Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Doing Time Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by David R. Bush

[image] Lieutenant Charles E. Grogan escaped from Johnson's Island in 1863. He returned to active duty only to be shot in the leg during a raid (thus the crutches in this portrait). (Courtesy Gordon Silleck) [LARGER IMAGE]

By the end of the Civil War, more than 400,000 soldiers had become prisoners of war. The camp at Johnson's Island in western Lake Erie was the only Union prison designed expressly for enemy officers. Of the 9,000-plus men held there, some 300 never made it out alive. Men were shot at with little provocation. Those caught trying to escape were shackled and fed only bread and water. The stench from overflowing privies fouled the air, and the rats overrunning the compound became a dietary supplement.

Johnson's Island prisoners were among the educated Southern elite, and they left hundreds of personal accounts of their experiences. The volume of letters, diaries, maps, and drawings is unrivaled by that of any other Civil War prison, North or South. These sources and recent archaeological work tell us how prisoners passed long hours, how they attempted escape, and how they were rewarded for cooperating with their captors.

David R. Bush is an associate professor of anthropology at the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology of Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. He welcomes copies of any family records relating to former prisoners or guards on Johnson's Island. He would like to thank Carl Zipfel, the current owner of the property under excavation.

* See also "In Their Own Words: Tales from a Civil War Prison" and our InteractiveDig Johnson's Island.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America