I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison

David R. Bush; University of Florida Press

Archaeologist David Bush spent more than 20 years excavating the Union prison camp near Sandusky, Ohio, and investigating the lives of Rebel officers incarcerated there. Using letters by captive Wesley Makely, captain of the 18th Virginia Cavalry, and his wife Kate, Bush has now forged a detailed record of their day-to-day lives.

Rather than merely annotating the letters, Bush puts them in context with the physical remains unearthed from the 14-acre site. Though almost nothing remains of the original facility at Johnson’s Island, Bush demonstrates that “inclusion of the archaeological record recovered from the site and the broader historical accounts alongside these letters provides a fuller context in the exploration of the impacts of institutionalization.”

Captured on July 8, 1863, near Hancock, Md., Makely arrived at Johnson’s Island a week later, and remained there for the rest of the war. His stay was typical of the experience of most of the officers there.

Johnson’s Island was unique. It opened in April 1862 and was the first Union facility designed specifically to be a POW camp and the only one set up strictly for officers. More than 10,000 Confederate officers passed through the prison; by the time Makely arrived, fewer than 1,000 men were incarcerated there.

For readers used to hearing about the horrors of Andersonville, Camp Douglas and Elmira, Johnson’s Island might sound like Club Med. Mail was sent and arrived with remarkable regularity; men could receive food and clothing packages sent from relatives; the captives participated in a thriving industry, making rings and other trinkets for themselves and outsiders; and their wardens, the men of the 128th Ohio, proved to be relatively humane guardians.

Bush manages to bring both Makely and Johnson’s Island into clear—albeit stark—relief.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.