Monday, February 18, 2008

Other Voices---Digging Prisons

Several years ago, Archaelogy magazine published David Bush's account of a Civil War prison on Johnson's Island in Ohio ("Doing Time," July/August 1999), followed by the magazines online exclusive featuring stories, photographs, and diaries provided by descendants of prisoners ("Tales From A Civil War Prison," August 30, 1999).

By the end of the Civil War, more than 400,000 soldiers had become prisoners of war. The camp at Johnson's Island in western Lake Erie was the only Union prison designed expressly for enemy officers. Of the 9,000-plus men held there, some 300 never made it out alive. Men were shot at with little provocation. Those caught trying to escape were shackled and fed only bread and water. The stench from overflowing privies fouled the air, and the rats overrunning the compound became a dietary supplement.

Johnson's Island prisoners were among the educated Southern elite, and they left hundreds of personal accounts of their experiences. The volume of letters, diaries, maps, and drawings is unrivaled by that of any other Civil War prison, North or South. These sources and recent archaeological work tell us how prisoners passed long hours, how they attempted escape, and how they were rewarded for cooperating with their captors.

David R. Bush is an associate professor of anthropology at the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology of Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. He welcomes copies of any family records relating to former prisoners or guards on Johnson's Island. Bush is thankful for the cooperation of Carl Zipfel, the current owner of the property under excavation.


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