- Johnson's Island: A Prison for Confederate Officersby Roger Pickenpaugh
Roger Pickenpaugh has written a history of an unusual Civil War prisoner-of-war camp located on a small Lake Erie island used almost exclusively for captive officers. Because of the high literacy rate of the imprisoned officers, abundant firsthand accounts exist, and the author has effectively used these scattered sources, in combination with official records and newspapers, to [End Page 431]recreate the life of the camp, in a work that updates Charles E. Frohman's Rebels on Lake Erie(Columbus, Ohio, 1965). The eleven brief chapters of Johnson's Island: A Prison for Confederate Officersmix the chronological (for example, chapters discuss establishing the prison, the arrival of prisoners, and their ultimate release) with the thematic (other chapters cover the economics of prison life, attempts at escape, and the camp's climate and health).
The prison population usually numbered between 2,100 and 2,600 but peaked at over 3,000 inmates. The small size of the camp and its access to fresh water led to lower death rates. Mostly prisoners were plagued by boredom. Fortunately, newspapers were allowed (a unique situation within Union camps), and some prisoners read books they purchased. They also played ball games, cards, checkers, and chess. Prisoners gambled, worshipped, formed a debate society, and joined acting and singing groups. Inmates spent their money at the sutler's store, and those who had money ate well. Most inmates participated in economic activity. Some people took in laundry; others pulled teeth or made cigars, jewelry, fans, or chairs. One prisoner in 1863 recorded signs of inmates advertising "Tailor Shop—Shoe Repairing—Beer & Cakes—Barber Shop—Pies," and said other prisoners sold apples, "Ice Cream & Lemonade," biscuits, and apple dumplings with sauce (p. 54). Overall, Johnson's Islandillustrates very different experiences of imprisoned officers and enlisted men in comparison with other camps.
The greatest hardships, beyond harsh winter weather and the threat of disease, came from what Pickenpaugh believes was an intentional Union policy of retaliation that began in May 1864. The policy eliminated tea, coffee, and sugar; prevented the sutler from selling food or clothing to prisoners; ended the ability of prisoners to receive packages that contained food; and lowered the food ration by 20 percent. Inmates at Johnson's Island compensated by tapping maple trees and making maple sugar, planting tomatoes, and eating rats—hundreds of them, according to Pickenpaugh. The national retaliation policy did not end until early 1865, leaving many prisoners in ill health.
The question historians of Union prisoner-of-war camps ask is whether the sufferings of prisoners were the inevitable by-product of their often poor health at the time of their capture, the state of medical knowledge, limits on resources in a wartime economy, and the inexperience with massive incarceration on the part of the captors or whether camp commanders and guards were purposefully vindictive and cruel. Pickenpaugh, who has written a general history of Union Civil War camps, Captives in Gray: The Civil War Prisons of the Union(Tuscaloosa, 2009), is certainly aware of the question, but he answers only implicitly—at Johnson's Island the administration was not intentionally malicious. In a recent essay, Michael P. Gray ponders the meanings of excursion boats bearing passengers, black and white, who gazed at the prisoners ("Captivating Captives: An Excursion to Johnson's Island Civil War Prison," in Ginette Aley and J. L. Anderson, eds., Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front During the Civil War[Carbondale, Ill., 2013], 16–32). Pickenpaugh declines to consider this and other interpretive possibilities. Nonetheless, other historians will consult Johnson's Islandfor their [End Page 432]own interpretive work, as the book expands our knowledge of the diverse experiences of Civil War soldiers held as prisoners and offers an accessible and evenhanded history of a unique prisoner-of-war camp.