Secrets the ground holds: Civil War prison camp study begins at Bull Street

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - 149 years ago almost to the day, 1,200 Union Army officers held as prisoners of war were moved to the grounds of the South Carolina State Asylum on Bull Street.

Today the descendant of a Confederate soldier is searching the former prison site for any artifacts those prisoners left behind.  University of South Carolina researcher Dr. Chester DePratter's great-grandfather was held as a prisoner of war in Elmira, New York.

"It marks an important period in our nation's history and in our state's history," said DePratter.

After getting approval from the City of Columbia, Greenville developer Bob Hughes who bought the Bull Street property in July, and the Department of Mental Health, DePratter began his archaeological study of the site Monday morning.

"There are some things we'll know we'll find," said DePratter. "We should find parts of uniforms, buttons, insignia, numbers of units that they wore on their hats.  Maybe small personal items like pocket knives."

On December 12, 1864, officers held at Camp Sorghum, near the West Columbia entrance to the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden, were moved to the confining walls of the Bull Street asylum.  The move lowered the number of escapes from as many as 400 to two.

"The asylum had high walls around the entire complex," said Joe Long with the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. "So they decided to use the area inside those a place to house prisoners."

Like DePratter, one of Long's ancestors also was imprisoned at Elmira.

Prisoners were held at the site for just a few months.  The Confederate Army evacuated the prisoners as General William T. Sherman's Union Army approached Columbia in February of 1865.

The officers held at Camp Asylum did not suffer as much as other imprisoned soldiers.

"They had a sutler who was here from whom they could buy almost anything," said DePratter. "There was much greater stock for sale in the prison than there was outside the walls in Columbia. There were many reasons for that. One is the prisoners here were officers and they were allowed to have money transferred from the North in the form of gold or silver or federal greenbacks."

"A lot of Civil War prisons on both sides had far worse conditions than Camp Asylum," said Long.  "The people of Columbia were not eating particularly well at that point.  You had prisoners who certainly are suffering privation.  It was the middle of the winter and many of them are living in tents are dugouts, so the hardship was extreme, but they were better fed than at many prison camps."

The Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum has in its collection drawings of the camps done by a Missouri infantry captain who was held there.  It also has a smoking pipe carved out of a briar root by Tennessee Union calvary Lt. John Terrell Robeson that says "Columbia, SC."
One of the officers held at Camp Asylum, Adjutant S.M.H. Byers, wrote a poem called Sherman's March To the Sea, that was set to music by a band of prisoners. Sherman was so impressed by the poem, he appointed Byers to his staff as he continued his march through the Carolinas.  Byers and an associate escaped Camp Asylum as the Confederate Army evacuated Columbia and the two remained in the city as Sherman's army marched in.

These are the stories of Camp Asylum above ground.  There's more beneath the surface and it's up to DePratter to find them.

"Prisoners leave behind sometimes more artifacts than you might think.  And each one of them gives insight into someone's life," said Long. "I'm glad they are exploring this. I can't wait to see what comes up out of the ground."

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