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REBEL SOLDIERS LIVED AND DIED IN JOHNSON'S ISLAND PRISON ON LAKE ERIE

Did you know there was a Union prison camp on Lake Erie for Confederate prisoners of war? Doc's News is proud to bring you this little-known story, by kind permission of its author and photographer, Roy S. Swartz.
Additional photos by Carl Mashek.

 

Johnson's Island prison site:
By Roy S. Swartz

During the Civil War, Johnson's Island, a small island in the Sandusky Bay served as a military prison for Confederate officers, enlisted men and civilians who were deemed disloyal to the union. 9000 men passed through the prison gates. There were 25 rebel generals and men who would become congressman. governors, ambassadors, authors, and physicians. Yes, even a private would one day sit on the Supreme Court.
Johnson's Island was a pleasant site, as prisons go, except in winter when the winds off Lake Erie howled through the camp. Life was hard, but the death rate was low compared to other Civil War prisons and encampments.

Despite a 12-foot plank fence, armed guards, and the fact the prison was on an island. several prisoners did escape. Some fled across the ice, one made it by rowboat, others boarded the daily steamboat for Sandusky posing as workmen. As many as 12 succeeded in getting off the island and getting to the safe haven of Canada or the south. Many more tried but were re-captured and returned to the island.

Most of the small island was used for the prison. No buildings remain, though a few features do tell a story of their existence. One earthen fort remains intact. The cemetery has 206 graves marked with white Georgia marble headstones. They were placed there in 1890. Prisoners themselves carved the original markers from bunk boards. (A cemetery plat is listed in "Rebels on Lake Erie " by Charles E. Frohman - 1965) Each Year a Memorial Day Service is held to honor and pay respect not only to the 206 buried in this cemetery, but to all others who had given their lives for their country. It is well attended from many states, both North and South.

Memorial Day originated during the Civil War, when some southern women chose May 30th to decorate soldiers' graves. The honor was for the dead of both the Union and Confederate armies. It is believed that Cassanda Oliver Moncure of Virginia was the one responsible for this event.

The cemetery today is a quiet, well-tended plot, surrounded by a black iron fence and guarded by a huge bronze statue of a Confederate soldier. He does not look to the south, since this position would be considered retreat. He faces north with a ceaseless vigil. The Confederate Monument, shown above, was sculptured by Sir Moses Ezekiel and dedicated in 1910. He also sculptured the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery where he is buried.

 

Some of the tombstones which can be found in the cemetery:

Photos by Carl Mashek

OLD PHOTOGRAPHS AND POSTCARDS
ILLUMINATE THE PAST

 

 

 

The History of Johnson's Island since the Civil War:

The island was originally called Bull's Island because cattle were let out on the island to feed. In 1852 the name became Johnson's Island purchased by L.B. Johnson.

The Johnson's Island Pleasure Resort Co. opened its operation on thirty acres in 1894. Stock was sold for $100. per share. A pavilion, a skating rink, and cottages were erected. In 1897 the pavilion burned to the ground. In 1904 a second resort was built with a dancing pavilion and theatre. It flourished for a season or two. but the owners of the competing resort acquired it and moved the buildings to Cedar Point.

The island saw quarrying begin in 1901 for stone to build breakwaters for Cleveland, Lorain and Cedar Point. They had a school and a post office for the 150 men who were employed. The quarry operation was suspended in 1908. Other short termed operations continued for a number of years. The island also saw grape arbors, cattle and hog farming, even an air-strip.

In 1956 a Cleveland investment group bought the island for a residential development. The island was surveyed with 250 sites on the water and a total of 1000 building sites on the island. At present May 2001 there are 198 cottages, houses, and homes on the island. There are new ones being built each year, some small. some large.

In September, 1960 - 1500 Marine, Navy, Air Force, National Guard and Coast Guard, played war games on Johnson's Island, called "Operation Cold Steel” complete with jet air strikes, snipers, and beachhead landings, and a missile launching base.

A causeway to the island was started in 1968 and completed in 1972. It was a private road but in 1977 Congressman Delbert L. Latta resolved with the Veterans Administration and Johnson's Island Inc. giving visitors permission to visit the cemetery by way of the causeway.

Much is being done to discover and preserve the past history of the prison area. Go to http://johnsonsisland.com for the results.

For more information on Johnson's Island, contact Roy S Swartz (who contributed this article and many of the pictures) at
lsrssw@thirdplanet.net. He is one of the island's oldest inhabitants, and is the official photographer connected with Dr. David Bush's research on the site for the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg College, Tiffin, Ohio.

Other sources of information:
Rebels on Lake Erie - paperback by Charles E. Frohman - call 1.800.998.7737
Rebel Fire/Yankee Ice - The Johnson's Island Story - video producedby T.R. Koba and Co. - call 1.800.998.7737

 

 

See other interesting pages:

Follow this link to read Doc Lawrence's review of William C. Davis new book -
An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Governmen
t

Jazz Funeral of a New Orleans Legend

Voodoo Today in the Deep South

An Inspiring Essay

A pictorial tribute to the American People.

 

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