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Civil War Legacy: Grave Sites of 206 Prisoners : Ohio Still Honors 'Best of Confederacy'

May 18, 1986|Associated Press

JOHNSON'S ISLAND, Ohio — It was more than 100 years ago when small boats brought some of the best soldiers the Confederate Army had into Lake Erie from Sandusky to Ft. Johnson.

More than 15,000 rebel soldiers were imprisoned here during the nation's Civil War. All but 220 of them lived to return to their homes.

What's left is 206 white marble gravestones behind an iron fence, the final resting place for those Confederate officers who died of war injuries or disease. At the entrance to the cemetery stands a monument--a bronze soldier with his arm raised in salute.

'Some Had Servants'

"It was for Southern officers. They were sent as far from the battle lines as possible," said Elizabeth Denney, curator of the Ottawa County museum in nearby Port Clinton, about 40 miles from Toledo. "Sandusky had a railroad line then, and they were sent by rail. They were all from very good families. They were the brains of the Confederacy. Some of them had their servants with them."

The 300-acre island, where about 100 families now have summer homes, attracts few visitors.

"Coast Guard boats would take people there on Memorial Day when I was young," Denney said. The soldiers are remembered each May in a ceremony on the island.

The prison opened in April, 1862, and housed as many as 3,200 at one time, according to county historical records. It closed in September, 1865.

Slept Two to a Bunk

The prison was a small village with 13 buildings, including a hospital. Men slept two to a bunk. Fourteen-foot walls and mounted cannons discouraged escapes.

Some prisoners whiled away their time by making a rocking chair for their chaplain. The chair, on exhibit in the museum, has a woven seat made from leather boots, Denney said.

"There were a lot of things the prisoners lost," she said. "People come out with metal detectors and in the fields find Masonic rings, belt buckles, things like that."

A lieutenant from Mississippi, R. N. Provine, wrote that conditions were harsh during the winter.

"On the night of Jan. 1, 1864, the thermometer went down to 31 degrees below zero," he wrote. "I would have frozen to death" had it not been for the generosity of two officers from Arkansas, who lent him some quilts.

"I felt indebted to them for saving our lives," Provine wrote.

Supplies, Rations Cut

When supplies and rations were cut in the summer of 1864, "Then our suffering began in earnest, but much worse in the long cold, dreary nights of winter," he wrote.

Denney says the prisoners didn't have it so bad.

"Andersonville was the horrible prison the South kept our men in. They liked it here so much that they asked (local) people to sponsor them (so the soldiers could relocate here after the war)," Denney said.

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