Contributed by Ralph R. Metheny
JOHNSON’S ISLAND MILITARY PRISON
Johnson’s Island is regarded by Civil War historians as the most significant Civil War site in Ohio. Located in Sandusky Bay immediately across from the City of Sandusky, it was the site of a prison for Confederate officers during the war.
In the forty months of its operation, more than ten thousand officers, including twenty-five generals. and a thousand enlisted personnel and civilians were incarcerated in the prison. More than 200 of them are buried in the federally-owned cemetery on the island. Approximately twenty others are buried in unmarked graves elsewhere on the island.
After the war, a number of former prisoners became United States Senators, Congressmen and federal district and circuit court judges, and a larger number became state legislators and state court judges. A young private who was imprisoned on the Island, Horace H. Lurton, began his legal training in a law school conducted in the prison and graduated from Vanderbilt Law School after the war. He was later appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President William Howard Taft.
The Union’s use of Johnson’s island to confine prisoners of war for the duration of hostilities marked an important, permanent change in the customs of warfare. Combatants in prior wars had exchanged prisoners at regular intervals during hostilities as a matter of custom and convenience, Prisoner exchanges in later wars typically were small-scale and occurred infrequently.
After the Civil war, the island was farmed, hosted a dance pavilion and amusement park for a number of years, and was quarried for limestone for a time around the turn of the century. In the 1960’s. lots around the island perimeter were sold for weekend recreational use, and somewhat later a causeway was built to connect the island to the Marblehead Peninsula.
Johnson’s Island is an important educational, scientific, and cultural resource. Which contributes to the local economies through enhancement of travel and tourism in the area.
The Civil War in Ohio
During the Civil War, this island of nearly 300 acres in Sandusky Bay served as a military prison for Confederate officers. Enlisted men and civilians deemed disloyal to the Union were also held here. Approximately 9,000 men passed through the prison gates.
Among the involuntary “tourists” were 26 rebel generals plus men who had been or would become congressmen, governors, ambassadors, authors and noted physicians. One prisoner, a private when here, would be the only Confederate soldier to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
Johnson’s Island was a pleasant site, as prisons go, except in winter when the winds off Lake Eric howled through the 13 prison barracks. Still, the death rate was exceptionally low compared with other Civil War prisons or even with camps in the field.
Despite a 12-foot plank fence, armed guards and the placement of the prison on an island deep in the North, prisoners did escape. Several fled across the ice. One made it by rowboat. Others boarded the daily steamboat for Sandusky, posing as workmen. As many as 10 or 12 succeeded in getting off the island and to the safe haven of Canada or the Confederacy. Of course, many more than that were recaptured and returned to the island.
There were three separate Confederate plots to rescue the prisoners. Two plans were aborted early, but on September 19, 1864, Confederate “pirates” sized a lake steamer and planned to sail into Sandusky Bay. The plot collapsed because one of the conspirators was caught. The pirate crew then mutinied off Cedar Point. A leader in this plot, John Yates Beall, was hanged for piracy five months later.
Virtually the entire island was used by the prison or for guard barracks, forts, parade grounds, training camps, etc. No buildings remain although a few foundations exist. One earthen fort is intact plus about one third of
another. Also remaining is the prison cemetery.
Some 250 prisoners died during the 40 months of the prison’s operation. Several were shipped elsewhere for burial. Officially the cemetery contains 206 graves, although 211 may be buried there. Georgia marble
headstones were placed on most graves in 1890. In 1910, the Confederate monument, by noted sculptor Sir Moses Ezekiel, was dedicated. He also sculpted the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery where
Ezekiel is buried.
Although Johnson’s Island is privately owned, tourists are welcome to visit this historic cemetery. There is a nominal charge to cross the causeway to the island.