Johnson’s Island was unique among the prisons for captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
That made the Johnson’s Island prison unique among Civil War prisons – first, because it was built specifically to house captured soldiers (most of the other Union prisons were former jails or military installations that were converted to prisoner-of-war facilities) and second, because it was eventually holding only Confederate officers.
In 1861, the word came down from Washington, find a suitable location for a prisoner-of-war depot on one of the islands on Lake Erie. Washington sent Lt. Col. William Hoffman, commissary-general of prisoners. He rejected North and Middle Bass islands – too close to Canada. South Bass Island was too expensive. Kelley’s Island wasn’t right, either – too many residents and too many vineyards nearby.
That left Johnson’s Island, a lonely outpost in Sandusky Bay. The island was an ideal location for a prison — it was close to Sandusky, making it easy to build, outfit and supply. It was also inexpensive to lease.
The government allotted $30,000 to outfit and equip the prison.
Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked the governor of Ohio to raise a company of volunteers, who would serve as guards. That company came to be known as the Hoffman Battalion. New recruits – most from Ohio communities – were offered a $100 reward. According to an advertisement in the Sandusky Register, 100 men were needed; they had to be of “good height, and between the ages of twenty and forty.” Former Sandusky Mayor William Pierson took over as major of the battalion and head of the prison.
In April 1862, the first prisoners arrived – 200 Confederates transferred up from Camp Chase, a prison in Columbus, Ohio.
Soon after, Johnson’s Island became a prisoner-of-war depot for Confederate officers. (The government also housed a small number of political prisons, persons sentenced by courts martial and spies at Johnson’s Island as well.)
Johnson’s Island operated throughout the remainder of the Civil War. Approximately 10,000 Confederates called Johnson’s Island home for at least a portion of that time. Some stayed at the depot a relatively short time, before being moved or exchanged. Others stayed for several years, ever hopeful of getting out.
The documentary, “Rebels on Lake Erie,” deals with the day-to-day life of the prisoner at Johnson’s Island and the abortive attempt to liberate the prison.
The history on Johnson’s Island and the abortive attempt to liberate the prison remains Charles E. Frohman, Rebels on Lake Erie (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1965).
A number of websites deal with Johnson’s Island and the archaeological dig there.
Among the best is Heidelberg University’s Johnson’s Island site.
“Rebels on Lake Erie” was underwritten by a grant from the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities.