Johnson's Island on Lake Erie was Civil War prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers

Confederate cemetery in Ohio is link to Civil War

DANBURY, Ohio - I held the heavy bullets in my hand.

They were spent, out of shape, having been fired into something. What the bullets hit, I do not know.  The bullets were about 150 years of age, fired from the rifles of Union troops at an Ohio prison camp, the United States' most northernmost facility for captured troops of the Confederacy during America's Civil War. 

Johnson's Island is where 9,000 Confederate troops were imprisoned from 1862 to 1865 when America was at war with itself.

"They wanted a prison far enough north and isolated to put Confederate prisoners," said Don Young of the Johnson's Island Preservation Society.

Although the prison camp structures are gone, a cemetery holding the bodies of 206 Confederate prisoners who died in captivity remains on the island which is within sight of the city of Sandusky and the Cedar Point Amusement Park. 

At the Johnson's Island Preservation Society Museum on the grounds of the Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky, there is a large display of photographs of the Civil War prison camp. On the grounds was a garrison of Union guards who oversaw the prisoners who had been captured as they fought for the Southern states which had seceded from the United States. 

With the exception of fired bullets found in the ground of Johnson's Island, the photographs are all that remain of the prison camp. However, the cemetery is well-manicured. An iron fence surrounds the burial spots where stone markers are atop each grave. Most of the markers bear a name, rank and residential state of the grave's occupant. However, there are some markers which carry the single word "Unknown."

Most of the Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery died of natural causes.

"There were diseases that were running around and killing most of these prisoners," said Young as he walked among the stone grave markers.

When the bodies were buried, the graves were marked with pieces of wood bearing the carved names of the dead. However, through the years the wood rotted away. Some of the names were lost to history. The names which survived the harsh weathers of the Lake Erie island were transferred to stone markers.

The story of Johnson's Island is not widely known.

"I have people in Sandusky what don't know this is here," said Young, pointing to the city skyline only a few miles across the water from the cemetery.

However, there are some people who are aware of the stories Johnson's Island holds. Larry Thorderson of King of Prussia, PA, visited the cemetery. Sitting quietly on a bench outside the fence of it he spoke of the Civil War.

"It was the darkest and brightest moment because there is so much that's important abut the way we live now that came out of that war,"  he said.

It was the war which greater defined America. No longer was the country these United States -- a reference to the plural states which were independent of each other -- but the United States in the singular. Between 600,000 and 750,000 Americans -- both Union and Confederate -- died from battlefield casualty, disease, or accident. The Union won. In reality, the Union survived. However, it took an enormous price for the United States to reach that point. 

Throughout the United States, there are points where the people and the land were touched by Civil War. In Ohio, on a small Lake Erie  island of only a few miles in circumference, there was a major spot where the war touched the state. In the northernmost part of Ohio was a Union-run prison camp built especially for Confederate soldiers. Johnson's Island marks the only prison camp on either side of the war that was built expressly as a prison camp and not as something else later converted to such a facility.

Johnson's Island is also a part of the nation's history when Americans fought Americans.

Print this article Back to Top