The above illustration was made by Edward Gould, Company B, 128th Ohio during the war. In the foreground is the U.S.S. Michigan. On the left is the fort's wharf with a road leading back to the troops quarters and on to where the artillery position was created in 1864. Inside the stockade you can see the 12 2-story block houses that housed the prisoners. Each block house was responsible for its own mess. Behind the last row of block houses were the latrines or what they called their "sinks". The radiating lines running from the block houses to the center are paths leading to pumps that were used to pump water from the bay into wells used by the prisoners.
The cemetery that remains on the island today is not seen on this illustration, but would be located about a quarter mile to the right of the furthers stockade wall. Prisoners were required to stay at least 13 feet away from the outside perimeter at all times or risk being shot immediately. Several inmates were killed for getting too close to the wall.
Several prisoners successfully escaped from Camp Johnson and several died trying to escape. During a modern day excavation of several latrine pits, tunnels were discovered that showed prisoners were working on devising ways of getting out. The latrines were fairly large, about 10 x 12 pits that were about 4-6' deep, large enough to accommodate 4 - 6 openings. To dig the tunnel, the last opening would be walled off underneath separating it from the other facilities. The prisoners would then take turns digging. When one of these tunnels were discovered, the Union guards moved the wall further away from the pits and dug a deep trench down to bedrock just inside the outer wall so no further tunnel escapes were possible. The most successful form of escape involved the prisoners dawning Union uniforms and walking out.
The Northwestern Conspiracy
Early in the Civil War it became quickly apparent for the Union that a special prisoner of war camp was needed where they could confine officers away from the rank and file soldiers. A small island off the coast of Sandusky appeared to be the ideal location. It was somewhat sheltered thanks to the Marblehead peninsula, it was very close to Sandusky where railroads connected to all the major points, and the island was mostly deserted except for the Johnson family which lived on a small portion of the island and farmed the rest.
The federal government leased the 300 acres of land from the Johnson family and in return, the Johnsons could operate the suttler store that provided everything the confined southern gentlemen would care to purchase beyond the most basic necessities the federal government would supply which was a meager daily ration and clothing. In the fall of 1861, just five months after the war began, a 15 acre stockade was created that would become the only Union prison exclusively for officers. The first group of POWs arrived on Johnson Island the following spring and by the next winter there were more than 2500 officers housed in 13 block houses inside the stockade.
At anyone time during, Camp Johnson had some 3,000 Confederate officers within the confines of its walls. Early on Camp Johnson was not a particularly bad place to be housed. The men brought here (one woman posing as a male soldier was also incarcerated here and gave birth to a baby) often only remained here for about six months or so before being exchanged for captured Union troops. This exchange practice was halted when it was learned that captured Union soldiers who were black were either being executed or enslaved. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the practice stopped in July of 1863. After that POW populations on both sides exploded while treatment of the POWs on both side deteriorated, especially when escaping prisoners related tales of their treatment.
Some of the prisoners were from the deep south and had never seen snow before or experienced cold winters that are common to Ohio. At times during the winter months, temperatures would drop well below zero, yet the men had no more clothing than they would normally wear in the summer. In the spring of 1864, things changed drastically at the camp. The local suttler store was closed, all outside supplies that had been arriving on a regular basis keeping the men well fed, were all cut off and the men were left with only government's meager rations. It was at this point that the starving men began to capture camp rats for additional sustenance. Money the men earned from creating small pieces of jewelry that they sold to the guards, could no longer buy food. The men were forbidden to write to relatives and request they send food. Those that took the oath of allegiance to the Union would be treated better by the guards and receive additional rations. Doing so however, meant they would be treated worse by their fellow prisoners and word would leak out and eventually reach the offender's hometown where it would never be forgiven.
As the Civil War was drawing to a close, those men might make a big difference in the course of the war. John Beall, developed a plan that might free most of those men. What they would do after being free was never revealed, but it was suggested that they may have commandeered a train and taken it south to Columbus where they might free the POWs at Camp Chase. The captured USS Michigan could create havoc throughout Lake Erie.
John Y. Beall, who had already been involved in at least 2 other failed attempts working behind enemy lines, intended to capture several steamers on Lake Erie, land at Camp Johnson, and force the guards to release their prisoners. The plan went awry. Beall was later captured in another attempt at freeing Confederate prisoners. He was then placed on trial, found guilty and hung in February 1865, just months before the war ended.
In September 1864, a small group Confederate volunteers left Canadian shores and made their way south.
In Detroit the small side-wheel steamer named the Philo Parsons loaded supplies and passengers for its short trip to Sandusky with a few stops along the way where some would get on and some off the ship. Among the ship's 40 passengers were a number of seemingly unrelated men, but who were Confederates that had a cache of arms hidden in a steamer trunk.
The Philo Parsons docked at Kelley's Island to take on additional fuel before continuing on to its final stop in Sandusky. While there another ship, the Island Queen pulled into the dock. At that point, Beall decided to modify his plan. He then seized the Island Queen and together, they headed on to Sandusky Bay, but first they dropped off the captured crews and passengers on Middle Bass Island. They then continued on towards Sandusky Bay where they set anchor and waited for a signal from the USS Michigan.
On board the Union gunboat USS Michigan was a confederate spy named Charles Cole. Cole's role in the plot was to drug the officers on the Michigan, then signal the Beall of the success. The plot to get Cole on board the Michigan required lots of intrigue and planning and it was almost successful. Cole drew some suspicions that alerted authorities who arrested Cole before he could carry out his end of the plot.
Failing to see the signal, Beall wanted to go ahead and board the Michigan, but the rest of his crew refused to take part in what amounted to a suicide mission. At that point his crew mutinied. The hostages were released and most of the crew scattered into Sandusky. Beall then sank the Philo Parsons and took the Island Queen back to Canada.
After that failed attempt to free the prisoners became known, Union forces quickly built a redoubt on the high point of the island and placed a number of canons to prevent another attempt to free the prisoners. The earthen walls of that redoubt are still visible, but unaccessible to the public.
For his part in the plot, Cole was imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Beall would be captured once again by Union forces in another failed prison escape and was tried and convicted. Although President Lincoln received numerous requests to commute Beall's sentence, he refused and on February 24, 1875 Beall was hung.
Years after the prison on Johnson was closed, former POWs began to compare experiences with other POWs from both sides. Although things on Johnson Island seemed extreme to those living through it, when they spoke to others, as one man, Lieutenant Horace Carpenter of the 9th Louisiana Battalion wrote years late in his book "Rats an' Poker on Johnson's Island":
"I have conversed and compared notes with men who had a story of imprisonment to tell, and am satisfied that, as compared with the enlisted men at Point Lookout, Elmira, Rock Island, Camps Morton, Chase, and Douglas,
the officers at Johnson's Island merely tasted purgatory; the men went beyond that. "