You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Camp Asylum, A Civil War POW Camp

A picture of Camp Asylum drawn by one of the Union prisoners.
      The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology recently completed research and a dig at the site of Camp Asylum, a Union POW camp on the grounds of the SC State Hospital, originally called “The Lunatic Asylum” in Columbia, SC.
A sifter for sorting through the
dirt. In the background is part
of the 10-foot brick wall that
once surrounded the entire
Asylum grounds.

      Over 1,000 Union officers were imprisoned in the camp from October 1864 until General Sherman’s troops attacked the city February 17, 1865. The officers had been held at camps in Richmond, Virginia, Macon, Georgia, then on to Savannah, and Charleston, before arriving in Columbia. 

Archeology dig site showing where a tent was with a small

fireplace/oven, and the ditch that was dug around it.

      Leading the dig was University of South Carolina archeologist Chester DePratter whose team of about a dozen members were allowed only four months to try to salvage the remains of the camp before development begins on the site.
      According to Depratter, when the prisoners were let in through the gates on December 12, 1864, most of them had a single blanket, or two at most, that they could use to wrap around themselves to keep warm. Their only option for shelter, for many of them, was to dig a hole in the ground.
      DePratter and his team looked for and uncovered the holes, called “shebangs.”
A "shebang" that was dug for two prisoners, who
would sit on the carved "step" during the day and
sleep in the hole during the night.
Because the prisoners had few, if any, possessions, the team didn’t uncover many artifacts, which included uniform buttons, combs, coins, and pieces of cloth.
Anecdote about Camp Asylum --
      Adjutant SMH Byers, an officer in the Fifth Iowa Infantry, escaped from the POW camp on the day General Sherman entered Columbia, SC. He approached the general and handed him a piece of paper. That evening, as was Sherman’s custom, he emptied his pockets and took a closer look at the paper. It proved to be the words to Sherman’s March to the Sea, which Byers composed while a prisoner at Camp Asylum. Sherman was so impressed, he attached Byers to his staff. Byers later became the United States consul to Switzerland. In various diaries several Columbia women recall being entertained by the Camp Asylum glee club, who sang Sherman’s March to the Sea as well as Dixie.
      My historical fiction, A Perfect Tempest, takes place during the six months of the prison camp. The heroine, Deborah Wingard, is the daughter of one of the asylum’s physicians. Deborah, who falls in love with the commandant of the camp, joins a spy ring to free one of the prisoners, her cousin’s fiancé.
     Here’s a short excerpt from the book where Deborah and her freed companion, Becca, are taking food to the guards and prisoners.

      Deborah helped load the food onto a mule-drawn cart, slipped a basket filled with biscuits onto her arm, and then she and Becca guided the mule down the hill. As they neared the camp, they heard singing and stopped to listen. Deborah hummed along with the voices that blended in perfect harmony.
      “What’s that tune they’re singing?” Becca asked.
      “It’s Stephen Foster’s ‘I Dream of Jeanie’. The glee club sounds better every time I hear them.”
      “Yes. Those Yankee boys can sing all right. Sometimes, on real quiet nights I can hear them, and the sound is so sweet, it almost makes me cry.”