Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison
By David R. Bush
(December 2011 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
As the first year of the conflict between the North and South was ending, the Union was struggling with how to manage the increasing numbers of prisoners-of-war. With no official exchange system in place, the Union was facing the prospect of housing thousands of prisoners-of-war.
In October 1861 Col. William Hoffman was tasked with locating an appropriate spot for the Union to construct a stand-alone prison facility for all Confederates captured in battle. Hoffman selected Johnson’s Island, in Sandusky Bay, Ohio, as the location for this prison.
The first prisoners arrived at the prison on April 10, 1862, transferred from Camp Chase, Columbus, Ohio. Only three days later Union officials made the determination to house only Confederate officers at Johnson’s Island.
From 1862 until September 1865 more than 10,000 Confederate officers found themselves unwanted guests on this northern isle. The composition of prisoners, being highly educated and from the most prominent families of the South, resulted in the creation of an historical account unparalleled at any other POW camp from the Civil War.
As the last prisoners transferred in September 1865 and the land returned to the owner the following spring, no effort or concern existed to memorialize the site or even the cemetery.
At Andersonville (Camp Sumter) prison, considered one of the worst prisons administered by the Confederacy, the Federal government immediately after the war created a national cemetery at the final resting place of thousands of Union prisoners but did nothing with the prison site.
The National Historic Landmark plaque erected at Johnson’s Island, which was listed in 1990, states in part, ”nothing in the 19th century warfare better illustrates man’s inhumanity to man than the Civil War prisoner-of-war camps and stockades.”
Thus, it is no wonder a prisoner-of-war site is neglected when it comes to preservation. Neither side of a conflict wishes to memorialize the place where revengeful and retaliatory actions trumped humane treatment.
Only after a 1988 proposed housing development required review under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 did the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison site resurface as an important chapter in United States policy towards treatment of prisoners-of-war.
Historical accounts had all but discounted any evidence of the prison site existing, suggesting only the cemetery remained from this one-of-a-kind facility built by the Union. Preservation law compelled a detailed archaeological investigation resulting in the discovery of the prison compound and a wealth of valuable information.
The Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison (Friends), created in 2001 as a not-for-profit historic preservation organization, pursued the acquisition, preservation, interpretation and investigation of this Union prison facility.
Sufficient funds raised by 2002 allowed purchase of 17 acres of the island, including the undeveloped portion of the prison compound and Fort Johnson.
Through the efforts of descendants, various re-enactment groups — most significantly the 14th OVI/3rd ARK — interested public, Heidelberg University and two foundations the Friends were able to pay off the mortgage for these 17 acres in October 2010.
Heidelberg University’s Center for Historic and Military Archaeology conducts an Experiential Learning Program in Historic Archaeology at Johnson’s Island. Since 1998 over 10,000 middle and high school students have visited the site and participated in the very detailed work of slowly uncovering the buried history of this prison.
This has resulted in many publications by the author sharing the history of the island. Just released is the book entitled, I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison (University Press of Florida.)
It follows the story of Wesley Makely’s imprisonment on Johnson’s Island through letters written between him and his wife Kate. Archaeological and other historical accounts provide an in-depth context for Makely’s experience as well as explaining how institutionalization transforms the arriving POW.
The Friends are now facing the next phase of protecting this National Historic Landmark site, its maintenance. Along with maintenance comes the need to provide access to the site for the interested public. Therefore, the Friends have developed a master plan to guide the development of the site for interpretative as well as maintenance and preservation goals.
Most challenging is sharing the site with the public without disturbing the tranquil island environment the residents have established. Johnson’s Island is a small 300-acre island with mostly summer vacation homes although there are many year-round residents.
The Friends encourage those of you who are interested in the prison system during the Civil War to join our ranks and help with the preservation of this unique Union prisoner-of-war facility.
The Union designed Johnson’s Island to house both officers and enlisted in as humane a way as they thought was practical. Unfortunately, within days of its opening, the Union began changing the prison’s purpose and eventually forfeited their aspirations for humane treatment.
Understanding how we treated our own citizens during the Civil War can shed light on POW treatment into the 21st century.
To learn more about the Friends, go to their Website at www.johnsonsisland.com or write to the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison, 3510 Confederate Dr., Johnson’s Island, Ohio 43440.
If you have information about a prisoner or guard at Johnson’s Island, the Friends would love to hear from you. The Friends maintain a data base of all the prisoners and guard at Johnson’s Island.
David R. Bush is a professor of anthropology and Director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg University. He has directed the archaeological investigations at Johnson’s Island since 1988. He also serves as Chair of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. He is author of I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison.