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A look back at a Confederate convalescent camp

POSTED: November 15, 2012 7:25 p.m.
A sketch of what the 1862-63 convalescent camp might have looked like. Sketch provided by Norman Tur/

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A recent booklet of historical information, "The Confederate Convalescent Camp located in Springfield, Georgia July 1862 – January 1863," has answered a question as to what occupied the land where the present Effingham County Sheriff’s Office, jail and prison are located and where a new jail is to be built.

During November 1861, the Federal army and navy invaded and captured Hilton Head Island, S.C. In December 1861, they captured Beaufort and Port Royal, S.C. By January 1862, the Federal Army walked onto Tybee Island, with no resistance because the Confederate Army had abandoned it months before.

The Confederate forces did not see a need to station troops at Tybee because they occupied Fort Pulaski, having taken control of it early in the war. The Federal forces immediately upon arrival began construction of earthen forts on Tybee Island. Fort Pulaski had been built with seven-foot thick walls, which at the time of its construction was not able to be penetrated by existing guns.

The Federal army had a new weapon called the rifled cannon. The rifled cannon fired artillery rounds that could hit targets with more accuracy, and the artillery round had a longer range. On April 10, 1862, the Federal army began firing on Fort Pulaski, concentrating their fire on one wall of the fort. By the 11th of April, a hole had been breached through the wall.

Artillery rounds then began coming through the hole and began bounding around inside the fort. Colonel Omstead, commander of the fort, surrendered the fort that day. At this time the Federal troops occupied Hilton Head, Beaufort, Port Royal, Tybee Island and Fort Pulaski, all within a few miles of Savannah. In addition to that the Federal navy set up a naval blockade in the ocean, stopping the flow of ships coming into the port of Savannah.

Savannah was a rail junction for three major railroads: The Central of Georgia Railway, which ran from Savannah up through Georgia to Atlanta, the Atlantic and Gulf ran from Savannah to the bottom of the state toward Florida, and the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, which connected the port cities. Fresh Confederate troops, much-needed supplies and food came out of Alabama, Florida and Georgia on two of these railroads; and then these soldiers and supplies were shipped to the battles up north by way of the Charleston and Savannah Railway.

Since the Federal army and navy had many successful victories in late 1861 and 1862, only miles from Savannah, the Confederate government sent large amounts of state troops and Confederate regiments to Savannah to defend it from future attack by the Federal army. This attack never came but Savannah had become heavily defended.

With the large number of troops defending the coast, other problems came. Soldiers became sick. By the summer of 1862, a great number of them had become ill. The problem became so large that a solution was developed to establish a convalescent camp for the ill. The purpose of the camp would be to treat their ailments, restore their health to a normal state and get them back to their units as soon as possible so that their units would be back at full fighting strength.

The Confederate government established three general hospitals in the area. One was a 100-bed hospital known as Confederate General Hospital Number One, which was known as Oglethorpe Barracks in Savannah. The second was known as Confederate General Hospital Number Two, which had been known as the Savannah Medical College in Savannah. The third was a 270-bed hospital built 30 miles from Savannah at Guyton (formerly known as Whitesville) known as the Guyton Confederate General Hospital.

Soldiers being sent to the convalescent camp were soldiers who were not bedridden but were sick enough that they were of little value to their units. A site for this convalescent camp was found at Springfield, which was five miles from Guyton. Guyton was located on the Central of Georgia Railroad 30 miles north of Savannah. These soldiers could be sent by train to Guyton and then they could march if able or be hauled by wagons on to Springfield.

Dr. William Watson Wilson, a civilian medical doctor from Springfield, was hired on July 2, 1862, to be the convalescent camp physician. In his contract it was recorded that there were 107 patients present on that day and the camp would be called "Camp Wilson."

Because the camp was named for Wilson, it is believed that the camp was on Dr. Wilson’s farm. Dr. Wilson owned land on the west side of Springfield and today 150 years later, it is the site of the Effingham County Sheriff’s office, jail and county prison. Since this was always planned as a temporary facility it would probably have been a tent city housing these sick soldiers. Buildings on the farm such as barns and outbuildings could have been used for storage of food and medical supplies and used as the medical facility for the soldiers.

Lt. Col. Edward Bird, commander of the 2nd Battalion, Georgia Cavalry, was appointed as the convalescent camp commander on July 23, 1862, by order number 235 by General Mercer who was in charge of the garrison at Savannah. Colonel Bird was from Springfield, and he may have used his influence in finding a site for this convalescent camp, and so General Mercer assigned him the duty to establish the camp.

How long he stayed at this position is unknown, but by the end of December 1862, Bird inspected and mustered the 1st Georgia Battalion of Partisan Rangers at their camp Bona Bella (known today as Isle of Hope).

From the Savannah Republican, a newspaper published in Savannah, dated August 14, 1862, we find "Guyton Hospital, located at Whitesville (Guyton) Number 3, Central Railroad, is now a very important point being (together with Springfield, where a convalescent camp is located) the headquarters of the sick from every point — here preparations are being made on a large scale for the accommodations of patients from other hospitals and camps, and daily accessions are being made to the large number already there. Vegetables of every kind, and greens and collards even will be most gratefully received. Convalescent men have to be fed and strengthened, and their appetites crave their familiar home diet." "Springfield, six miles from Whitesville (by the Civil War had been renamed Guyton) is a beautiful location, where several hundred convalescents, still unfit for duty, are rapidly improving. Thanks to the wise forethought of those who originated and executed this admirable plan in connection with Guyton Hospital. There is a hospital attached to this camp also. There is a want for proper nurses and nourishment there. We trust that want will soon be supplied by the people of the surrounding country." The convalescent camp had grown from 107 patients July 2, 1862, to more than 200 patients by Aug. 14, 1862.

From a requisition for medical and hospital supplies from the Convalescent Camp at Springfield dated Sept. 5, 1862, Dr. W.W. Wilson requested medicines for four officers and 622 enlisted soldiers, so the camp had grown to more than 600 patients by this date.

A requisition for medical and hospital supplies from the convalescent camp on Oct. 6, 1862, shows Assistant Surgeon M. Bonner requested medicines for two officers and 490 enlisted soldiers plus 13 others entitled to medicine (this could have been the number of hospital staff employed by the camp), so more than 500 were at the camp on that date.

The Confederate convalescent camp probably closed at the end of December 1862 or in January 1863. Dr. Wilson took another job (as a contracted physician) with the Confederate Engineer Department in Savannah and was being paid on an individual pay document at the end of February 1863. Norman Turner believes he would have been the last person working, since the camp was located on his farm (the camp known as Camp Wilson).

Norman found a total of 30 people who worked at the camp, including two doctors, two hospital stewards, two ward masters, one quartermaster sergeant, one soldier assigned to the commissary, two hospital clerks, eight nurses, three cooks, one lady who washed clothes, three teamsters (hospital wagon drivers) and three other men on special duty there. Norman is sure there were others he did not find.

He also found and identified 772 patients who were sent to the Springfield Confederate Convalescent Camp during the period July 1862 to January 1863, of which he identified six soldiers who died in the camp during the time while it operated. He is sure more were sent there although he never found them.

Now, 150 years later, we see how Effingham supported the cause of the Civil War and its impact on the soldiers who were sheltered here. There is history underneath the jail and prison that houses criminals in Effingham today.

This was written by local historian Norman V. Turner, Chief Warrant Officer, U.S.A., retired. The story was compiled by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: hesexleyherald@aol.com.

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