Johnson's Island Prisoner of War Depot
From April of 1862 until September of 1865, over 10,000 Confederates passed through Johnson's Island Civil War Military Prison leaving behind an extensive historical and archaeological record. Many of these officers recorded in journals or diaries the day to day happenings, emotions, and conditions they were enduring. They also spent many hours writing letters, collecting autographs from prisoners, and sketching maps. These documents give vast insight into what prison life was like, as well as the personal conflicts and hardships encountered among families and friends during the Civil War.
The 16.5 acre Johnson's Island Prison Compound contained 13 Blocks (12 as prisoner housing units and one as a hospital), latrines, sutler's stand, 3 wells, pest house, 2 large mess halls (added in August, 1864) and more. The Blocks were two stories high and approximately 130 by 24 feet. There were more than 40 buildings outside the stockade (barns, stables, a lime kiln, forts, barracks for officers, a powder magazine, etc.) used by the 128th Ohio Volunteer Infantry to guard the prison. The two major fortifications (Forts Johnson and Hill) protecting Johnson's Island were constructed over the 1864/65 winter, and were operational by March of 1865.
The Hoffman Battalion with other companies that formed the 128th Ohio Volunteer Infantry became the official guards of the prison under the charge of William S. Pierson, former mayor of Sandusky. Because of his cruelty to prisoners and his inability to handle problems and keep the prison in good order, he was replaced. On January 18, 1864 Brigadier General Harry D. Terry replaced Pierson. A few months later, on May 9, 1864, Colonel Charles W. Hill took command at Johnson's Island, remaining as such until the end of the war.
As prisoners of war, they daily faced how to cope with their situation, whether to resist, to survive, or to assimilate by taking the Oath of Allegiance. Their choices resulted in a variety of activities taking place. Those contemplating escape spent time preparing...whether disguising as a guard, walking across the frozen lake into Canada, or tunneling from a latrine... any idea took great planning and time to orchestrate. Some prisoners used their talents and limited resources to pass the time by carving rings, broaches, and other jewelry out of hard rubber, bone, and shell. Reading, especially newspapers was important to keep informed of the latest victories and defeats of the War, government actions, and news of exchanges.
Prisoners could receive packages and mail. The mail was inspected and the parcels were searched and often damaged or depleted before the prisoner received them. Consequently prisoners often relied on the sutler store to buy sewing supplies, ink, stationery, clothes, food, combs, toothbrushes, etc. These items could be purchased until late in the war when food, along with other items, were no longer permitted to be sold by the sutler.
The prisoners on Johnson's Island, along with most of the soldiers that fought in the Civil War endured harsh winters, food and fuel shortages, disease, along with the mental anguish of uncertainty about their families and their own futures. Current research suggests that close to 300 prisoners died on Johnson's Island during the war.
After the Civil War, most of the buildings on Johnson's Island were auctioned off. The land was used for farming, and quarrying started in the late 1800's. The resort business began around then also, but eventually failed. Residential building began in the 1950's allowing private residents to enjoy waterfront properties. In 1990, Johnson's Island was designated as a National Historic Landmark recognizing its significance in the Civil War as one of the premier Union prisons. The Confederate Cemetery, located on Johnson's Island is currently the only publicly available part of the prison. A portion of the prison compound and all of Fort Johnson have been set aside for long term preservation by the current landowner.