DERDEN: The World's Largest Prison (2012)

Posted: 9/18/2013
Reviewed By: Angela M. Zombek

The World's Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton by John K. Derden. Mercer University Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 0881464155. $35.00.

A military prison need not have operated for long to warrant remembrance. That is the primary premise from which John K. Derden begins to record the short history of Camp Lawton Prison. Indeed, Derden is correct. Even though Camp Lawton was only open for six weeks, the Millen, Georgia prison, as Derden contends, illustrated of some of the most important aspects of wartime imprisonment that scholars have thus far identified. Derden’s work clearly demonstrates how the prison’s guards, inmates, and location shed light on the treatment of Union prisoners of war, illuminates how guards shared prisoners’ misery, highlights the “abilities and disabilities of the Confederacy in the last states of the war,” and magnifies the partisanship and emotion surrounding the issues of prisoners’ experiences, failed exchanges, and character of the captors (4).

Much has been written on Civil War prisons both by contemporaries who lived through the conflict and by later historians. Camp Lawton, however, remains an exception. And it is this inattention that Derden sought to rectify as he embarked on his study. Tracing Camp Lawton’s history was no easy task. Derden notes that only a limited number of first-hand accounts exist. Nonetheless, Derden culled together the available accounts from Confederate officials, incarcerated prisoners of war, and Union soldiers who passed by the camp with General William T. Sherman’s forces. He also discovered some new material during his research that enabled him to paint a reasonably good picture of how Confederate authorities organized inmates into “divisions” consisting of 1000 to 1250 inmates each, how prisoners passed time playing games, cleaning clothes, talking with their fellow captives, or agreeing to work for their captors under oath – a choice often met with derision from fellow captives. Derden also notes how incarceration drove many to either God or despair as rumors of exchanges abounded and the war dragged on.

Even though Derden was able to paint a vivid picture of life within the camp during the Civil War and interestingly traced how Camp Lawton’s history has been recovered over the years, he found it more challenging to determine exactly how many people died at Camp Lawton. This was a major concern since much of the extant scholarship on Civil War prisons focuses on the death rate of notorious prisons like Andersonville and Elmira. Since Confederate authorities created Camp Lawton in 1864 to relieve Andersonville, which was severely overcrowded and ill-supplied, one might assume that conditions across the board were better at the Millen prison. Although inmates had far superior water at Camp Lawton, which flowed from a large artesian spring around which the camp was located, they still suffered from lack of clothing and poor rations. Additionally, Camp Lawton’s inmates lived exposed to the Georgia climate, which made them susceptible to the same diseases that plagued many prisoners of war in both the North and South: malaria, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, flux, cholera, nostalgia, consumption, pneumonia, scurvy, yellow fever, and gangrene (170). Many men died at Camp Lawton, but as Derden notes, most of those who perished ended up buried in Beaufort, South Carolina, after being exhumed and relocated. Accurate records of the dead were hard to come by for Derden – he came across conflicting reports: one from Camp Commandant Vowels written November 8, 1864, another from inmate Robert Knox Sneden, and two from the Lawton National Cemetery Roll of Honor Vol. XIV and XVII. These sources give a fairly broad range of the total deaths stretching from 486-1600. As he compared and contrasted the data, Derden concluded that a reasonable estimate of the dead was 713, a significant amount for a prison whose population peaked at 10,000 (204 and 3).

In the end, both Derden and many Camp Lawton inmates concluded, contrary to the sentiments of many prisoners of war and historians of other camps, that the prison’s commanding officer was not to blame for the circumstances and that there was little that Southerners could have done to improve prison conditions. Derden noted that inmates had a “generally positive” opinion of Camp Lawton’s ranking officer, Captain D.W. Vowels, an attitude that contrasted markedly with those held towards Andersonville Commandant Henry Wirz and Confederate Commissary General of Prisoners General John Winder (113). At the end of the book, Derden departs from other interpretations of Civil War prisons that focus on intentional maltreatment by concluding that if the South lacked the ability to transport supplies and feed its armies and civilians then one can certainly “understand that the needs of the prisoners of war would be given lesser consideration” (222). And while this interpretation certainly could be seen as Southern apologia, it perhaps more accurately describes the situation of a government and a people strained by war.
 

Angela M. Zombek is an Assistant Professor of History at St. Petersburg College.

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