- I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison by David R. Bush
On July 8, 1863, Captain Wesley Makely of Company D, Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry, was captured as the Army of Northern Virginia retreated toward Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg. Captain Makely quickly found himself transformed from Confederate officer to prisoner of war at the officers-only prison at Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay in Ohio. From the summer of 1863 until his release upon taking the Oath of Allegiance at war's end, Makely corresponded regularly with his wife, Catherine (Kate). This book is a transcription of that correspondence, which provides a detailed view of one officer's experiences as a prisoner of war during the Civil War.
An anthropologist at Ohio's Heidelberg University, David R. Bush has extensively excavated the former prison site on Johnson's Island. During his twenty years of archeological research on Johnson's Island, Bush has become probably the leading authority on the prison's material culture. Through Makely's letters Bush details the thriving business in prisoner-made jewelry. While this activity is certainly not a new discovery, the [End Page 148] letters demonstrate how big a business the trade was, and no other book contains so many photographic examples of prison jewelry. The examples of buttons, stickpins, watch chains, and lockets show not only how talented some of the prisoners were but also how much unstructured, tedious time they had to fill. Making jewelry was as much about alleviating captivity's crushing boredom and occupying the mind as it was about making money.
Makely's letters and artifacts associated with the prison highlight the creative ways inmates at Johnson's Island attempted to cope with isolation and depressing circumstances. Some made jewelry; some became members of the Rebellonians, a theatrical group; one particularly resourceful Tennessee officer even fashioned a makeshift camera and began a successful photography business. Makely's correspondence also highlights how prisoners struggled to stay healthy and care for themselves. He frequently asks for money, presumably to use at the prison sutler, warm clothing, and relief packages to supplement his rations. And, of course, Makely was often sick.
The book is at its best when viewing life at Johnson's Island archeologically and anthropologically; it has some issues, however, in terms of its conclusions about Federal policies toward and treatment of the prisoners there. For example, Bush concludes that beginning in September 1864 Union policies hardened significantly and prisoners barely had enough to eat. Confederate diarist Edmund Patterson is quoted as being "so hungry that I felt sick" due to the combination of ration reductions, sutler restrictions, and a ban on relief packages (149). While this is all true, the food situation does not appear to have been as dire as presented in the book. According to the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (MSHWR), of the 3,571 illnesses that were recorded at Johnson's Island between June 1863 and June 1865, only 58 (1.62 percent) were incidents of scurvy, and Johnson's Island was the only Federal prison camp where not a single prisoner died from this nutritional deficiency disease. Relief packages were restricted for a time, and Makely apparently had trouble getting his, but there is evidence (in Patterson's own diary in fact) that packages of food were permitted late in 1864. The medical records do not show an increase or spike in prisoner mortality during the war's final year.
Although scholars have seriously questioned the argument about deteriorating conditions, Bush's intent is to illuminate the prisoner-of-war\ experience through the lens of one individual rather than to get involved in the current debate in the literature about the North's POW policies. Since his book clearly comes down on one side of the debate, however, it would have benefited from an engagement in the scholarship. Such an engagement would have allowed...