Camp Asylum site on Bull Street giving up pieces of prisoners' l - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Camp Asylum site on Bull Street giving up pieces of prisoners' lives

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Several artifacts found at Camp Asylum site Several artifacts found at Camp Asylum site

After nearly four weeks of digging at the former Civil War prison camp on the grounds of the Bull Street Asylum, archeologists are finding pieces of history.

"I have a hard-working crew," said University of South Carolina archaeologist Dr. Chester DePratter. "They've opened up a large area and we're moving forward as rapidly as we can."

About 20 USC archaeology students are helping DePratter investigate the three-acre site that was home to about 1,200 Union soldiers held prisoner in the winter of 1864-1865.

"We're going to be training them in different procedures of excavation, maintaining records," he said. "They're a future generation of archaeologists, I hope."

DePratter and his crew started digging the first week of January, but the weather has caused some delays.

"Between rain and snow and frozen ground we've lost a week of work," he said. "So we're a little bit behind than we would like to be."

DePratter has three months to excavate what he can, under his agreement with Bull Street property developer Bob Hughes and the City of Columbia. They're concentrating their search just inside the brick wall that runs along Calhoun Street.

To get to the level of soil that would have been Civil War-era, they had to penetrate a former gravel parking lot and a garden.  Archaeologists are looking for pits the prisoners dug into the ground for shelter from the Columbia winter.

"This was a garden are during the time it was used by the mental health asylum, but that was after it was used by the prison," he said. "We're finding a lot of trash from the late 19th and early 20th century that's been plowed through overlaying these pits. So far we've opened two of these soldiers pits and we're finding a small array of human artifacts from the period 1864-1865."

So far, they've found various buttons, a straight pin, mustache comb, a piece of fabric from a Union officer's uniform, and bones from meat they ate.  But DePratter says he's surprised by what they haven't found.

"The surprise so far is how little we're finding from the Civil War and we've sifted almost all of the dirt from the units...and we've found only a handful of buttons and buckles and those kind of things," he said.

"But in thinking about it, we realized the prisoners who were held here had been captive for four months, for six months, and in some cases, a year. So that their uniforms were in rags and they had very few personal possessions.  So we shouldn't expect to find a lot.  We're hoping when we get down in the bottom of some of these holes where they lived, there will be a stash of bottles or personal items that were lost."

Tours of the site are open to the public.  Dr. DePratter and his staff will lead the tours on Fridays from February 14 to April 25.  Contact the Historic Columbia Foundation at 803-252-1770 Ext. 23 to purchase tickets.

The Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is coordinating tours for school groups.  Call them at 737-8095.

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