History of Johnson's Island, Erie County, OH

From: The Centennial History of Erie County, Ohio
By: H. L. Peeke
President of the Firelands Historical Society
Sandusky, Ohio 1925

Johnson's Island

Three miles north of Sandusky, in her land locked bay, lies Johnson's Island. Its area is about 300 acres; nearly a mile long and half that in breadth, gradually rising in the center to a height of fifty feet. It was originally covered with heavy timber, and a favorite resort of the Indians, who came here in the fishing season, engaged in festivities, and brought their captives for torture.

Its first owner was E. W. Bull, and it was called Bull's Island, until 1852, when it was purchased by L. B. Johnson and its name changed to Johnson's Island.

In 1811 an effort was made to found a town on the island, and steps taken to lay out village lots; the custom house of the port was located here, but the attempt was unsuccessful and abandoned.

The first historical mention of Johnson's Island is by Joshua R. Giddings, who enlisted in the War of 1812 when only sixteen years old and on October 1, 1812, wrote his parents a letter describing the landing on Johnson's Island (then called Bull's Island) from which the following quotation is taken:

"October 1, 1812. "Honored parents,
"Having got a little refreshed I take my pen in hand to inform you of the last battle that has taken place in our troops in which some of our countrymen have lost their lives to maintain the freedom of our country. One week ago 150 of our men volunteered to go to Sandusky to fetch some property away from there. They accordingly arrived there on Friday. On Saturday four boats set sail from there loaded with salt fish and apples. On Sunday night they landed on Bull's Island near the middle of Sandusky Bay &."

The Register of August 8, 1884, described a visit of Joshua R. Giddings to Sandusky in 1853. He was nearly seven feet high, and in order to honor him Captain Orr's Island Queen was chartered, and Eleutheros Cooke, Henry D. Cooke, Earl Bill and Toby Green and other prominent citizens formed a party and Mr. Giddings pointed out to them on Johnson's Island the spot where General Harrison's army party encamped.

In 1861 the property was leased by the government as a depot for rebel prisoners. The necessary buildings having been erected, the first prisoners were installed in their quarters in April, 1862, under the charge of Company A, Hoffman Battalion, which was subsequently increased to a full regiment, the 128th O. V. I.

The number of prisoners were constantly varying, the largest number at any one time being over 3,000; but, from the period of its establishment until the close of the war, over 15,000 rebels were confined here, and owing to its supposed security, the prisoners were largely composed of rebel officers.

In a letter published in the Register, August 20, 1891, Wm. T. West says that he bought the lumber for Johnson's Island prison from R. B. Hubbard at $8.00 a thousand, and used 1,500,000 feet of lumber. He states that he took the contract November 12, 1861, and gave bond in $40,000 to have the buildings ready for occupancy January 31, 1862, and that he was favored by the weather and completed the buildings on time.

The buildings were frame buildings neither ceiled nor plastered, 100 feet long and two stories high, each story divided into two rooms, box style and built of drop lumber full of knot holes. The winters of 1862, 1863 and 1864 were all severe, and many of the prisoners had never seen snow or ice, and when they were conducted to Johnson's Island on the ice and came to a smooth place they would fall down on their hands and knees which was very amusing to the guards.

Among the prisoners on Johnson's Island was H. H. Lurton, who was afterward judge of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and later justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

At the conclusion of the war on April 12, 1866, the buildings on Johnson's Island were sold by the Government and most of them bought in by L. B. Johnson. Nothing now remains of them except one or two guard posts used as a pig sty.

The Register of June 11, 1862, quotes a letter from a rebel prisoner on Johnson's Island, published in the Memphis Appeal:

"After a week at Camp Chase I was sent to Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay. This is purely a military prison. It is designed for company officers; the buildings are large, new and commodious, and the grounds extensive....... The prison covers about fifteen acres of ground enclosed by a fence similar to that at Camp Chase. The grounds slope to the east where they border upon the lake. Upon the west the trees of a dense forest reach to and within the enclosure, and furnish abundant shade, while a carpet of fine grass covers the ground everywhere. Altogether Sandusky is the least disagreeable prison I ever saw or heard of. The officers in command are civil and courteous the lake breeze robs the summer sun of his heat, the view of the city, lake and neighboring islands is fine, the restrictions upon the prisoners are few, and altogether it is a salubrious, pleasant place."

The following shows the viewpoint of the soldiers guarding the rebel prisoners on Johnson's Island and is quoted in the Register of January 19, 1863, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of January 14th:

"Visit our barracks and take a look at things as they really are. Opening the door you see before you a vast army of bunks in three tiers, one above the other, each bunk supposed to contain two men. Immediately after breakfast you will find all bunks made up, floor swept, benches and tables piled up, arms and accoutrements in their respective places, and everything in good order. One table being left in the center of the room is occupied the principal part of the day by groups at their honest little games of seven up and poker, merely to pass the time, as the paymaster has not yet been seen. In another corner of the room is a musical soiree composed of two one horse fiddles, trying to squeeze out 'The Girl I left Behind Me' in a manner to set a fellow's teeth on edge and to cause the blood to run cold. Another group seated around the stove are conversing on politics. At another end of the room a corporal is drilling new recruits, called the `Awkward Squad,' in the manual of arms in which they take every position but the right one.

"We have between 300 and 400 rebellious individuals in our pen. The principal part of them were captured in Kentucky. They are mostly bush-whackers, and not a very intelligent looking set, I assure you. They somewhat resemble the last rose of summer run over by a small wagon. We have 46 men detailed for guard every day, so we make out to keep things straight in the prison yard. Everything is satisfactory to the rebs with the exception of the cold weather which keeps them in the buildings most of the time. We have good living as there is considerable variety about it. For breakfast; fried beef, bread and coffee; dinner, boiled ditto, potatoes, bread and water; supper; bread, molasses and tea. Some times for a change, beef soup or rice."

The Register of May 16, 1863, contains a two column account of the execution of two rebel prisoners, William Corbin and T. P. McGraw, convicted of recruiting for the Confederate Army within the lines of the U. S. forces, and of carrying mail and information to the rebels.

The Register of January 4, 1866, contains the following article:

"When the rebel prisoners, all officers and many of them high in rank were confined on Johnson's Island opposite this city, they exhibited a far greater amount of ingenuity than they were ever willing to acknowledge previous to their undertaking the task of rearing a southern confederacy. Previous to that event they considered it degrading and beneath the dignity of a gentleman to perform manual labor of any kind. Be that as it may, we know they manufactured many little articles such as chairs, tables, bedsteads, etc., with which to render prison life comfortable. Many of the articles were very fair specimens of southern furniture and mechanism and not totally devoid of rustic beauty. In the line of chairs they manufactured hundreds of the old split bottom variety, bottomed with the leather of old boots, cut into strings and neatly interwoven together. Owing to a scarcity of tools the wooden frames were made with only the use of the jacknife and auger, and were really a very staunch made chair. On the release of the prisoners, hundreds of these chairs were sold at public auction........ Every chair was marked with the name of the owner on the top slat of the back, together with the number of his regiment, and the state from which he came. They were not marked, we suppose, because they suspected the honesty of their fellow prisoners, but simply that they might be able to tell their own and be able to reclaim their property should it stray from their quarters. It is not an uncommon thing now to see a chair sitting around once owned by Col. Sawyer of the 14th Mississippi or of Brigadier Generals Johnson, Marmaduke or other notables of the once rebel bull pen. Fifty years hence such articles will be looked upon as greater curiosities than many that now frame our public museums and cost hundreds of dollars."

The Register of October 19, 1876, contains the following extract from the report of Jake Thompson, the Canadian agent of Jeff Davis, to the Confederate government of the conspiracy to release the prisoners, which report was made in 1864 from Toronto:

"It had been previously ascertained that an organization existed among the prisoners on the island for the purpose of surprising the guard and capturing the island; the presence of the steamer Michigan which carried fourteen guns being the only obstacle. Secret communications were had by which they were advised that on the night of the 19th of September an attempt to seize the steamer would be made. On that night Captain Cole who had established the friendliest relations with officers of the steamer was to have a wine drunk with them on board and at a given hour Acting Master Beall was to appear on the boat to be obtained for that purpose, with a sufficient number of soldiers to board and take the steamer. Should they capture the steamer a cannon shot was to announce to the prisoners that the hour for their release had come. Should they take the island boats were to be improvised and Sandusky was to be attacked. If taken the prisoners were to be mounted and taken to Cleveland, the boats co-operating and from Cleveland the prisoners were to make for Wheeling and thence to Virginia. The key to the whole movement was the capture of the Michigan. On the evening of the twelfth by some treachery Cole was arrested and the messenger who was to reach Acting Master Beall at Kelleys Island did not reach him. Disappointed but nothing daunted Acting Master Beall having possession of the Philo Parsons passenger steamer from Detroit to Sandusky went on his way to Johnson's Island. Having landed at Middle Bass to procure a supply of wood the steamer Island Queen with a large number of passengers and thirty soldiers came up alongside and lashed herself to the Parsons. An attack was at once resolved on. The passengers and soldiers were soon made prisoners and the boat delivered up to our men. The soldiers were regularly paroled, the passengers were left on the island having given their promise not to attempt to leave for twenty four hours; and the boat was taken out into the lake and sunk. The Parsons was then steered directly for the Bay of Sandusky. Here the men for certain reasons not altogether satisfactory refused to make an attack on the Michigan. Beall returned, landed at Sandwich, Canada, West and the men scattered through the country. Most of them have returned to the Confederate States. But a few days since Acting Master Bennett C. Burley was arrested and his trial is now going on under the extradition treaty. If we had Cole's, Beall's or his own commission I should not fear the result, as it is they will have to prove they acted under my order, and that will in order probably secure his release but it may lead to my expulsion from the provinces, at least I have it from a reliable source that this last proposition has been pressed on the Canadian authorities and they have considered it. Should the course of events take this direction, unadvised by you I shall consider it my duty, to remain where I am and abide the issue. I should prefer if possible to have your views on the subject. Captain Cole is still a prisoner on Johnson's Island."

The following is a copy of the order releasing the four Sandusky citizens arrested on the charge of conspiring to release the prisoners on Johnson's Island. The order is now in the possession of Fred Frey.

"At Johnson's Island and Sandusky
"Johnson's Island, Ohio, Sept. 21st, 1864.

"Special orders
"No. 227
"2. John H. Williams, Dr. E. Stanley, John M. Brown, and Abraham Strain. citizens of Sandusky. having been arrested by Capt. J. Steiner, Pro. Marshall, 9th Diet. of Ohio, and awaited at this post further investigation upon allegations understood to implicate them with others, in a conspiracy to capture the U. S. Steamer Michigan, and rescue the rebel prisoners at this port, or to aid and assist them, and the facts having now been more fully inquired into and they failing to make a case against said Williams, Stanley, Brown and Strain, they are therefore relieved from further detention.
"By command of Col. Chas. W. Hill.
"Capt. A. A. A. Gen'l.
"John M. Brown, Citizen, "Sandusky, Ohio."

In the report of the treatment of prisoners of war by the rebel authorties, third session, Fortieth Congress, 1868-1869, page 151, will be found the following statement by a rebel surgeon who was released from Johnson's Island, which was also printed in the Richmond Enquirer:

"The sleeping accommodations are very comfortable, consisting of a bunk with straw bed and if the individual has no blanket one is furnished and he is allowed to buy as many more as he wants. Every room has a good stove and is furnished with a sufficiency of wood. This the prisoners have to saw for themselves after it is brought to their doors by the way a very good exercise. The prison consists of thirteen large wooden buildings. The space of ground sixteen acres of which the prisoners have full liberty to exercise in, to sing Southern national songs, to hurrah for Jeff Davis, to play ball or any other game they see fit.

"The rations are exactly the same as are issued to the garrison, consisting of fresh beef, pork, bakers' bread, sugar, coffee, beans. hominy, soft soap and candles. Besides these, up to the time I left there was a sutler's store inside the enclosure at which we could obtain any kind of meat or vegetables or knickknacks if we chose. We could purchase anything we wanted. Clothing and eatables were allowed to be sent the prisoners by their friends in the North in any quantity and money without stint."

The Register of June 20, 1888, says twenty five cows were kept and the milk sold to the prisoners at 6 cents a quart. The number of prisoners was about 15,000, of whom 206 died over there, most of whom were sick or wounded on their arrival.

The Register of October 12, 1889, prints the full list of those buried on the island and states that L. B. Johnson and the Register own the only two lists in existence. Owing to the visit of a delegation from Georgia an effort was started to fix up the graves on the island which had hitherto failed because L. B. Johnson would not sell the land where the cemetery was located. For many years since the graves have been decorated on Decoration Day, the grass mowed and the undergrowth kept trimmed.

After the war the graves of the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island were neglected for many years, until finally on March 30, 1890, the 206 graves were marked with headstones. In 1891 an effort was made by the Fifth Regiment of Ohio Infantry to buy a camping ground on the island but fell through. On January 20, 1898, L. B. Johnson died at the age of 97 and the island passed out of the hands of the Johnson family.

On November 18, 1904, an option was given the Daughters of the Confederacy to buy the cemetery, and on March 14, 1905, they purchased a strip of land 100 feet wide by 485 feet long including the cemetery 100 feet wide by 209 1/2 feet long. On June 8, 1910, the beautiful monument now standing was unveiled, and the statue of the Confederate soldier faces the east waiting for the arising of his brethren.

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