Johnson’s Island

By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2002, 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Charger in March 2002.

During Career Day at Bay High School in 1990, Professor David R. Bush talked to my students about archaeology. He invited me to observe his excavations that summer on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. What most intrigued me were the remains of collapsed escape tunnels that he had found leading from some of the sink (latrine) structures to the stockade walls. The soil of one of these tunnels yielded a gold watch and a gold locket with the remains of a photograph and lock of hair tied with a ribbon. He also discovered a large iron bar and cow bone that were apparently used for digging. (Bush wrote an article in Archaeology magazine in 1999.) Before leaving the island, I went to the prison cemetery where the remains of 235 prisoners are buried. Only 12 Confederates were able to escape from the island but not to the mirage across the bay, Cedar Point Amusement Park.

The entrance to the Confederate cemetery on Johnson’s Island

The Federal Government leased the island in the autumn of 1861 from the owner, Leonard B. Johnson, paying him $500 a year. Situated two and a half miles north of Sandusky and mile south of the nearest mainland, the three hundred acre site was chosen over other Lake Erie islands because of the protected waters of Sandusky Bay. Also the region was served by good railroads, and the island’s forest could furnish wood for building and fuel. At a cost of $30,000, the prison would be the first constructed especially for Confederate prisoners. Starting in June of 1862, four months after receiving Confederates of all ranks, Johnson’s Island was designated a prison mainly for officers, the elite of Southern society.

Surrounded by a fourteen-foot stockade on the southern shore of the island, the compound covered nearly fifteen acres, but with the barracks and the deadline areas, the inmates had the use of only eight acres. Blockhouses were built with light artillery for defense against an uprising of prisoners or any attempt to free them. Two hundred yards from the stockade, barracks for the enlisted men and houses for the officers and their families were constructed. By January of 1864, one thousand Union soldiers were guarding over three thousand Confederates in a prison that originally was supposed to house only one thousand inmates.

M. Clark, a Union surgeon, inspected the prison on January 11, 1864. He reported the “quarters are, with but one or two exceptions, filthy… The kitchens are filthy, with all their utensils, and the ground around the outer doors covered with filth and slops frozen to the depth of several inches.” Clark blamed the lazy prisoners for the unhealthy conditions.

In addition, a lack of ventilation in crowded, overheated barracks “is attributable the great majority of the cases of disease which occur among the prisoners… Statistics — the total number of prisoners during the month of December 1863 was 2625. Number of sick reported, 219; deaths, 18.”

The steamboat Philo Parsons

In September of 1864, CSA Captain John Yates Beall, secret agent and personal friend of J. Wilkes Booth, led a group of eighteen conspirators in a plot to free Confederate officers from Johnson’s Island. They boarded the steamboat, Philo Parsons, in Detroit, and in the name of the Confederate States of America, captured it off Kelly’s Island, five miles north of Sandusky.

The Island Queen

The passengers and crew were put ashore at Middle Bass Island, where another vessel, the Island Queen, was also captured and later put to the torch. The plan was to take over the USS Michigan, an iron side-wheeler gunboat, guarding Johnson’s Island, but one of Beall’s agents was arrested before he could drug the officers of the ship. Beall fled north across Lake Erie and scuttled the Philo Parsons off Sandwich, Canada.

The USS Michigan (later USS Wolverine)
John Yates Beall

Dr. J. S. Riley, one of the conspirators, wrote in 1901 that he and “fourteen of our crew went to Halifax, and Beall and his chief lieutenant returned to New York, where they were subsequently arrested.” When hearing about his good friend, Booth went to see Lincoln and convinced him to pardon Beall if convicted of treason. Stanton and Seward, however, were able to change Lincoln’s mind, “to let the law do its worst…. Booth rested easy until after the execution at Governor’s Island. Then overwhelmed with grief and disappointment, he swore in his wrath that he would take the life of Lincoln if it cost him his own…”

Related link:
Base Ball on Johnson’s Island