a fast track, and a realization that buildings will be demolished, curiosity and interest are high.

Amateur photographers are flocking to the property, eager to memorialize structures that may not survive the project. Sixty-five people signed up to walk the property Saturday, more than security officers at the S.C. Department of Mental Health preferred, spokeswoman Tracy LaPointe said.

One of the visitors, Elza Hayen, 36, remembers riding down Bull Street, looking out the car window as a child and seeing the big building with ASYLUM carved on top. She always wondered what was happening behind those windows.

“It’s a mystery wrapped up in a lot of history,” said Hayen, who’s been photographing the site from her car almost daily for the past two weeks.

“I had no idea,” she said. “Prisoners of war.”

David Bush, director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg University, said few Civil War POW camps are “memorialized,” so people living nearby often are unaware of them.

“These things are known historically as existing, but a lot of time they drop out of what we call the public memory,” Bush said.

Of 65 “official” POW camps that existed during the Civil War, Bush knew of significant digs at just three. That includes one where he’s been working at Johnson’s Island, a 17-acre camp on Lake Erie in northwest Ohio, for the past 25 years.

What Bush called “minimal work” has been done to document perhaps a half-dozen more of the camps, he said.

“Prisoner of war facilities are not typically the kinds of resources associated with war that people like to maintain in memory,” he said. “There are usually atrocities associated with them.”

Artifacts to discover

For most of his career, DePratter didn’t know there was once a prisoner of war camp in Columbia, either.

He only learned about it in 2009 after he and his teenage son Russell began studying Civil War history as a shared hobby.

“I am an archaeologist of Spanish exploration in South Carolina,” the bearded DePratter, 65, said last week. “The Civil War was not what I did. But what I found through reading about South Carolina history was there were Civil War prisons here.”

Now he’s considered an expert on Camp Asylum.

“Dr. DePratter has done some of the most in-depth research on a S.C. Civil War site that I have seen in quite a while,” Allen Roberson, director of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, said by email. “He has identified most of the Union soldiers held captive there, documented how they lived and even what they ate.”

A prisoner of war camp called Camp Sorghum was first established in West Columbia. But with so many of the Union officers able to escape, the governor arranged for them to be transferred to the State Hospital grounds, DePratter said.

Turns out the West Columbia camp, where prisoners also were held for about two months, is now the site of a subdivision.

Two other POW camps were being built outside Columbia, but construction was abandoned at the threat of Gen. W.T. Sherman’s March to the Sea.

The threat of Sherman’s sweep through Columbia was behind the decision to close Camp Asylum, too, DePratter said. The only thing that remains on the Department of Mental Health campus from the days of Camp Asylum is the towering brick wall along what’s now Calhoun Street, plus two segments of walls inside the property.

Despite prisoners’ short stay there, DePratter is convinced there will be plenty of artifacts.

“There’s going to be personal items that were owned by the officers and lost: Buttons, pocket knives, identification badges, uniform insignia,” he said. “There’ll also be things like craft items,” perhaps handmade dice or chess pieces.

The dig could uncover items the prisoners received from traders. Though the prisoners mostly bought food from traveling salesmen, they also purchased personal items such as pens, sewing needles, ink and cooking implements, DePratter said.

One thing that distinguishes Camp Asylum from all others is only one man died there. DePratter said the camp was supplied with fresh water, and prisoners had medical care.

“We have a camp that’s different from all the others,” he said. “People weren’t dying like flies.”

The story under the ground

Hughes has committed $25,000 toward DePratter’s exploration of the site, and Mayor Steve Benjamin said he’ll ask City Council this week to match that with an unspecified amount in tourist-tax revenues.

That would get DePratter’s dig started with borings that would “determine what kind of information might be there and where it might be,” Benjamin said.

DePratter — who also wants to write a book, mount an exhibition of artifacts and produce two films about the site — said he hopes private donors will come forward.

“I’m pretty much dropping everything else that I’ve been working on, and thinking about doing, to make sure this happens,” he said. “It’s a matter of finding the money and finding a crew and then getting out there and doing the field work.

“We will do it. There’s no question. ... It’s just not something you can walk away from.”

Benjamin said he’s excited by the prospect of the excavation at yet another urban site that could help tell the story of daily life through artifacts buried in the ground. “It has a great deal of promise by helping tell the story of what was one of the most challenging and painful times in American history as it relates to Columbia,” he said.

In recent years, the Historic Columbia Foundation has conducted archaeological digs at five of its six house museums, most recently at the Modjeska Simkins House. Director Robin Waites said the organization may be willing to provide staff to help with DePratter’s work.

“Honestly, once they start a project and you see what they find, it’s like a treasure hunt,” Waites said. “It’s really fun to see the process but also to understand then what they as archaeologists can glean from all those little broken pieces of glass or ceramic or bones.

“They can build an entire story from what they find under the ground.”

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