Prison Break at Johnson's Island
October 9, 2008
Archaeologist Dave Bush stands at the entrance to the Johnson's Island POW camp site. Today the site is a National Historic Landmark, in part because of its unprecedented archaeological record. The yellow pole in the background indicates where the prison compound's southwest corner once stood. When the sign was dedicated in November 2006, the site received a flag that once flew over the U.S. Capitol Building. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
For the past 20 years, archaeologist Dave Bush has been leading excavations at Johnson's Island, a Civil War POW camp on Lake Erie in Ohio (see "Unlocking a Civil War Prison"). On a sweltering August afternoon between two rounds of excavations, he shared a coveted meal of homemade chilled gazpacho at the site with ARCHAEOLOGY's managing editor, Eti Bonn-Muller—right after a team member wrangled a fox snake to secure a place to sit and chat. Over the dull buzzing of cicadas in the surrounding woods, he talked about unearthing Native American smoking pipes, tunneling for freedom with a cow bone, performing satirical minstrels at Union soldiers' expense, and mapping out his own personal escape route.
How did you first get interested in archaeology?
I was raised in Canton, and my father was a collector of arrowheads, projectile points, Native American stuff here in Ohio. When I was probably eight or nine years old, he used to drag us all out—I have three brothers—to go collect arrowheads off the fields. I got interested just in terms of thinking about what those things represented, even as a youngster.
When I was in high school, we got involved with one of those local amateur archaeological groups—you know, the ones that don't necessarily follow all the scientific rigor that we impose on ourselves these days. But even as a high-school kid I got involved in an excavation of a site and I really began to realize how important it was to be more systematic about the recovery work. I did some work analyzing human skeletal remains from one of the sites then excavated some materials, and eventually got to college and actually went into pre-med. Tried to take organic chemistry and didn't do well! So that convinced me I should follow another path.
Where did you study?
I went to Miami of Ohio to do my undergraduate work. And contrary to what my dad wanted—he was an orthopedist, he wanted me to follow in the medical field—I switched to anthropology. I took some anthropology courses and really found that to be truly interesting, so that's how I got started.
Were you always interested in the Civil War?
No, that's totally different. I probably was not that interested in the Civil War for a long time and it wasn't one of my passions to study it. I was doing a lot of Native American Indian excavations and working with materials—especially Late Woodland—and doing a lot with lithics. I'm very proficient in studying lithic [stone] materials and eventually I was doing a lot of Cultural Resource Management [CRM] work, as all of us typically do to get by, and this project [Johnson's Island] started out as a CRM project. And before this we did a couple of other historic sites, so I was starting to get into some of the issues related to historic archaeology. It was at the same time when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was becoming much more of an issue for us. I was working a lot with Native American human skeletal remains, so it was becoming more and more difficult for me to do that without feeling as though fewer and fewer people were appreciative of that. I happened to know the lawyer who was representing the developer out here and they needed a Cultural Resource review done on the island for the development, so I got involved with this project that way.
Although I had done several historic projects, and pretty extensive ones, this one here was the first one that really captured my interest. I knew immediately when I saw the site that this would be a place I could spend the rest of my career at, just because of the significance of the site.
Did people always know that a prison existed here, or how did they originally come across the site?
The site has always been known to be the place where they had the Johnson's Island Civil War Prison. And the Confederate cemetery being there always kept it in people's minds, at least to some extent. When I started in 1988, I looked at the National Register form for the site, but they had the prison compound about halfway between here [Block 6, where the hospital once stood] and the cemetery—and about half in the water! So the National Register form was like totally wrong. What we needed to do was to figure out where the prison actually was and what kind of condition it was in. Nobody had done any archaeological work on it and several people who had written master's theses on the site had claimed that everything was destroyed. They thought the [nearby] quarry had pretty much destroyed everything. Well, that wasn't the case. But the initial work was trying to figure out where things were. Once we established the integrity of the site, which is excellent, I knew it could be a place I could really spend a lot of time at.
Do you know what was here before the prison?
The island was bought by Mr. Johnson in 1852. It was Bull's Island at that point—owned by a guy named Bull—so he changed it to Johnson's Island. Then he started to clear some land for an orchard or to do some farming or something out here. So he cleared about 40 acres before the government decided to use this as a prison site. And of course before that, there was Native American occupation for thousands of years.
Which tribes were here?
We don't really know. It's one of those issues we have in this region. It appears as though European diseases came through and wiped out populations that were here before actual Europeans arrived. So the indigenous population that was here at historic times is fairly unknown. But we have lots of the archaeological names like Early, Middle, Late Woodland; Early, Middle Late Archaic, Paleoindian, Plano Indian, we have all of that here. We have evidence of artifacts back 8,000 to 10,000 years here.
You do come across Native American finds, then?
Yeah, lots of projectile points, lots of flint tools; we have found one or two Native American smoking pipes; lots of ceramic pieces from their bowls—prehistoric ceramics.
The cemetery at Johnson's Island was used by the Union to bury Confederate soldiers who had died or—in a few cases—were executed on the island. It opened in 1862 and the last interment occurred in June 1865. The statue was created in 1910 by the famous American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917), who served as a Confederate soldier in the war. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
In the 1880s, a group of Georgia businessmen visited the Johnson's Island cemetery. Appalled by its deteriorating wooden headboards, they worked with groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect these marble tombstones by 1890. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
Do you know why this site was chosen to be a prison?
A guy named Colonel Hoffman was commanded to search the islands in western Lake Erie to try and find a place where they could house the prisoners from the war. He looked at North and South Bass and Kelley's islands, but most of the ones that were accessible had wineries, or a lot of people on them. And he was afraid that would be a deterrent to the prison. So he found Johnson's Island, which didn't have either, and part of it had been cleared. It was also easy to supply because it was so close to Sandusky by a quick boat ride, or in the winter they could just slide things over pretty easily [on the ice]. It was closer than any of the other islands, so that's why they chose it. And they could control the whole island. They leased it from Mr. Johnson for $500 a year.
Are there any other "big" Civil War sites in Ohio? How does Johnson's Island fit into the state's archaeological record?
There are really no archaeological sites related to the Civil War that are being actively worked on, or have been in recent times. Buffington Island is probably the only site that we've done some archaeological work at in Ohio and it's the only battle in Ohio, which was a brief one; it's shortly after Morgan was captured, which is the significance of that. We've done some archaeological work in locating battle-related items from it. Other than that, there are some mustering camps, like Camp Dennison and a few other places like that. They probably have some interesting archaeological materials there. I've never looked at them, but there are these muster stations and training grounds. The only other major prison in Ohio is Camp Chase and it actually housed more prisoners, mostly enlisted guys, but it was more of an urban setting. And there's no archaeology related to that. The only thing truly left of that prison is the cemetery.
You have a lot of historical accounts and written documentation from the prisoners here. How did you start accumulating them?
When I started this project, one of the things I was well aware of was that there was this huge resource out there somewhere. But unfortunately in 1988, the Internet didn't exist, so I couldn't go online to find it. I had to write letters to all the historical societies and museums in the South and ask them—Do you have anything from Johnson's Island? I literally wrote 150 or 200 letters to different entities and got a lot of responses back. And with that, I started to accumulate the historical record that we've now been able to acquire.
Once the Internet caught on and I started the Johnson's Island website, and then through articles like the ones that occurred in ARCHAEOLOGY magazine ("Doing Time," July/August 1999) and other things that had been printed, people really began contacting me. So now, I probably get one or two requests a week from descendants of people who were mostly imprisoned here, looking for anything I might have on their guy. And so it's hard for me to keep up with that. I get a lot of inquiries and then I usually respond back right away, ask them what they've got, and then if they tell me they've got this diary somewhere, then I make sure I mark that one and say—got to get back to this one! I've been able to accumulate a lot of written sources like that. (For diary entries and letters provided by descendants of Johnson's Island prisoners, see "In Their Own Words.")
The yellow pole indicates the western wall of the prison going north, showing how the compound was expanded. Thirty feet away, red poles mark the "dead line." Prisoners who attempted to cross it were shot. Between the poles, archaeologists found the remains of a ditch that was dug by prisoners trying to tunnel out and escape. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
With all the written sources, do you ever learn anything through archaeology that's completely surprising?
One of the claims we make as historic archaeologists is that we can augment the historical record, or we can serve as a check on the historical record, or we can serve as a representation of those populations that aren't represented in the historical record. With this population here, they are well represented in the historical record—the guys who were inside the prison compound. But, like all people, they only recorded whatever it was they thought was important to them at the time. So a lot of times we don't hear about...for instance, nobody's ever written a description of the inside of a latrine for me, you know? So I've got to come up with what I think that is based on the archaeological record of how that latrine was structured and why the deposits are the way they are. And not that that's some great historical question that needs to be answered, but it is one of those things we need to deal with when we're trying to figure out how the stuff got in the ground in the first place, right? They talk about tunneling, but they never talk about tunneling from the latrines—and we've found many tunnels from the latrines.
Oh yeah. We know they were tunneling from the latrines—we found the tools they were tunneling with!
They tunneled with any large iron object they could find—like an iron bar or even a table knife. And then they also used—we found a cow bone that was broken. And they would use the articulating [joint] end to hold as a handle and then the shaft part they would use for digging into the clay. It's well rounded, the one that we found. So we find those kinds of things, and that's the stuff they're not going to write about.
Did anyone ever escape?
We had about a dozen that escaped, but really none of them through tunnels that we can prove. We know a guy got shot coming out of a tunnel and we know a lot of them got captured in the tunnels as they were trying to escape, but we don't know of anybody that actually got out through tunneling. They usually had to dress up like a Union soldier or a workman and go out with work parties—try to sneak out that way. But in terms of the archaeological record, there's a whole lot there to work with.
For instance, another thing that they write about is that they're making hard rubber rings—the jewelry aspect. They talk a lot about making rings, making brooches, but that's all they say—I made a ring, I made a brooch. So how did they do that? I mean, like the ring we found this year was so exquisite, we thought how the heck did they do that here? [It's so small and delicate] I practically can't even hold the thing in my hand, and it's got these little tiny sets in there. It's just beautiful. So that's what we can enhance archaeologically. We can find the tools. We find all the waste products from the items they were using. So where did they get the hard rubber? Well, they got it from buttons, from chart rules [foot-long architectural rulers]. You talk to anybody and almost nobody's ever heard of these chart rules before. But they're so prevalent out there. That's one of the things they're using. So those are the parts of the archaeological record that we can really enhance.
Then, plus, just the design issues—in terms of where the buildings are, and locating things. They got actually, in the historical record, the records wrong on how they extended the prison. So when I first found the corners of the prison, they--the official records of the Union--said it was 105 feet from the southwest corner and 88 feet from the northwest corner. And that's where I drew in the lines from the wall—and it was totally wrong! But I published it that way first and then a couple years later I realized they got those numbers reversed. So it helps with those kinds of things as well.
In general, what do you find the most of?
Window glass, brick fragments, nails—architectural materials related to the buildings. We also find a lot of container glass. I'd say that's probably the next largest category. Container glass for everything, depending on what building we're in. In this one [Block 6] it would be more medically related containers. In Block 4 [one of the areas where the prisoners were housed] it was more just food storage containers. And even in both we find crystal glass from goblets and tumblers that they had, even stemmed glassware.
Another thing—they don't really write about it intentionally, but we study it—is looking at how the archaeological record reflects how they're trying to maintain their lifestyle. They're in prison and they're trying to create an atmosphere that is compatible, familiar to them from their Southern upbringing. So that we can discover archaeologically as well.
A durable canvas "weather port" encloses the area where archaeologists are excavating "Block 6," the prison hospital. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
Dave Bush stands inside Block 6, where a unique ring with gold sets was unearthed this summer. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
Stemmed glassware doesn't sound too harsh...
No, but it wasn't something they were issued either. They had to figure out a way of buying it or purchasing it or something.
What would be your dream find?
Dream find? Oh let's see...there's that cache of gold coins we've been looking for, for years [laughs]! I don't know, everything is a dream find out here. One would not have necessarily thought that we'd find one of those rings that had gold sets, but that's pretty neat to find and that's definitely indicative of things. Certainly finding a guy caught in a tunnel or something like that—that would be an awesome discovery to make! But I don't think that's going to happen. I like the fact that every year we find things we've never found before and every year we find things I don't know what they are. That means I have to do research and figure this stuff out. And that's what keeps me involved out here; in addition to the major research, it's just all the neat things we find and keep finding.
What were some of the biggest highlights from the first half of the 2008 season?
Well certainly the ring is the biggest highlight. And it's not because it's an item that's probably worth a lot of money. It's more that it's historically representative of the prisoners, you know, that issue of maintaining their lifestyle and the access they had. You just don't think of a prisoner being able to carve rings with gold sets in them pretty easily. I mean, that just doesn't seem like a normal prisoner activity. You might think they would carve something out of wood or bone because it's common and they would have that. But where did they get the hard rubber and the silver and the gold, and where did they get the tools to inscribe it? It's got initials in it as well, which makes it doubly significant. If we can tie it to some historical individual then we really have a find there. So that's one.
We found the top to a plunger from a syringe, which I'd never seen before. I've got to write to the medical museum in Frederick, Maryland, and see if they have any information. It's got an "F" embossed on the outside of that, which I think means "Female," but I'm not sure. We need to do some research on that. We've got a couple other items—I don't know what they are yet. So those are neat.
We've got a lot of medically related container fragments from inside the building here. That's hard to assess until we get into the lab a look at how much we've found. But we've found hundreds of things so far this season. And then the latrine—we're just getting down to where I think we're going to start finding the majority of the things that was lost in it. So that I expect to be something that's going to come out in the next couple of months.
How do you know the ring was made here and not smuggled in somehow?
That's a really good point. I guess if I were under oath in a courtroom situation, I wouldn't say 100 percent that I was sure it was made here. But I'd say 98.9 percent it was probably made here. We've got comparable stuff that was made here: one that we have found archaeologically and two that are recorded as being made here from people who took such things home and they have them in their family collections—still—that are very comparable to this ring. So other items very similar to it were made here and there's absolutely no reason to suspect that it wasn't made here. They were producing these things a lot. Not the gold necessarily as much, but the silver settings, and they had shell settings and that sort of thing.
Under Bush's watchful eye, volunteer assistants Sue Umbenhour and Dave Fadely carefully sift through each clump of soil unearthed in Block 6. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
Dave Bush examines one of the latrines used by prisoners from Block 6. Among other finds in this location, the team has unearthed parasite eggs, which will reveal some of the diseases from which the prisoners suffered. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
Would they have been for personal use or would the prisoners have sold them?
Well, this one was small. It looks like a ladies' ring. And we're thinking that he probably had it made for his wife and then never got a chance to send it to her. He may have lost it or he may have been one of the guys who died and never got a chance to get it out. But it is pretty small—it easily could have fallen out of a pocket or gotten lost. I'm sure the guy was sickened! Just like the guy that lost his gold watch in the latrine, or the locket with hair. I'm sure when you lost those kinds of things you were disheartened.
Were there any particularly colorful personalities here? Any stories from historical records that stand out to you?
Certainly! Some of the guys who write, even though they're not known as really colorful historical figures, some of their writings are pretty fun to read. They're very satirical or very critical or just criticizing either the guards or the other prisoners. And they write in a way that's very easy to read, which makes it very comical. There was a guy, most prisoners knew him as "Asa Harts," who was really George McKnight, he was a poet and a songwriter and he wrote a lot of poetry here and some of it's pretty funny to read. And he's probably one of the most colorful people who was here and became known otherwise. And Charles Pierce was a guy who tried to escape many times and kept getting caught. They wrote a lot of funny stuff about him. He ended up...the last time he tried to escape he was going to be punished, but the colonel made him promise he wouldn't try to escape again. So he was kept from being punished for trying to escape. There's a bunch of things written about him that is pretty colorful.
Did he ever make it out?
He was exchanged. He didn't try to escape once he promised, you know? They were men of their word, for the most part, so he didn't do that. And then you had M. Jeff Thomson—one of the generals who was here—and he was a pretty flamboyant guy. He was always involved in stuff. He wasn't here as long as many of them so he didn't accrue the kind of renown that some of the others did. They also had guys here who were writing for a thespian group that was doing minstrels. Unfortunately, we don't have the text of a lot of those [performances], but many were apparently jokes at the Union soldiers. There were a lot of things going on.
Is there any way to know the relationship the soldiers had, both with each other and with the guards?
Part of the relationship is indicated in the archaeological record when you find so many alcoholic materials in a place that wasn't supposed to have any. You've got to assume they had a pretty decent relationship with the guards in terms of smuggling that in. And that's pretty typical of a lot of prisons where the guards benefit from that in terms of making money and the prisoners benefit from that in terms of getting what they want.
Otherwise, they talk about the guards—some of whom they didn't like, some of whom they liked a lot. We have a letter from a guy who actually escaped. He wrote to the second-in-command here, a guy named Major Scovill, and wrote to him about how he and Major Scovill shared the same boat going over to Sandusky. He didn't want to intrude upon him at that time, he wrote, but said he'd be glad to share with him later how he'd pulled off his escape. So he obviously, he sounded like he had a fairly decent relationship with Major Scovill, even though he was writing him to kind of rub it in his face that he'd escaped.
Did anyone historically famous ever come here?
I don't know of any really major historical figures that came to visit the prisoners, okay? They had 23 generals that we know of who were here: Trimble from Gettysburg was here—there were a bunch of people who were here that are fairly known in the Civil War historical context. I'm not proficient in that. I don't worry too much about studying that stuff. And I haven't made it a choice to look at the generals as opposed to looking at like Lieutenant Peel, who we have a diary from, or Captain Hamilton, or some of those guys. To me, it's the everyday prisoner who is of major interest. So I look at them all kind of equally.
We had Kyd Douglas here, who was on Stonewall Jackson's staff. He was a really, really fantastic writer. He wrote, I Rode with Stonewall. He was here and he had this wonderful relationship with some woman he was writing to back and forth, and he was always chastising her in a poetic and articulate way that was just phenomenal. And all the time she would do something or he'd get in trouble and he'd have to bail himself out and he'd write all these great letters. So...he's fairly well known.
A lump of white residue in the top of the photo is lime, which was produced on Johnson's Island and used to help with odors in this latrine. A piece of dark glass--the base of a bottle awaiting excavation--pokes through the ground, just underneath the small plastic bag. The tiny triangular fragment of yellow-ware in the center of the photo was most likely a chamber pot, broken as it was being emptied. (Eti Bonn-Muller)
That's the one part of this whole project that I get asked about that I haven't really done that much work on trying to become more proficient in. I'm just not that interested in worrying about it. Some of them became legislators or became fairly famous afterward, but it's really their experiences here that I care about it—not what they did afterward. And that may be a fault, but it's just the way I choose to do it, you know?
Fair enough! Do you know where most of the men were captured? Were there some main battles?
No, they were captured from everywhere. They brought the officers here from all the different battles that took place where they captured officers. So there isn't one major grouping here like Gettysburg. You had everybody here from all kinds of different battles, which is really kind of neat. I mean, when you think about it, that you've got one spot where you've got so much represented here.
Were there any women here?
Theoretically no, not as prisoners. There was one prisoner who gave birth, though, so we assume that was probably a woman [laughs]! Other than that...well, they were never really clear on that issue. They don't tell us who this person was that gave birth, but we had one woman prisoner who was masquerading as a male, apparently. And then some of the guards, especially the officers, their wives were here as well. They lived on the island, some of the wives—just the officers, not the enlisted guys. The headquarters is out where the quarry is now.
How long would the average prisoner stay here?
In the early part, in 1862, just a couple of months. And actually it could even be just a few weeks up until the middle part of 1863. They were exchanging prisoners back and forth. That exchange system seemed to work pretty well. And then, for various reasons, both sides started to change their policy of exchange. They pretty much abandoned the exchange completely by the middle part of 1863. So at that point, like guys from Gettysburg that were captured in July or even earlier, they potentially could be here until the end of the war. And there would be times, if they were very sick, they would exchange out, or if there was some special issue they would come get 'em. But other than that, they didn't exchange much between 1863 and 1865.
Did any of the prisoners eventually settle in Ohio? Or did most or all of them return to the South?
There is some indication that a few of them did stay. I think most of it is because people kind of lost track of their relatives after they were imprisoned here and they were exchanged and then they don't really know what happened to them after that. I've had a couple of people write to me about those issues. But I don't see a lot of that. I don't think that the officers were particularly anxious to accept Northern ways or stay in the North.
There were a few that were sort of here not by choice but just by circumstance. They ended up being forced into the Confederate Army and wound up a prisoner here, so they didn't have any real allegiance. But most of them seemed fairly committed to the cause. Even when the war ended and they were told the only way to get out was to sign the oath of allegiance, a lot of them didn't. Until, I mean, April 10 was when it ended, but a lot of them didn't start signing until the latter part of May and June. So some of them were having a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that the war was over and the only way to get off this island was to commit their allegiance back to the Union.
|Excavated this summer from Block 6, this ring (left) might have been made and lost by a prisoner who never had a chance to send it to his wife.
This top to a plunger from a syringe (right), also unearthed this year from Block 6, was embossed with an "F," which may have indicated "Female." (Courtesy David Bush)
Back to the archaeology for a minute—are there any particular challenges to working at this site?
Let's see...the snakes and the bugs and the staff that help me from time to time [jokingly laughs]. I have great people working for me; actually, it's been really good. I can't say there've been challenges in terms of that sort of issue. I guess the biggest challenge in a project like this is that it would be great to have an on-site facility so we didn't have to use port-a-johns and we could have a place to store equipment. Other than that, it seems to work out pretty well.
What's the most rewarding part?
I really enjoy working with middle-school and high-school kids. That's a good part of the program. It helps me with my research and also gives them a great experience. Just continuing to think about the issues of these prisoners faced and being exposed to that archaeologically as we find it is rewarding, you know? It's just a really interesting place to keep working on. You have the historical record that keeps filtering in, so I keep finding and reading. Combined with everything else, that keeps my interest up.
How does working with the students help you?
When these kids discover something and they make that connection to the past, and they realize that they're holding something that was lost by a Civil War guy, you know—they've read about the Civil War briefly in their classes, but they don't have that connection. It's that active, experiential learning thing out here that's sort of in that genre of things we try to do in order to instill something that lasts with the kids, some experience they can hang on to. We're not trying to make them preservationists here or stewards of the past, we're trying to get them to realize that these things have a past, these things are important. And it's not monetary value you're concerned with, it's historical value, which is a different thing. So when you get these kids turned on to that, it's pretty fun. And they do get turned on to it. It's amazing how many kids see this as probably the best field trip they've ever been on! And the teachers are the same way and the parents are the same way. All my reviews are constantly reflecting those issues. So I'm proud of that.
What are your hopes for the future of the site? Ideally, how much would you like to excavate?
My hope is to find someone who can take over and I can get the hell off this island [laughs]! No, I'm kidding! Sort of...
I think, in terms of the archaeology, for me it's going to be something that I'll just have to stop doing. It's not something that I see an end to. At some point I'll just say, I really just can't do this anymore, you know? Because there's so much that I still...I mean, I have research projects on this that could go on for 30 years—and I know I'm not going to want to do archaeology for another 30 years! Or at least be able to do it. So that's just a given.
As for the site, we've got our mortgage on the property down now to where I think in the next couple of years we're going to get it paid off, which means we will own it completely. So then there are no issues with ever losing the property. Once that's done then we can start looking into developing more historic interpretive trails and that sort of thing that will make it more accessible to people, which I think would be great. And just hopefully get some younger people involved who can manage it when I no longer care to do all this. And soon I can go retire somewhere!
On one of the islands with a winery?
Yeah, not this island, though!