Although records are incomplete, the prison guard was probably comprised of elements of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Georgia Reserves, the Florida Light Artillery, and the 55th Georgia. Commanded by Colonel Henry Forno, the reserve units were composed basically of teenage males and older men who were poorly equipped and trained. The prison commandant was Captain D.W. Vowles, and the chief surgeon was Dr. Isaiah H. White. On November 8, Vowles submitted the only existent camp return to the Richmond authorities. It listed 10,299 POWs at the prison, of whom 349 had enlisted in the Confederate Army, 486 had died, and 285 were working at the prison.
Despite certain improvements over Andersonville in rations (quality, variety, and quantity — at least initially), water supply, space, and sanitation, Camp Lawton POWs ultimately suffered the privations of insufficient rations, inadequate housing, damaging exposure, and poor medical care. Among the events transpiring at Camp Lawton during its brief history was a mock presidential election held among the POWs in November in which Lincoln was the easy victor. When Confederates attempted to recruit their captives for military and other service, some “galvanized” and joined the Confederate Army; others signed paroles and worked as butchers, administrative clerks, or cobblers. In the middle of November, an exchange of sick prisoners was arranged, and many Camp Lawton inmates were among the several thousand Union and Confederate POWs who were exchanged through the port of Savannah.
Initially, POW burials were located near the railroad in a series of three trenches; later burials were located in a trench near the mill pond downstream from the stockade. Although records differ, at least 725 Union soldiers died at Camp Lawton. Following the war, the Army Quartermaster-General’s Office consolidated the burials of Union dead and established the short-lived Lawton National Cemetery on a four-acre plot near the site of the former prison. A dispute with the landowner led to the closure of the cemetery in February 1868, and the bodies were transferred to Beaufort (S.C.) National Cemetery.
The approach of Sherman’s forces brought Camp Lawton to a precipitous end. The last POWs were evacuated on November 22, barely six weeks after the first prisoners had arrived and only four days before Union cavalry reached the empty stockade. Shipped to Savannah, some POWs were then taken into South Carolina; others were transported to a temporary prison near Blackshear, Georgia. Following the war, the memory of Camp Lawton receded, and the physical remains of the prison almost disappeared. In 1939, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established at the site and began the construction of Magnolia Springs State Park that encompassed almost the entire site of Camp Lawton. Today, the collaborative efforts of historical scholarship and archaeological investigations, as well as information gained from recent document discoveries, are combining to reconstruct the story of “the world’s largest prison.”