State historic marker at site, photo courtesy of the author
“After leaving the cars we were marched off into the pine woods, by the side of a considerable stream, and told that this was to be our camp.” This Federal prisoner wrote of his new home in Pierce County, Georgia – Camp Blackshear. Major General William T. Sherman’s force continued to advance across the interior of Georgia on their way to Savannah, and Confederate officials realized they must relocate the prisoners held at Millen’s Camp Lawton before advance elements of Sherman’s troops arrived. On November 22, 1864, prisoners at Lawton began boarding trains bound for alternate holding facilities; eventually, 5,000 men traveled westward on the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad.
Colonel Henry Forno, the commander at Lawton, received orders to ready a new prison site in Blackshear. Pierce County, located in the southeastern part of the state, not far from the Florida line, seemed a logical location. The proximity to the railroad, and the remoteness of the region, should prevent Sherman’s forces from liberating any prisoners held there. At least one prisoner concurred with Forno’s choice, noting in his diary, “Blackshear is an out of the way place, and shouldn’t think the Yankee army would ever find us here.”
Prisoner medal from Ralph Orr Bates, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House
Many period sources indicate the holding area at Blackshear lacked stockades like the prisoners had left behind, first at Andersonville, and later at Camp Lawton. Penciling an entry into his diary shortly after arriving in Blackshear, Sergeant John Ransom with the 9th Michigan Cavalry wrote of the grounds surrounding him and the other prisoners, “There is no wall or anything around us here, only guards. Encamped right in the open air.” Offering a different perspective, another prisoner indicated the area “…was completely commanded by military earthworks, with mounted cannon, and was guarded by seven hundred Confederate soldiers.” Regardless of the actual condition of the prison, soon after arriving, Forno began making preparations for another facility in Thomasville, while relocating some of the prisoners from Blackshear to Savannah.
Guards from the Second and Fourth Regiments in the Georgia Reserves continued to keep watch over the 2,500 prisoners remaining at Blackshear, looking on as the Federals constructed shanties to protect themselves from the elements. After Sherman captured Savannah on December 21, 1864, and later began his Carolinas Campaign, the prisoners at Blackshear found themselves on the move once again. Some returned to Andersonville, and others went to Thomasville, Millen, or Florence, South Carolina.
Blackshear prison site, photo courtesy of the author
Given the horrible environments found in many overcrowded prisons during the Civil War – both North and South – an observation from a soldier in the 4th Vermont Infantry tells of better conditions in Pierce County. “Blackshear has always seemed like an oasis in the memory of those perilous times. Here we were removed from all apparent danger and the guards were more humane.” Today, the Pierce County Historical and Genealogical Society works to protect, preserve, and interpret this site. Visit www.civilwarblackshearga.com to learn more!
 John McElroy, Andersonville, a Story of Rebel Military Prisons (1879; repr., No. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999), 32.
 John L. Ransom, Andersonville Diary; Escape, and List of Dead, with Name, Company, Regiment, Date of Death and Number of Grave in Cemetery, google books ed. (Auburn, NY: John Ransom, 1881), 131.
 Ralph Orr Bates, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House, google books ed. (Santa Cruz, CA: Sentinel Publishing Company, 1910), 24.
 John W. Guss, The American Civil War in Blackshear, Georgia: The Story of a Prison Camp, brochure. (Blackshear, GA: Pierce County Historical Society, 1998).
 Francis J. Hosmer, A Glimpse of Andersonville and Other Writings, google books ed. (Springfield, MA: Loring & Axtell, 1896), 47.
Michael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.