Saturday, May 31, 2014

Camp Asylum, A Civil War Prisoner of War Camp

By Susan F. Craft

Archeology dig site showing where a tent was with a small
fireplace/oven, and the ditch that was dug around it.
     The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology recently completed research and a dig at the site of Camp Asylum, a Union POW camp on the grounds of the SC State Hospital, originally called “The Lunatic Asylum” in Columbia, SC.
A sifter for sorting through
dirt for artifacts.
     Over 1,000 Union officers were imprisoned in the camp from October 1864 until General Sherman’s troops attacked the city February 17, 1865. The officers had been held at camps in Richmond, Virginia, Macon, Georgia, then on to Savannah, and Charleston, before arriving in Columbia.
     Leading the dig was University of South Carolina archeologist Chester DePratter whose team of about a dozen members were allowed only four months to try to salvage the remains of the camp before development begins on the site.

Drawing of Camp Asylum
According to Depratter, when the prisoners were let in through the gates on December 12, 1864, most of them had a single blanket, or two at most, that they could use to wrap around themselves to keep warm. Their only option for shelter, for many of them, was to dig a hole in the ground. DePratter and his team looked for and uncovered the holes, called “shebangs.”

A "shebang" for two prisoners.

     Because the prisoners had few, if any, possessions, the team didn’t uncover many artifacts, which included uniform buttons, combs, coins, and pieces of cloth.
     Anecdote about Camp Asylum --
     Adjutant SMH Byers, an officer in the Fifth Iowa Infantry, escaped from the POW camp on the day General Sherman entered the city. He approached the general and handed him a piece of paper. That evening, as was Sherman’s custom, he emptied his pockets and took a closer look at the paper. It proved to be Sherman’s March to the Sea, which Byers composed while a prisoner at Camp Asylum. Sherman was so impressed, he attached Byers to his staff. Byers later became the United State consul to Switzerland. In various diaries several Columbia women recall being entertained by the Camp Asylum glee club, who sang Sherman’s March to the Sea as well as Dixie.
     My historical fiction, A Perfect Tempest, takes place during the six months of the prison camp. The heroine, Deborah Wingard, is the daughter of one of the asylum’s physicians. Deborah, who falls in love with the commandant of the camp, joins a spy ring to free one of the prisoners, her cousin’s fiancé. Here’s a short excerpt from the book where Deborah and her freed companion, Becca, are taking food to the guards and prisoners.

     Deborah helped load the food onto a mule-drawn cart, slipped a basket filled with biscuits onto her arm, and then she and Becca guided the mule down the hill. As they neared the camp, they heard singing and stopped to listen. Deborah hummed along with the voices that blended in perfect harmony.
     “What’s that tune they’re singing?” Becca asked.
     “It’s Stephen Foster’s ‘I Dream of Jeanie’. The glee club sounds better every time I hear them.”   
     “Yes. Those Yankee boys can sing all right. Sometimes, on real quiet nights I can hear them, and the sound is so sweet, it almost makes me cry.”

Susan F. Craft is the author of the award-winning Revolutionary War novel, The Chamomile.


  1. Thank you Susan for a very interesting post.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

    1. Camp Asylum was such an interesting place with amazing history.

  2. I can see why you chose that setting, Susan. Is that particular dig site now underneath a new building?

    1. A developer has purchased the land and plans to build a community. So, that's why the archeology dig had such a limited time. The SC State Hospital grounds were originally surrounded by a 10-foot high brick wall. It wasn't to keep the patients in, but to create a haven, a safe place (asylum) that would keep the public out. The main building was designed by Robert Mills (architect of the Washington Monument) and is called "The Mills Building" to this day. It has a cupola that I was able to climb to before it was closed to the publice for safety reasons.

  3. Good morning, Susan, thank you for a very interesting post. I've heard the expression "the whole shebang" for as long as I can remember. It makes perfect sense now and it was in the context of shelter and possessions. There's a new TV show coming in early June about American slang. I wonder if there will be a mention of "shebang." Thanks again.

    1. Linda, what fun to discover a fellow etymologist. I love finding out the reasons for words. I hadn't heard about the TV show; will definitely be looking for it. :-)

  4. I would like to share A PERFECT TEMPEST with my Blogger audience. I have read and reviewed Chamomile and enjoyed the book immensely.


    1. Patricia, I remember your fabulous review of The Chamomile and how it almost made me cry. It made all the work researching and writing worth it. :-)

  5. thanks for your post today, this story needs to be heard, so sad that soldiers were treated this way, look at how they are done now. Men and women that choose to be in the military are to be praised for their service. I and others like me probably never even thought of camps like this. within our midst yet hidden away.
    thanks for writing.

    Paula O