Bull Street Site

Archaeologists unearth pits where Civil War POWs sheltered themselves at Columbia’s Camp Asylum

dhinshaw@thestate.comJanuary 27, 2014 

  • Archaeology tours

    The Historic Columbia Foundation is arranging tours of the archaeological site in Columbia where Union prisoners of war were held outdoors for two months in the winter of 1864-65.

    Tours will be given at 11 a.m. and again at 1 p.m. on Fridays, starting Feb. 14 and continuing through April 25, with the exception of April 4. Tour leader will be archaeologist Chester DePratter. Cost is $10.

    Reservations may be made online at www.historiccolumbia.org or by phone at (803) 252-1770 ext. 23.

    Additionally, the Confederate Relic Room is offering tours for students of public, private and home schools. Free.

    For more, contact curator of education Joe Long at (803) 737-8095 or 737-8098 or email wjlong@crr.sc.gov.

    Dawn Hinshaw

Archaeologists exploring the site of a Civil War-era prison camp in Columbia have uncovered three pits they say Union soldiers dug as crude shelter against the winter of 1864-65.

One of the earthen pits on the grounds of the S.C. State Hospital held secret a half-dozen artifacts, too, left behind by a prisoner of war and then covered over by those who ran the prison known as Camp Asylum.

The items included:

•  A button made of brass and embossed with an eagle

•  A straight pin visible in the dirt only because its copper had turned bright green

•  A rubber moustache comb to remove lice

•  An iron mug

•  A fragment of woolen fabric that lead archaeologist Chester DePratter said was sky blue, likely the swatch of a Union uniform.

Four weeks into the exploration of the 3.5-acre site, the crew of seven archaeologists is working against the clock.

Money is tight. Bad weather has stolen four days. And they’ve been given just four months to work before the Bull Street property is redeveloped.

“In the end, we’re going to walk away with a good part of the site untouched,” DePratter said.

Monday, the crew split up to work on two corners.

The first holds the pits, ringed by the remnants of bricks that DePratter said would have provided greater shelter from wind. Using trowels and brushes, crew members were able to discern the pits because of changes in soil color 8- to 13-inches below ground.

They were looking for pits because prisoners wrote first-hand accounts of their weeks in Columbia.

And the magazine Harper’s Weekly published four drawings of the property, helping DePratter and his team target their work.

“Here’s an example of how big it is, how deep it is and, when we’re done, the kind of items they used every day,” the archaeologist said, looking into a deep hole where he said a soldier would have lived.

Work began at a second corner of the property Monday.

That’s where barracks were built to accommodate just 400 of the 1,500 soldiers herded to the mental hospital as prisoners at the war’s end.

DePratter, head of research at the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, said he has targeted a third place for exploration, a tract where he believes a hospital that treated prisoners was located.

“We may get lucky here,” DePratter said, displaying typical optimism.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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