Johnson's Island

Updated: January 24, 2011

During the American Civil War, the Union military established a prison for Confederate officers on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie. Completed in April 1862, the prison remained in operation until September 1865, when federal officials sold the land to local residents.

During the American Civil War, the Union military established a prison for Confederate officers on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie. Completed in April 1862, the prison remained in operation until September 1865, when federal officials sold the land to local residents. For the next ninety years, most people farmed the land and then, starting in the 1950s, the island principally became a residential community and vacation spot.

While the camp remained in use, conditions were not as severe as at many other Northern or Southern prisons. Inside the prison, twelve barracks provided shelter for the prisoners, and a thirteenth structure served as a hospital. Each building had two floors and was approximately 130 feet long and twenty-four feet wide. Inside the camp's confines was also a sutler's store, where prisoners and guards could purchase additional clothing, food, and supplies. Outside of the prison, several other structures existed, including barracks for the prison guards--most notably the 128th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry--storehouses, barns and stables, and an arsenal. In late 1864, officials also ordered the construction of two forts, Fort Johnson and Fort Hill, to protect the island from a Confederate assault.

The location of the prison camp was very advantageous to the Union military and to the prisoners. While located on an island in Lake Erie, military authorities could easily ship food and supplies to the island via railroad and then by ship. Northwestern Ohio also consisted of very fertile farmland, providing officials an easy means of purchasing foodstuffs for the camp's inhabitants. Also, prisoners would have difficulty escaping from the prison because the camp was isolated on an island. The island was located in a relatively healthy location, sparing many prisoners from viruses and diseases that tended to run rampant in most Civil War prison camps. Records are unclear of the number of prisoners housed at Johnson's Island during the war, but most scholars believe that the number was near ten thousand Confederate officers. Of these ten thousand men, only approximately three hundred of them perished at the camp. This equaled just a three percent death rate, a very small percentage in comparison to most other wartime prisons. Most of the deceased died from disease, but a few perished while trying to escape--only twelve did so successfully--or from the harsh Ohio winters on Lake Erie. One potential reason for this may have been the standing of the prisoners. Officers generally came from wealthier backgrounds than enlisted men, and many of these prisoners either had money or received funds from family members while they were incarcerated. These funds allowed the officers to purchase additional food, clothing, and supplies from the sutler's store, making the soldiers' prison experience more palatable and less deadly.

Evidence suggests that conditions improved at Johnson's Island over time. One reason for this involved the removal of William Pierson as the prison's warden. Pierson formerly had been the mayor of Sandusky, Ohio, which was located across the Sandusky Bay from Johnson's Island on the mainland. Pierson earned a reputation for abusing the prisoners. He purportedly kept blankets, food, and other supplies from the Confederates, preferring to allocate these for Northern troopers on or in the vicinity of Johnson's Island. Union military authorities removed Pierson in January 1864, improving the camp conditions for prisoners virtually immediately. Also aiding the prisoners was the approaching Confederate defeat in late 1864 and early 1865. As the Union military began to achieve battlefield victory after victory during this period, confidence grew in the North that the war would end soon, causing prison officials and guards to look more sympathetically upon their wards.

Despite the generally better conditions at Johnson's Island than most other Civil War prisons, Confederate officials, including some of the prisoners, sought to free the imprisoned officers from the camp. The leaders of this attempt were Captain Charles Cole, a member of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry, and Captain John Yates Beall, a member of the Southern navy. Confederate officials hoped that these two men could free the Confederate officers at Johnson's Island. The freed men would then proceed by hijacked railroad train to Camp Chase, a Union prison camp for Confederate enlisted men, which was located in Columbus, Ohio, where the former prisoners at Johnson's Island would free these other inmates. The two sets of prisoners would return to Sandusky, Ohio, where they would form a new army with the 2,700 prisoners currently at Johnson's Island and the approximately 5,000 inmates from Camp Chase. Commanded by Major General Isaac Trimble, the highest-ranking officer imprisoned at Johnson's Island, this new Confederate Army of the Northwest would principally operate in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, helping other Southern armies defeat the North.

Cole was the principal ringleader of the expedition. During the summer of 1864, he entered Sandusky, posing as the secretary of the Mount Hope Oil Company of Titusville, Pennsylvania. He soon befriended several officers on the U.S.S. Michigan, the only iron-hulled ship patrolling Lake Erie during the American Civil War. Cole hoped that he and his associates could seize control of the ship and use the vessel to free the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island. He also had ten Confederate soldiers successfully enlist in the 128th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which served as the main force that guarded the prisoners. Cole also sought assistance from members of the Sons of Liberty, a group of Confederate sympathizers who resided in Northern states, and from Jacob Thompson, the Confederate States of America's commissioner to the Canadian government. Beall also recruited twenty-five men to assist him in his portion of the expedition.

On September 19, 1864, Cole and Beall launched their plan. Beall and his compatriots boarded the Philo Parsons, a passenger and transport ship that principally travelled from Detroit, Michigan, to Toledo, Ohio, and finally to Sandusky, with stops at Windsor, Malden, and Sandwich, ports on Lake Erie that are located in Canada. Some of these twenty-six raiders boarded the Philo Parsons at each Canadian stop. The only luggage that these men brought onboard the ship was a single trunk, filled with revolvers and hatchets. Following a stop at Kelley's Island, Ohio, the Confederates seized control of the ship. They ordered the helmsman to head for Middle Bass Island, Ohio, where the Southerners put the Philo Parsons's passengers, including thirty-five members of recently discharged Company K of the 130th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, onshore. While the Confederates were still at Middle Bass Island, another ship, the Island Queen, came along side and tied onto the Philo Parsons. The Confederates seized this new ship, but in the process, gunshots occurred, with the Southerners wounding the Island Queen's engineer and Alonzo Miller, a resident of Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Beall then had these two ships sail towards Sandusky, but approximately three miles from Middle Bass Island, he had his crew scuttle theIsland Queen on a reef. The Philo Parsons continued towards Johnson's Island, where it stopped just short, in sight of the U.S.S. Michigan but disguised by darkness.

Meanwhile, Cole was onboard the U.S.S. Michigan. He was participating in a dinner with his befriended Union officers. His intention was to drug the wine, incapacitating the Union officers. Beall would then sail the Philo Parsons alongside the U.S.S. Michigan, allowing Beall's men to jump onboard the U.S.S. Michigan, taking control of the ship. The Confederates would then use the U.S.S. Michigan to free the prisoners on Johnson's Island.

Several factors caused the plan to fail. First, seventeen of Beall's men became convinced that Union authorities knew of the plan and refused to participate. Beall immediately sailed for Sandwich, where he destroyed the Philo Parsons and dismissed his crew. Union officials did know of the plan, due to a prisoner, a Colonel Johnson from Kentucky, notifying his guards at Johnson's Island. A Union officer from Johnson's Island boarded the U.S.S. Michigan shortly before midnight, the appointed time for the attack. He approached Cole and stated, "Captain Cole, you are my prisoner." Cole responded, "Captain--captain of what? Certainly no man will accuse me of being a soldier." The Northern officer responded, "No. But here is a telegram saying you are a Confederate spy and are in a conspiracy to capture Johnson's Island. It orders your arrest. We must at least take you into custody." Thus ended Cole's attempt to seize Johnson's Island.

Cole remained in prison for the war's duration. He escaped execution only due to a pardon from President Abraham Lincoln. On December 16, 1864, Union authorities captured Beall at a railroad station in Niagara Falls, New York. Northern officials hanged Beall as a spy on February 24, 1865 at Governor's Island, New York. Colonel Johnson, the man who informed Union authorities of the plot, reportedly committed suicide due to guilt shortly after revealing the failed mission. To adequately defend Johnson's Island, the Union military constructed Fort Johnson and Fort Hill on the island.

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"Johnson's Island," Ohio Civil War Central, 2019, Ohio Civil War Central. 13 Dec 2019 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=374>

APA Style

"Johnson's Island." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved December 13, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=374

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