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.”