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Union Prison Camp May Fall to Developers

Monday, May 30, 2005 at 9:55 AM

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One of northern Ohio's best-kept secrets is a Civil War cemetery on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay. It's the final resting place of captured officers from the Confederate Army who died while incarcerated there in a Union Army prison. For the last 17 years an archaeologist has been excavating the site. From artifacts and historical documents he's assembled a detailed picture of the lives of the prisoners and the hardships they faced. But now the work is threatened. Unless a preservation group can find enough money to buy the land, this once-hallowed ground could be developed for vacation homes. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

It takes a real Civil War buff to find the Confederate prisoner of war cemetery on Johnson’s Island. Only an old-fashioned historical marker identifies the causeway to the island along the shoreline road of Marblehead peninsula near the mouth of Sandusky Bay. Once across the causeway, there’s a tollgate to this privately-owned vacation spot.

But visitors do find this serene iron-gated graveyard, where long rows of white marble headstones curve down a slope to the granite statue of a Confederate officer overlooking the sparkling waters of the bay. Another marker lists the names of the more than three hundred Southern officers who died here in a Union Army POW camp between 1862 and 1865.

There’s no sign now of the prison that confined nearly 10,000 members of the cream of the Confederacy by the end of the Civil War. The two-story wooden barracks are gone, along with the hospital, mess halls, and sutler’s store. But here in the yet-undeveloped interior of the island a group of about thirty people are sifting through what does remain below the soil.

Dave Bush: Sarah, what have you got there? Before you brush it completely away.

Dave Bush has been working to uncover the story of the Johnson’s Island prison for the last seventeen years. An archaeologist at Heidelberg College, Bush extends his teaching to middle and high school students who spend as much as a week here every spring and summer learning the work of an archaeological dig.

Dave Bush: Okay, it’s part of a button, part of a copper button. I didn’t want you brushing it too much more, because it looked like something it was worth taking a look at.

Under the shade of a large white tent, students kneel in squares of dirt, gently sifting through the topsoil for buttons and bits of glass, crockery, and gutta-percha, a kind of hard rubber used by prisoners to carve trinkets for loved ones back home. Bush says there’s a lot to find here, especially in the latrines, where prisoners dropped coins and pocket watches and disposed of contraband like empty whisky bottles. In some latrines he’s found the remains of tunnels dug by prisoners trying to escape.

But Bush says it’s the historical record that has brought the story of Johnson’s Island so richly to life. Over the years descendents of the Confederate prisoners and their Union Army guards have contacted him, looking for ancestors and offering family treasures.

Dave Bush: It’s amazing how many stories have come to light. People hear something on the radio or see something on TV or read something in a magazine and they’ll find the website. And they’ll contact us and share some letters they have or a diary or autograph book or jewelry or something they thought came from Johnson’s Island.

(Reading) Enclosed I send a small gutta-percha ring made by rebel prisoners.

At lunchtime, students gather under the trees to listen as Bush and education coordinator Marcia George read from prisoners’ diaries.

Dave Bush: (Reading) Colonel Stedman gave it to me this morning with the request that I should send it to my lady love - if I had any. I told him I would.

Marcia George: (Reading) MacDowell and I had two rats for breakfast, a meal to which we are not accustomed by any means. The rats were the first I ever tasted.

While the diaries reveal the lives of men far from home trying to occupy their time with writing letters, carving jewelry or playing chess, they also show the darker side of the Civil War. Late in the war, rations were cut and starving prisoners were forced to eat anything they could find.

But the wealth of data and learning from this Civil War prison could be coming to an end. A few years ago, a group called the Friends and Descendents of Johnson’s Island took out a loan to buy 17 acres of the former prison site. Dave Bush says this October the final payment is coming due.

Dave Bush: We still owe close to $290,000 on the loan. We’re trying to work out a cooperative agreement with Heidelberg College, a fundraising campaign or something. But we still need to raise quite a bit of money.

Bush says if the group can’t meet the payment, the site will most likely be sold to developers for expensive vacation homes and condos. And that’s something he’d like to prevent.

Dave Bush: This property is really hallowed ground. It’s property that’s experienced a lot of human drama. And that’s the kind of thing you need to protect and preserve.

Johnson’s Island is a National Historic Landmark, but because it’s not a battlefield it doesn’t qualify for federal funding. Dave Bush says one day he’d like to create an open-air museum here. But he says donations are needed now to keep the land protected. On Johnson’s Island, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Additional Information

Friends and Descendents of Johnson's Island

Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center

Archaeology Magazine - Unlocking Civil War Prison

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