Named for the man who previously owned the island, the Johnson’s Island Prison was constructed to hold Confederate officers captured during the Civil War. Overall, the Johnson’s Island Prison facility can be regarded as one of the better POW camps of its era in terms of prisoner treatment and inmate casualties.
Johnson’s Island is a small forested island located near the opening of the Sandusky Bay, tucked behind a small peninsula on the northern side of the bay. Johnson’s Island was one of several islands considered for the construction of a prisoner of war camp, others being North, Middle Bass and Kelly’s Islands, all of which further out on Lake Erie proper. The island was furthest from Canada, meaning escaped prisoners would have the longest distance to travel for a completed escape, was less expensive that several others to lease, and, despite being rather isolated in the bay, could be supplied and supported easily from nearby Sandusky, Ohio. Lieutenant Colonel William Hoffman was responsible for selecting, negotiating, and coordinating the design of the prison.
The prisoner of war camp was actually quite novel in its design, for the mere fact that it had been designed in the first place. Most other POW camps operated during the Civil War were comprised of existing detainment facilities and old forts. The Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War Depot was the first of its kind commissioned by the government and military and was specifically to be used to house captured members of the Confederate officer class. Eventually some rank and file soldiers would be incarcerated there as well.
The construction of the prison was at first rather simple and straightforward. When the facility was opened in 1862 it consisted of twelve two-story prisoner barrack houses and supporting buildings, surrounded by a five meter tall wooden stockade fence enclosing a total area of about 16.5 acres. Staffing for the prison came to approximately 100-150 guardsmen under the command of Major Pierson, housed separately from the Confederate prisoners and commonly referred to as ‘Hoffman’s Battalion’.
Despite the fact that the incarcerated men were enemy combatants, there was little to no misconduct at first and indeed many amenities were provided to the prisoners, including newspapers and books, and although censored, letters were sent regularly into and out of Johnson’s Island Prison. Prisoners received decent provisions and were allowed to socialize and organize freely, which even included events such games of baseball and crafts making sessions. Most inmates were even released before the end of the war even, part of the large prisoner exchange programs carried out at the time.
As the Civil War progressed treatment of prisoners on both sides deteriorated, including that of the Confederate officers at Johnston’s Island. It began during the summer of 1864 as a form of reprisal against the treatment of Federal prisoners of war. By war’s end the prison had an unusually low mortality rate for POW camps in the Civil War, only losing slightly more than 200 inmates to disease or weather out of approximately 15,000 that ever spent time within the prison’s wooden barriers. Upon the war’s conclusion, control of the island was returned to the original owners. Currently the Island is home to a federal cemetery and museum focused on the camp and a nearby resort.
Coincidence or Design?
One thing to keep in mind about the Civil War is that both sides of the conflict were populated by people of the same nationality and national identity, it is on occasion referred to as a war between brothers. Before the outbreak of the Civil War there was no separate north and south distinction to the military, and although tensions had been escalating in the preceding decades, almost none of that tension was reflected in the federal system. The Mexican-American War, fought little more than a decade before the Civil War, saw men and officers from every region serving together in the Regular Army.
Because Johnson’s Island was a new facility under the direction of an Army officer it is reasonable to conclude that the standing camaraderie between Lt. Col. Hoffman and his fellow serving officers colored his intentions for the construction and guiding of the Johnson’s Island Prison, specifically intending it to be less harsh than regular prisons and P.O.W. camps of the time. Hoffman graduated with the West Point class of 1829, the same as legendary Confederate General Robert E Lee, and only a year after the eventual president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. It is not unreasonable to assume that Hoffman knew or knew of some of the officers that were incarcerated within the walls he helped plan.
According to the brief history of Lt. Col. William Hoffman (promoted to full Col. in April 1862) included on the first page of “Rebels on Lake Erie”, Lt. Col. Hoffman served in active duty under Brigadier General David E Twiggs, who surrendered to the Confederacy. Hoffman’s time as a P.O.W. of the Confederacy was short lived as he was paroled via prisoner exchange and therefore ineligible to return to the battlefield under the terms of said parole. Though the text gives no details of this period of incarceration it is reasonable to assume that it colored Hoffman’s perceptions against the desire for harsh treatment of prisoners. Major Pierson, the man in charge of the battalion of soldiers of the island’s garrison issued as the first order in what would be called his “Ten Commandments”: “Order No. 1. – It is designed to treat all prisoners of war with all kindness compatible with their condition,” the remainder of these ten orders mainly have to do with the daily schedule and off limits areas, such as nearing the perimeter of the camp within a marked of distance which is common sense as a measure to make escape difficult. It can be noted that the tenth rule, “Guards and sentinels will be required to fire upon all who violate the above orders. Prisoners will, therefore, bear them carefully in mind.” is a worded more as a warning to the inmates that the guards are armed and charged with all means of keeping order, than as a provision for intending lethal punishments .
While Johnson’s island was not specifically restricted to housing officers of the confederacy, the vast majority of its inmates arrived as the result of capture following an engagement of the two opposing sides. An inspection report made on December 7, 1863 stated that of the 2,381 Confederate prisoners, only 59 were not officers . In other established facilities these demographics were not so limited. The Old Capitol Prison in Washington DC reopened by the Union for the duration of the war “also included Union soldiers facing various charges, political prisoners of all social classes, and contraband blacks captured with their master. Two Old Capitol inmates…arrived after achieving celebrity status as confederate spies” . There is a more natural abhorrence of spies, saboteurs, and in some circumstances deserters than there is of enemy combatants. With the former, there is an inherent element of betrayal associated with such acts. In case of the latter there is only the crime of opposition, and in pragmatic individuals there is even room for professional respect.
Aside from psychological reasons for the better treatment of the Johnson’s island inmates there is also the fact that the facilities located on the island were new and state-of-the-art for the period. In comparison to the Old Capitol Prison which was described by one author to be in such a condition that “The rooms were exceedingly small and low ceilinged…Ventilation was poor; mold and heat were oppressive.” One 1862 citizen inmate by the name of George Henry Clay Rowe wrote, “This structure, both in the outward and inward appearance, very closely resembles the Negro jails of Richmond,” and that the “great majority [of other inmates] were dirty, lousy, half-clad soldiers”. His writings also indicated many inmates were all held together in open spaces as Rowe had been afraid enough of his neighbors “that I retreated with a friend into a corner” . By contrast the designs for the prisoner’s barracks on Johnson’s Island had been expected to include nine-foot high walls and sectioned halls and rooms . In a Dec, 1863 report, made by Brigadier General William W. Orme, the General assessed the “very comfortable barracks, with good ventilation, mostly clean and neat, the extent of the cleanliness depending upon the taste of the occupants” .
Provisions for the prisoners of Johnson’s Island were also above the standard for prisons during the Civil War. In one report from the Island’s commissary department dated in April 1864 (a time when reprisal policies had started to appear in Union P.O.W. facilities, keep in mind) documents that prisoner rations were in excess of those assigned to Union troops and that “since I have had control of the Commissary Department on this Island, my experience has been that prisoners do not consume near all the rations issued to them; they have frequently sent back beans, hominy and fresh beef, stating that they could not consume them.” Orme agreed in his inspection of a few months prior with the opinion that “the supply of food was abundant and of good quality” .
Clothing for the prisoners was also taken into account at Johnson’s Island and each inmate was issued at least I spare change of clothes. Other prisons, such as the Old Capitol, left inmates with only the cloths they wore, and with no generally distributed spares . When available, prisoners within the camp could also purchase supplementary provisions from a sutler, although this is no great deviance from the rest of the prisons operating at the time, the need to rely on such additional methods of procurement were less on the Island while such a service was available. Climate and weather was also taken into account by Major Pierson and his staff. “all of the barracks have bunks and stoves in each room. Every bunk has a straw thick, and each prisoner has a blanket issued to him if he has not sufficient of his own, and additional blankets have been issued when called for on complaint of being cold.” “By the report of Lieut. L. M. Brooks, accompanying herewith, it will be seen that since last January there have been issued to prisoners 1046 trousers, 1022 shirts, 200 blouses, 270 drawers, 380 pair socks, 13 great coats, and 769 pair of shoes” .
Besides the availability of space, food, and clothing, prisoner health was also above what was to be expected in such a time of crude medicinal knowledge (at least in comparison with 20th century and modern day standards). The Johnson’s Island Prison was not a disease free environment; it would almost be impossible for such a gathering of persons of that size to be in perfect health throughout. This was expected from the beginning, though, as the facilities built within the prison included a staffed hospital and a ‘pest-house’ that allowed sick inmates to be segregated from healthy one until they recovered. Pierson, by now a Lt. Col. himself, had this to say in one Christmas letter: “it should be taken into consideration that many [of the inmates] came here after great exposure in camp, on marches, and on the battlefield; many wounded many sick on their arrival, and many very much emaciated… The truth is that the health of the prisoners greatly improves while at this depot”.
T. Woodbridge, the camp’s appointed surgeon summarized the response to these incoming ill prisoners in a letter addressed the same day: “the smallpox has been three times brought here by the prisoners from this point, but the cases are immediately removed from the prison to the pest house, which narrows as much as possible the chance of contagion” .
At the apparent peak of the smallpox in the Johnson’s Island pest-house, there were 26 cases, of which only four were fatal. In one particular P.O.W. facility, Castle Williams, in New York Harbor suffered a measles outbreak that in ten days had spread to 115 of the 615 incarcerated there, and post surgeon William J. Sloan wrote a letter stating the conditions in Fort Hatteras were destitute enough that immediate attention to the issue was needed . A compiled report on admissions to the Johnson’s Island camp hospital stretching from November 1, 1863 to March 20, 1865 revealed that over the course of that time only four cases of measles ever resulted and that of the 1,047 total admissions, and only 45 fatalities from disease occurred over the duration, chiefly due to two very pervasive ailments, dysentery and chronic diarrhea, which were relatively widespread in the general population anyway .
Bumps in the Road
Operating Johnson’s Island was not a smooth process for the Union troops of the ‘Hoffman Battalion’ that made up the garrison on the island. Not every inspection of the facilities found them to be adequately maintained or operations carried out to satisfaction. Prisoners wrote many complaining letters to be mailed as well. The most primary deficiency of the facilities, by virtue seemingly of being the most often pointed out, was the availability and quality of fresh water to the prison complex. Initially the island had two pump that drew water from the bay, however these were not sufficient at times and the taste made it of questionable drinkability for short periods. An inspection conducted late into the operation of the camp found the problem still not corrected and that, “One [pump] only was in working condition when I inspected. I was informed that the other had not been in use for several days…The complaint was made that one or the other was frequently at fault” . Other reoccurring issues found during camp inspections were the lack of drilling and discipline of the garrison (something it took the appointment of a new commandant in May of ’64 to fix) and a general state of uncleanliness in most of the buildings. Supply became sparse approaching the end of 1864 when on October 22, Captain W. A. Wash reported “the majority of prisoners had been compelled to subsist on two meals per day” ..
A Reminder: From Relatives to Absolutes
While there are a multitude of logical reasons behind the better conditions of Johnson’s Island Prison and an expansive wealth of records to support the difference between Johnson’s Island and other prison facilities utilized during the Civil War, it cannot be forgotten that Johnson’s Island was still a prison camp. A prison camp operating in a climate that had much colder weather than in most regions the Civil War was fought and much colder than the native climates its inmates were accustomed to. Though they occurred in less proportion to most other prisoner of war facilities, deaths from exposure to the winter cold, death from disease, and death from trauma and injury were realities on Johnson’s Island. The commissary department for the prison did not always sufficiently meet the needs of its inmate population. It must be kept in mind that while there were worse places to end up should the Union take a man as a prisoner, none of those men were content to be prisoners at all.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington 1880-1901)
- Articles from: Sandusky Commercial Register, Sandusky Ohio (1964-1965)
- Frohman, Charles E. “Rebels on Lake Erie“. (Rutherford B Hayes Presidential Center June 1, 1997).
- Buck, Martina. (1963). “A Louisiana Prisoner-of-War on Johnson’s Island, 1863-65,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 4.3: 233-242.
- Cunningham, O. Edward. (1977). ““In Violation of the Laws of War”: The Execution of Robert Cobb Kennedy,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 18.2: 189-201.
- Pickenpaugh, Roger. “Captives in Gray: The Civil War Prisons of the Union”. (University of Alabama Press 2009).
- Robertson, James I. Jr. (1966). “Reviewed Work: Rebels on Lake Erie by Charles E. Frohman,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 74.4: 499.
- Taylor, Jeremy. (2011). “Reviewed Work: Captives in Gray: The Civil War Prisons of the Union by Roger Pickenpaugh,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 90.1: 94-96.