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FIELD NOTES: A Confederate monument in an unlikely place

A few weeks ago, I wrote candidly about my mixed feelings regarding my high school class reunion. Despite some trepidation, I did log on to the Zoom feed and spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries with my classmates. I also checked out the many pictures they posted of the reunion itself, as well as some ancillary sightseeing. One photo, in particular, grabbed my attention: The Confederate Cemetery and Soldier Memorial.  

Wait. Didn’t you grow up in Ohio?  

Yes. Yes, I did. 

So why is there a monument to Confederate soldiers?  

Great question! 

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the belief of most in the North was that it would last, at most, a few months. When that proved not to be the case, and bloody battle after bloody battle ensued, both sides found themselves in possession of thousands of prisoners of war, many of them with injuries and illnesses. The Union Army began looking for places to quickly and inexpensively establish “stockades” where these prisoners could be housed until they were exchanged or hostilities ended.  

The prison sites needed to be far enough away from the front lines to ensure raiding parties could not easily attack them, close enough to a city and rail line that food and other supplies could be easily brought in, and as removed from the civilian population as possible.

Three-hundred-acre Johnson’s Island, in Lake Erie’s Sandusky Bay, met all these requirements. A 16-acre prison with 15-foot walls and 12 two-story barracks was constructed there, with the first inmates arriving in April 1862.

Over the next three years, the prison would house more than 15,000 Confederate soldiers, primarily officers. Initially, the guards treated the prisoners very well; many guards were volunteer soldiers who had “aged out” of combat roles or suffered debilitating injuries. Prisoners received the same rations as the guards, were allowed essentially free rein of the camp, and could even be seen playing checkers or cards with their captors.

That changed some as stories about the sub-par treatment of Union soldiers interred at Confederate prisons began to circulate. In 1863, prisoner rations were decreased, and a stringent code of conduct, any violation of which could result in summary execution, was enacted. However, only one Confederate soldier at Johnson’s Island was shot for disobeying the code.  

Moreover, prisoners were given the opportunity for immediate release. Freedom could be had by denouncing the Confederacy, pledging an oath of loyalty to the United States, and serving one year in the Union Army. Perhaps unsurprisingly to those familiar with Southerners, only 50 soldiers took advantage of this “out.” 

However, some Confederate soldiers were able to escape and make their way to Canada – a  colony of neutral England just 30 miles across the lake – or even back to their homes. Although it was an island prison, Johnson’s Island was no Alcatraz, and camp rolls filled with entries reading, “Missing, Presumed Escaped.” The densely wooded, sparsely populated Marblehead peninsula was less than a half-mile across a calm channel from the prison. Summer water temperatures were manageable for swimming, and the channel iced over for much of the winter.  

Escapees could find their way to Canada by traveling 90 miles overland to Detroit and crossing from there, or by stealing a boat and sailing across Lake Erie. A few even attempted to walk across the frozen lake, a far more dangerous pursuit. 

Although Johnson’s Island had one of the lowest mortality rates of any Civil War prison, about 200 prisoners did die due to the harsh Ohio winters, injuries and disease, and were buried in  the camp cemetery. 

The prison was officially decommissioned in September 1865, and most of the structures were sold off for their lumber. A handful of buildings remained in place until the turn of the century, with the last burning in an accidental fire in 1901. 

On June 8, 1910, a monument to the Confederate prisoners held on the island was unveiled. While there was little “Southern” sentiment in Northwest Ohio, the monument was designed to show respect for those who were held captive and died at the camp, hundreds of miles from home. In 1990, Johnson’s Island was designated a National Historic Landmark. A causeway connecting it with the mainland opened in the 1970s, and today the island is home to two upscale housing developments. The Confederate cemetery and the Fort Hill site in the interior of the island are accessible to the public. 

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