Not Quite Stalag 13
January 4, 2012 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Sandusky, Ohio is probably best known for its roller coasters (and maybe the wineries in the area), but one of the most interesting places--a tiny little island in the Sandusky Bay called Johnson's Island--is very often overlooked. Once the home of a prison camp for confederate soldiers, daring (and not so daring) escapes, convoluted espionage schemes, poetry, and eating rats.

Despite the fact that the camp was situated on an island, many of the prisoners attempted to escape via tunneling out. One particularly unlucky prisoner, Lt.Charles Pierce, attempted to escape seven times throughout his stay at Johnson's Island, tunneling, scaling the stockade wall and crossing the ice to Cedar point, and two attempts posing as a Union guard. Every time he was caught. He died of yellow fever in New Orleans two years after the war ended.
Another hard luck prisoner was Col. D.R. Hundley who was commander of the 31st. Alabama Infantry. On January 2, 1865, Hundley, dressed as one of the guards who called the role of the prisoners each day, slipped out of the stockade gate. The guards were distracted by friends of Hundley’s who started a fight just as he reached the gate. The morning was extremely cold, and Hundley pulled the cape of his outer coat around his head so that the guard at the gate could not recognize him. Once out of the stockade, he made his way to the ice and crossed Sandusky Bay to the city of Sandusky. At the railroad terminal, he had second thoughts about taking a train to Detroit because of the number of Union soldiers at the terminal. Instead he started to walk in the direction of Detroit, through a blinding snowstorm, following the railroad tracks. To his disappointment, after walking for four days, he came to the city of Fremont which was only about 25 miles southwest of Sandusky. He was able to convince a hotel night clerk that he had fought at the front, and the clerk gave him a room. However after seeing a wanted poster for another prisoner, the clerk alerted the local authorities about Hundley. After some sleep and two good meals, Hundley was arrested and returned to Johnson’s Island. Hundley remained on the island until he was released on July 25, 1865.
(quote and overview of Johnson's Island here) Another intricate escape attempt was spearheaded by Charles H. Colt, which involved him posing as an oil tycoon, making friends with a Northern battleship crew, and hijacking it with a steamer trunk full of hatchets. Details here.

Around the turn of the millennium, the private owner of Johnson's Island ran into financial difficulties and considered selling the land to developers to bulldoze over. Archaeologist Dave Bush launched a one-man campaign to save the site, The Friends and Descendants of Johnson's Island Civil War Prison contacting decedents of prisoners and guards in order to raise money. His efforts were eventually successful, as his digs continue to this day. An interview:
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.... 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.
He goes on to discuss the excitement of finding an "exquisite" ring on one of his digs. While they seem to find the details of the ring-making vague, a diary from one of the officers imprisoned there discusses one of the prisoner's favorite hobbies:
Having undergone so many privations and severities, and being so long cooped up on a boat, I now began to feel the deleterious effects, nor was I by any means alone in being under the weather. My ailment seemed to be nothing more than general debility, a loss of appetite, attended with a languid feeling. The day after that was rainy and gloomy, such as are complete bores indoor, unless one has some employment. Making rings of gutta percha buttons was a favorite occupation with the prisoners to wear away the time. Those who had friends north of Dixie could send them specimens of thier workmanship, some of which was really exquisitely nice. An ingenious fellow would take a gutta perclia rule and some buttons, and a few bits of shell, silver or gold, and, with no implements but a knife and file, in a little while be able to show rings and other trinkets not to be scorned even in comparison with a jeweler's stock. He would cut the shell and precious metals into squares, diamonds, hearts, triangles and other shapes, which, neatly fitted and imbedded into the face of the polished black surface, added to the beauty of both by the contrast. My room had almost been turned into a ring manufactory, our little shelf being piled fall of rude, homemade tools and material, and my companions were filing and gouging away right earnestly, as though they were convicts, with a task before them. As I never had any mechanical genius, I contented myself with looking on and making suggestions. Some of the prisoners who had been there for a long time, and expected to remain till Gabriel sounds his trump, had managed to procure complete sets of tools, and made it pay by disposing of their trinkets at fair prices, the Yankee boys buying many of them as curiosities for their friends and sweethearts.
Another one of the things he briefly mentions is a woman prisoner who was pretending to be a man: this was Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a bisexual confederate officer, spy, dispatch runner, bond broker/scam artist, miner, and Mormon. A biography of Velazquez can be found here.

But the prisoners didn't just spend their time trying to escape from the island. They also had other ways entertaining themselves. Some of the prisoners wrote poetry, such as "The Prisoner's Farewell," written at the end of the war for the closing of the prison camp or "All is Well," written by a soldier who ended his life on Johnson's Island.

Other details are left in diary entries or letters. One such diary is A Northern Confederate at Johnson's Island Prison: The Civil War Diaries of James Parks Caldwel (preview available at Google Books), which contains this amusing anecdote:
Mr. Johnson, the sutler and island owner, had sold some prisoners a coal oil lamp, was or soon would be declared contraband. When he refused to take the lamp back, it was thrown at his head. There were no injuries. The culprit was never caught.
Joe Barbiere entitled his memoir Scraps from the prison table, at Camp Chase and Johnson's Island. The official prison records can be found here.

While the camp began by treating their prisoners fairly well, by the end of the war the conditions became very inhumane. Rations were so scarce that prisoners began using their squirreled away money to pay for rats, "cooking and eating them to allay the fierce pangs of unabated hunger." (quote can be found in Narrative of prison life at Baltimore and Johnson's Island, Ohio.)

The Johnson's Island camp site is now home to the Archaeological Field School, run by Heidelberg University, where kids can get a hands-on look at how archaeological digs are run. You can see scrapbooks of the student's digs, take a "virtual tour" of the prison camp, or follow an artifact from the dig to the museum.
posted by kittenmarlowe (13 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Too long of a quote to put in the main post, but kind of interesting:
this was obviated by the agile capacities of Captain Thompson, the Blondin of Johnson's island. It is to the latter gentleman, we are indebted for the conception of crossing the bay on a rope. Thompson, who vowed "he knew the ropes," would attempt the feat, but one difficulty seemed in the way, the want of a bottle. " Herr Cline," the famous rope dancer, would take a bottle and sit upon it on a slender cord, and Blondin would also perform similar tricks. This seemed quite an acquisition, and Captain Thompson was heralded as the apostle of prisoners desirous of escaping. The ropes and bottle were obtained, as Captain Thompson had built up much prestige upon the peculiar performances, and to be satisfied that all was ready for^ the hazzardous enterprise, a rope was stretched across a room in one of the buildings, and the bottle was produced. The performance began. The bottle presented, when by some mistake, (not of the printer,) but of the Post Surgeon. It was found to be full of whiskey. It had to be emptied. It was a pity to waste it, and it was intended that the chief of the corps should drink it, he did so and the manoeuvre opened, but much to the surprise of the rank and file, the bottle holder had neglected to tighten the slack-rope, and the result was a depression, and the chief was on his liead. This not being in the bill, and the attempt having signally failed from the derangement of tlie head of the column, the ropes were abandoned, and the rafts were adopted, hence the term raftsmen, and the use of this means to effect the escape of the disappointed five. The getting out was not considered, as all said the getting out was nothing, leaving the island was the rub. The party comprising the raftsmen corps consist of Captain Jessie Taylor, Lieutenant Sweeney,* Lieutenants Thompson, Stockdell, and Campbell, five trumps a good hand for any enterprise.

The arrangements completed, another difficulty seemed looming up in hideous proportions in the distance, and to all appearance, it was the fact of the amount of paper money in the crowd being too large to risk, in case of a warm or cold bath, if you will, in the bay ; and all seemed desponding, because the party had experienced much difficulty in obtaining the money. The law of the prison being such, that the prisoner is only allowed to buy what, he wants, and give checks to the sutler. At camp Chase they were allowed five dollars at a time, so as to allow change to buy sundries and Therefore, all kinds of tricks were resorted to get to the money inside. Some would buy five dollars worth of postage stamps, and then retail them to the officers, and by " hook and by crook," our gallant corps obtained a goodly sum. But the money must be placed in some secure place, it being paper, and getting wet, would become ruined and worthless. A bright thought, however, flashed across the mind of the susceptible Thompson ; and seeing the bottle, drained of its contents, lying in bold relief, on the bare floor, like some ancient grave yard, "the place of departed spirits," he grasped it eagerly, and presenting it with that impulsiveness, that so characterizes the house of Thompson, exclaimed — "this is the bottle!" and suggested the happy idea of placing the roll of bills in it, and then corking it, trusting it to the water, attached as a caudal appendage, if need be, by a cord to some one of the party, and on reaching Terra firma, have the satisfaction of having not only obtained their freedom, but in the possession of ample funds, would hie them to their happy homes, in the land of "Dixie." All seemed delighted, and each extended the hand of congratulation, while the left was elevated by the assistance of the forearm to the auricular extremity of the head, which was the signal agreed upon, "all right." All seemed jubilant and sanguine, but there was one clouded brow, in that brilliant circle, it was ominous of shadowed thought.

"Oh! cast that shadow from thy brow," all exclaimed, but there it was, on the massive forehead of the sprightly Sweeny. The veins upon his brow seemed to swell like the bounding billows of the "Mad lake," whose surface he intended to bare his manly breast to that self same night ; those eyes, that when influenced by heart emotions of pleasure, seemed to sparkle like some diamond buried in one of the catacombs of Egypt, or like the application of castile soap to the cranium of some ancient Zouave, whose capillary substance has yielded to the stroke of time, .that unrelenting destroyer, and expose from some dark corner, its shining surface, but to be more strikingly like the reflection of a smooth quarter in a rat hole. The hue of his formidable moustache darkened with those sad features, and like some frowning promontory, added an eclipse to the usually happy expression of a mouth wreathed with smiles, that now compressed its lips like the door of the cave in " Ali Baba's" time, when the magic word " Sesame" had been pronounced in commanding tones. In this case 'twas bottle, the clenched teeth gritted together like the shock some closing fissure of some convulsed system, and he came out with his pent up feelings barely restrained, in one loud acclaim, "How can the money begotten out of the bottle?" The crowd of anxious friends, who had awaited the results of the mountain in labor, felt like an Ateas, or the old man of the mountain, had been removed from their shoulders, and the sunshine of satisfaction illumined the countenances of the re-assured crowd. It seems that the history of the " apple dumplings" had not been imparted to the youths in their early course of studies, and therefore the abstraction of substances from vacuums as imbecile, as one of the merry monarchs said in Merrie England, when presented with the mysterious compound, "y'e clept apple dumplings," " Pray good dame," quoth he, " how got the apples in ?" But with Sweeny, the problem that required solution, was, " quoth he," how will you get the money out ? Excitement was depicted on each rueful face, as they thought of the danger they had ran, and all looked upon Sweeny as the discoverer looks upon a Kane, a Marcapola, a Columbus, or a Bilbo ; and never did as much consternation exhibit itself than on this occasion, when they awoke to a perfect realization of the dangers they had escaped.

* The gallant Sweeney was killed while nobly performing his duty,
t Lieutenant Thompson had his foot shot off. (Scraps from the Prison Table)
From the "Scraps" diary.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 11:31 AM on January 4, 2012

Upper Sandusky is actually a separate place. And, strangely enough, south of Sandusky Sandusky.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 11:37 AM on January 4, 2012

Upper Sandusky is actually a separate place. And, strangely enough, south of Sandusky Sandusky.

What's strange about it? Both are on the Sandusky River. Upper Sandusky is upstream. Sixty miles upstream. But that's what 'upper' means in geography.

See also: High German, Low German.
posted by Herodios at 11:46 AM on January 4, 2012

The King Of Sandusky Ohio
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:46 AM on January 4, 2012

For the sheer mass of text and making an Ohio prison dig (in two separate senses!) sound far more interesting than it should, is it too early to submit this post for Best of 2012?
posted by Old'n'Busted at 11:47 AM on January 4, 2012

Bonus points: The main drag on Johnson's Island is named "Confederate Drive".
posted by Herodios at 11:48 AM on January 4, 2012

Damn interesting. I live right in the area but I never knew about this place.
posted by charred husk at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2012

Another notch on the ol' "Why I love the Internet" talking stick. Thanks for posting this, km. Fascinating stuff!
posted by Mike D at 12:31 PM on January 4, 2012

How neat! As part of my graduate program in archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh I spent a summer in the late 90s digging at Johnson's Island with Dave. There were about a half dozen of us, myself and another graduate student, 4 or 5 undergraduates and another few volunteers.

We were excavating a couple of the hospital latrines. (Not as gross as it sounds.) The lime that they put in the latrines preserved an amazing amount - you could still read newspaper that had been crumpled up. I found a entire intact shoe. Lots of broken bottles too that I spent the next semester piecing very carefully back together in the lab.

A few things I remember:

1. We didn't have the nifty shelters that they have in those pictures, and the mosquitos would get so bad that my eyes swelled shut a couple of times.
2. We had to carry in all our equipment through what was basically a swamp every day since it wasn't entirely safe to leave it on site. I know there's this image of archaeologist with paint brushes but we used a lot of shovels too.
3. More that once we arrived at the site to find it vandalized, with things that we have left in situ for mapping pulled out and our pits messed up. It wasn't always clear if it was just looters looking for antique bottles or home owners who were worried about historic site designations too near their own property.
4. Dave controlled the music and we could either listen to Jimmy Buffet or Civil War era marching bands. We worked in silence a lot and talked an amazing amount about what we were having for dinner that night.
5. We hiked out and ate lunch on the edge of the quarry on the island and would watch the roller coasters on Cedar Point.
6. In the evenings, as part of our grade for the field school, we would transcribe letters from the prisoner that we printed out off from microfiche archives. Everyone's handwriting was much fancier than modern writing, and they wrote up to the edges of the margins and fairly small because paper was in such short supply. The prisoners complained about the food a lot and one of the letters talked in detail about the rat hunt that they had had.
7. Also as part of our grade we had to recruit 2 or 3 friends to write us letters. They had to follow all the same restrictions for length etc. that the prisoners that lived in the camp were under. Dave read all the letters before he gave them too us. My Dad wrote me every week and even tried to smuggle me a file taped inside one of the letters. He also wrote one of them in code. (former Air Force intelligence officer) One of my friends thought the rules were stupid and violated them and I didn't get the letters until after the field school ended. I swear sometimes the A I got for the class was just because my Dad got so into it.
8. The other grad student and I would go to the wineries on the weekend, including a boat tour to one of the Canadian islands in Lake Erie, to get a bit of a break from the undergrads, one of whom was completely obsessed with Mario Lemieux.
9. We lived in one of the summer houses in Sandusky that happened to belong to one of the student's family and cooked all our own meals. After the "all white foods" dinner we started double checking the menu planning from the undergrads.
10. The last couple days of the field school we had visitors from the local FBI academy who were learning about field methods, mapping and excavation. Somehow we talked them into filling in all the units that we had dug out that field season It was awesome, they had all the holes we had been digging for the last 6 weeks filled in like 2 hours, usually backfilling takes an entire day.
11. The other grad student drove our van the entire time. It was always a little bit thrilling wondering if we were going to get stuck in the mud that day. At least one time the van fish tailed enough that it belonged in an action movie. We played Margaritaville really loudly on the way home that night.

That was a great summer, and Dave really has done an amazing job preserving the site.
posted by DarthDuckie at 2:45 PM on January 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Gutta-percha ring from Camp Johnson Prison as mentioned above.
posted by pernoctalian at 4:50 PM on January 4, 2012

Sandusky, Ohio is probably best known for its roller coasters (and maybe the wineries in the area)

Among antique tool collectors, it is known for being the home of Sandusky Tool Company.

Thanks for posting this!
posted by mlis at 6:29 PM on January 4, 2012

Seriously? Everyone knows Sandusky is best known for Tommy Boy!
posted by IslandTrust at 11:38 PM on January 4, 2012

My great-great grandfather, a confederate colonel from Barbour County, Virginia, was imprisoned there. He was also at Camp Chase. As bad as it was in those prisons, my kids think he was pretty crafty to avoid combat and I have always thought that his imprisonment was why he survived the war.

He was paroled in 1864 on the condition that he stay north and west of the Ohio River "through the existence of the present rebellion".

Thanks for all these links, I'll be reading every one.
posted by cda at 7:30 AM on January 5, 2012

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