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I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island

Life in a Civil War Prison

David R. Bush

Publication Year: 2012

Johnson's Island, in Sandusky, Ohio, was not the largest Civil War prison in the North, but it was the only one to house Confederate officers almost exclusively. As a result, a distinctive prison culture developed, in part because of the educational background and access to money enjoyed by these prisoners.

David Bush has spent more than two decades leading archaeological investigations at the prison site. In I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island he pairs the expertise gained there with a deep reading of extant letters between one officer and his wife in Alexandria, Virginia, providing unique insights into the trials and tribulations of captivity as actually experienced by the men imprisoned at Johnson's Island. Together, these letters and the material culture unearthed at the site capture in compelling detail the physical challenges and emotional toll of prison life for POWs and their families. They also offer fascinating insights into the daily lives of the prisoners by revealing the very active manufacture of POW craft jewelry, especially rings.

No other collection of Civil War letters offers such a rich context; no other archaeological investigation of Civil War prisons provides such a human story.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Front Piece

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Title Page

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Front Matter


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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

I cannot imagine examining one of the carved hard rubber rings from the Johnson’s Island Civil War Military Prison site without thinking about Lieutenants Robert Smith or William Peel. I also cannot imagine looking at such a ring without wondering what this piece of jewelry meant to the prisoner who last handled it on this small island just off ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-6

Time does have a way of allowing for change. Captain Makely’s last note from prison to his little girl represented not only renewing the relationship with his daughter but also recognition that he too had been changed by the experiences of the past two years.1 Captain Wesley Makely, Company D, 18th Virginia Cavalry, arrived at Johnson’s Island Military Prison Depot days after being captured on July 8, 1863, near ...

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2. Johnson’s Island Prison

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pp. 7-16

After his capture Captain Wesley Makely was temporarily housed at Camp Chase, Columbus, Ohio, for a few days before the train brought him to Johnson’s Island. His mid-July arrival at this isolated Lake Erie island was the beginning of a nineteen-month stay. However new this prison was to Wesley, the Johnson’s Island Military Depot had already ...

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3. Where Is Your Letter?: (August 16–December 13, 1863)

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pp. 17-30

Not knowing the fate of loved ones enlisted in the military during the Civil War must have been unbearable. Were they sick, dead, wounded, suffering? How was one to find out? Information in local newspapers was always a few days behind what was actually happening, and certainly the specific individuals of interest would not be covered. Those at ...

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4. Thoughts of Exchange: (December 24, 1863–May 8, 1864)

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pp. 31-69

One of the recurring topics brought up by both Wesley and Kate was his being exchanged. Prisoners on both sides had expectations of exchange back to their military units or home. At times throughout his imprisonment, the idea of exchange almost consumed Wesley; for short of escape, this was the only hope he had for getting back to his family. ...

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5. Sending Images: (May 11–September 15, 1864)

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pp. 70-123

Kate informing Wesley she was sending him photographs of their young daughter Lillie is more than understandable. Her request that Wesley try and get his portrait painted and sent to her, however, may seem an unusual request of a prisoner-of-war, but the desire for personal images to be sent home was quite common with these prisoners. How does this ...

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6. Hard Rubber and Hard Times: (September 19, 1864–March 12, 1865)

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pp. 124-206

Wesley enhanced contact with his family by providing numerous examples of hard rubber jewelry. He was not a gifted jeweler but did have a discerning eye for purchasing fine examples for his Kate and Lillie. Hard rubber jewelry was about the only thing Wesley provided his family beyond the letters he wrote. He probably achieved some satisfaction of purpose in pursuit of the finest jewelry made at Johnson’s Island. ...

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7. Going Home: (March 21–April 29, 1865)

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pp. 207-224

Wesley Makely spent one day over a year and seven months at Johnson’s Island. The end to his loss of liberty seemed close at hand. Wesley had gone through the transition from captain of Company D, 18th Virginia Cavalry, to just one of thousands of prisoners-of-war. In this transition his loss of freedom meant significant changes in his relation ...

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8. The Prisoner-of-War Experience

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pp. 225-238

Wesley and Kate’s letters provide a true glimpse into the life of a Civil War prisoner-of-war. As one of some ten thousand prisoners held at Johnson’s Island, he provides a story that was not one of fame or even note by others at the prison. Of the choices that faced Wesley upon his imprisonment—to attempt escape, assimilate through the Oath ...

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pp. 239-240

Prisoners’ letters and diary entries often begin with: “Nothing of importance has happened this week.” Then they proceed to describe various events contradicting that first statement. This feels somewhat like the frustration in trying to thank all those who have been a part of my journey in completing this work on Johnson’s Island—the longer I think about this the more I find ...


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pp. 241-248


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pp. 249-252


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pp. 253-269

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About the Author

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David R. Bush is professor of anthropology at Heidelberg University and chair of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. He has authored many articles and reports on the archaeology ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813048253
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813037448
Print-ISBN-10: 0813037441

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 49 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Makely, Wesley -- Correspondence.
  • Johnson Island Prison.
  • Prisoners of war -- Ohio -- Johnson Island -- Correspondence.
  • Prisoners of war -- Confederate States of America -- Correspondence.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Personal narratives, Confederate.
  • Confederate States of America. Army. Virginia Cavalry Regiment, 18th.
  • Makely, Kate -- Correspondence.
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