May all Yankees go to hell!
That was the battle cry, hurled by a local drunk, that awaited some 1,240 bedraggled Union officers, prisoners of the Confederacy, as they tramped past the gates of the South Carolina State Hospital in Columbia on Dec. 12, 1864, and for many the words may have seemed like a cliché.
Hadn’t they already been in hell? First in battle and then, for most of the last year, shuttled from one miserable prison to the next as a weakened Confederacy sought to stay out of the path of advancing Union forces.
Now here they were in their latest holding pen, a makeshift prison on the grounds of the state mental hospital, which they promptly dubbed Camp Asylum.
The prisoners had arrived unannounced by train in Columbia just two months before, where they were first settled on a hilltop near what is now the back entrance to Riverbanks Zoo in West Columbia.
This became Columbia Military Prison — renamed Camp Sorghum by prisoners, in honor of their daily food ration. The five-acre spread without any buildings at all was hardly a proper prison. Nothing but a line of armed guards kept prisoners from escaping, which hundreds managed to do, taking advantage of low visibility at night.
Camp Asylum, which had a wall surrounding a three-and-a-half acre lot that was supposedly the exercise yard for mental patients, was more secure, but prisoners still had little or no protection against the elements.
The camp would only be in existence for two months, as the prisoners would be evacuated to Charlotte on Feb. 14, 1865, mere days before Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman arrived and the capitol city would go up in flames.
That small stretch of time likely seemed an eternity, especially on cold nights. There was only one building on the site when prisoners arrived, a two-story frame structure that was used for the prison hospital. Barracks would spring up over the next few weeks, but only enough to provide shelter for 350-400 of the prisoners, whose numbers would ultimately swell to around 1,500. Some others were lucky enough to get a tent.
Others had nothing, and literally carved their sleeping quarters out of the ground, digging deep oblong pits known as shebangs, where two or more men huddled together.
“These people were living essentially in holes in the ground,” says University of South Carolina archeologist Chester DePratter, “just scooped out and covering them the best they could, through the winter of 1864-65, in conditions much like we’re experiencing today.”
Finding those shebangs — and any other signs of Civil War life on the Bull Street property — is the job of DePratter and his crew of eight professional archeologists, who are working against the clock to make the first and last excavation of Camp Asylum.
Last July, the state sold the long dormant 181-acre hospital grounds to Greenville developer Bob Hughes for $15 million. DePratter has until April 30 to exhume whatever he can before the bulldozers arrive.
As with any archeological excavation, part of the process is getting back to the original soil. In this case that means digging through layers that have accumulated since 1865, such as the remaining fill dirt and rubble from the Parker Building, a three story structure that was erected in the 1880s and torn down in the 1930s.
“There are parts of Camp Asylum that are under three feet or more of rubble and fill,” De Pratter says, “just from the destruction of the Parker building and probably filling in low areas that were there, even when the prison was occupied.”
The crew has already found one shebang, which measures seven-and-a-half feet long, six feet wide and three feet deep. He expects there are hundreds more, provided he can get to them. Some parts of the site are all but inaccessible.
“There’s a network of pipes running all through there and sewer lines, and so just getting down to where the officers were living in 1864 is going to be a challenge,” he says.
Walking with DePratter along the dig site, on grounds that have been desolate for years, it takes a real act of imagination to picture that this spot was once crowded with hundreds of ragged prisoners, all trying to stay warm and occupied, as well as find ways to hold their sanity together.
Some prisoners, such as those who received money from families up north, could buy goods from a local trader, or “sutler,” who could get them whatever they wanted, usually at inflated prices.
Some were at least able to eat well — enough that local citizens wrote letters to the paper complaining the prisoners had more to eat than they themselves did.
There was also a glee club, and one enterprising fellow, Adjutant S.H. M. Byers, even wrote a song titled “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” a copy of which was put in the general’s hands as soon as he arrived in Columbia. Sherman recounts in his memoirs that he eventually sent for Byers and made him part of his staff.
For others, Camp Asylum fully lived up to its name. They lost their minds. Lt. Charles Potts, from the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers, left an account of men trying to make soup from sticks and stones.
“Some fine, intelligent men abandoned all hope, and made no effort to cheer up, or be hopeful for the future,” Potts wrote. “They neglected to keep themselves clean, and would parade about the camp by the hour, caring for no one, and buried in deep thought.”
The guards, he wrote, “were old men, what is known in the South as poor white trash, and a more degraded set of bloodthirsty murderers, I never saw, many of our men being shot down without provocation.”
(There is only record of one death at Camp Asylum, and from natural causes. DePratter said Potts is likely referring to three soldiers who were killed at Camp Sorghum.)
Standing in one of several square excavation sites on the Bull Street grounds, DePratter points out the color gradations in the wall of soil, which show erosion and the process of time.
“See, there’s multiple layers,” he says. “Different colors. Yellows and browns and grays and then red. That’s all disturbed soil.”
That is, soil that’s been changed from its natural condition.
He walks to another square where his crew has dug deeper, back to its 1865 level, where there are lines in the dirt.
“Those are plow scars,” he said. “This was a garden. Those are the furrows that have cut down into the red clay, which is the undisturbed soil. So then we know that this whole area used to be a garden.”
“In parts of the site,” he said in an earlier interview, “the surface the prisoners walked on is less than a foot down. In other places, it’s probably three to five feet down, because of all this pushed-around fill. So we’re beginning our work in the area where there is the least fill, just because we don’t have any way to dig down through all that right away.”
DePratter and his crew have also discovered a Civil War button, a 1853 half-dime made of silver, and they expect to find more the further they dig.
“As we get down into these shebangs, then we’ll find more artifacts down where people were living for a couple of months, and lost buttons or pocketknives, and we’ll find food remains. Who knows what we’ll find. We’re just getting there.”
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