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Civil War-era camp for POWs yields history lessons

Crews excavated the site of a Civil War-era prison that once held 1,500 Union officers in Columbia, S.C. in January.

Susanne Schafer/Associated Press

Crews excavated the site of a Civil War-era prison that once held 1,500 Union officers in Columbia, S.C. in January.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Racing against time, South Carolina archeologists are digging to uncover the remnants of a Civil War-era prisoner-of-war camp before the site in downtown Columbia is cleared to make room for a mixed-use development.

The researchers have been given four months to excavate a small portion of the 165-acre grounds of the former South Carolina State Hospital to find the remnants of what was once known as ‘‘Camp Asylum.’’ Conditions at the camp, which held 1,500 Union Army officers during the winter of 1864-65, were so dire that soldiers dug and lived in holes in the ground, which provided shelter against the cold.

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The site was sold to a developer for $15 million last summer, amid hopes it becomes an urban campus of shops and apartments and possibly a minor league baseball field.

Chief archeologist Chester DePratter said researchers are digging through soil to locate the holes — the largest being 7 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 3 feet deep — as well as whatever possessions the officers may have left behind.

‘‘Almost everybody lived in holes, although the Confederacy did try to procure tents along the way, as they could obtain them,’’ said DePratter, a research archeologist with the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

DePratter said he has been able to track down about 40 diaries written by camp survivors, telling tales of suffering and survival, as well as dozens of letters written by the prisoners about their experiences.

‘‘It’s hard to imagine. They all talk about their clothing being threadbare, many of them had no shoes. They shared the blankets they had, three or four together spoon fashion and put a blanket over them’’ to stay warm, DePratter said. ‘‘They wrote about how every prisoner in the camp would walk about at night to keep from freezing to death.’’

Amazingly, only one officer died there.

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