Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lakeside 2008 Trip to Johnson’s Island

A large group gathered Friday morning at the theater to hear Dr. David Bush of Heidelberg College talk about the lives of POWs in the Confederate Prison on Johnson’s Island. It was only for officers, so there are hundreds of documents and letters to describe their stay there. According to program notes, over 10,000 Confederate officers were imprisoned there, and until near the end of the war, conditions were good and the internments short, because there were active exchanges for federal prisoners held by the Confederates. Late in the war, rations ran short worsening conditions and exchanges all but ended. Most deaths were from diarrhea and dysentery; a few graves in the cemetery were from executions for men found guilt of specific war crimes. Heidelberg is the repository for thousands of documents about these Confederate soldiers and the prison culture. If you Google "Johnson's Island" you'll get a lot of misinformation and myth. Go to the site that has collected the data.

In the afternoon we carpooled to the cemetery, which is owned by the federal government (sold to the government in the 1930s by the group of Southerners who rescued it from decay). I rode out with this handsome group from the Columbus area.

Dr. Bush had read some letters to us in the morning, and pointed out some of the graves of those men. In response to questions, he was able to go directly to the document--usually a letter. One of the most interesting was written by a well educated Choctaw Indian, who wrote about how his "modern" (1860s) culture was completely misunderstood by the white man.

We also got a close-up view of "Southern" a statue of a Confederate soldier placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy of Cincinnati and the Masons. Here's an 1899 article appealing for funds.) He isn't looking south however, but is looking out over Lake Erie to the north. Perhaps looking for the enemy. Not everything you see here is accurate, this recently placed monument and its twin, for instance. The best information is at Heidelberg. It's also possible that the monument was placed without thought to the graves, since it isn't known where all of them are, and many are misidentified.

A new group formed a few years ago is called Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison
    “The archaeological resources of Johnson’s Island are certainly unique. Nowhere else does there exist time capsules (in the form of latrines) from the American Civil War, giving us a few months at a time of how prisoners were treated. Nowhere else does there exist such a wealth of primary documents, giving us a day to day account of how these prisoners saw their predicament. Combined, this provides the best field laboratory for demonstrating not only the science of archaeology, but also a chapter of American history as seen through prisoners of war.”
The land the Friends purchased is being saved from housing development on the Island, which has the most gauche, gaudy array of styles I've ever seen ordered from of a catalog of house designs. If an architect designed any of these monstrosities, he should lose his license. Some of Fort Johnson is under a tennis court.

The fort is the site of buildings, hospital, latrines, wells, etc. that the prisoners used, now long gone and located only through old maps and archaeological methods. Thousands of school children come here to perform "digs" and each child finds something. The digs are in the latrines, which were shallow (bedrock 3 ft down) and frequently moved. What's in a latrine? You'd be surprised. Contraband. Jewelry. Buttons. Garbage. And of course, the usual. What fell in usually wasn't retrieved!

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