Thursday, August 22, 2013

The World's Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton

Sketch of Camp Lawton
Robert Sneden Illustration
(Courtesy of Georgia Southern University)
When Camp Lawton opened in October 1864 it was described as "the world's largest prison." While it might have been the biggest, it had one of the shortest life spans of any Civil War prison.  The prison was only operational for six weeks before it was evacuated as Gen. Sherman's forces marched to the sea. 

Camp Lawton's brief history is excellently presented in John K. Derden's The Story of Camp Lawton. He describes how the prison served as headquarters for the Confederate military prison system, witnessed hundreds of deaths, staged a mock election for president, participated in an exchange of sick prisoners, recruited Union POWs for the Confederate military, and withstood escape attempts.

Mr. Derden has drawn on material in the National Archives other repositories, and libraries to produce both a history of the camp and its rediscovery through archeological investigations.  Derden's scholarship is evident throughout the book from his detailed footnote to his analysis of the camp death toll. 

The life of Union POWs is revealed through diaries and the few letters home.  Adding to the book are 28 illustrations and maps depicting prison life at the camp and an extensive bibliography.

Derden discusses the problems that Brig. Gen. John Winder had in managing the Confederate prison system in the last stages of the war.  The author also presents the problems of  Civil War camps and compares conditions at Lawton and Sumter.  He follows the post-war lives of several POWs and guards as they dealt with the trauma and blame.

John Derden was born into a military family and led a peripatetic childhood living in France, Germany, Oklahoma, Georgia, Hawaii, and Kentucky.  He returned to his native Georgia for college and earned his BSE, MA, and PhD at the University of Georgia and AA at Reinhart University. He was a professor of history for 31 years at East Georgia State College.

This book would make a fine addition to any collection of Civil War prison literature. 

We rate The Story of Camp Lawton

Readers interested in learning more about Camp Lawton and the excellent efforts of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgia Southern University should visit their Camp Lawton website.

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