Cooped Up and Powerless When My Home is Invaded: Southern Prisoners at Johnson’s Island in their Own Words
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 53-72
- View Citation
- Additional Information
SPRING 2010 53 “Cooped Up and Powerless When My Home is Invaded”: Southern Prisoners at Johnson’s Island in their OwnWords Christopher Britten A rriving on an unfamiliar island in Lake Erie, one he would not leave for nearly two years, Lt. William B. Gowan, an Alabama native, soon noticed the walls. Standing “about 12 feet in height of plank set up endways” and lined with guards, these walls stood between Gowan and his freedom . Capt. John H. Guy’s first impression of the prison was strikingly similar; the Virginian quickly noted the walls lined with sentinels that surrounded his new residence. These imposing barricades were surely an unsympathetic welcome to the prison for men far from the open countryside of their native South. Lt. Gowan and Capt. Guy were two of nearly nine thousand Confederate officers who spent time as prisoners of war on Johnson’s Island in Ohio’s Sandusky Bay. Prison Grounds during the Civil War from Lydia Jane Ryall, Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands (Norwalk, Oh.: The American Publishers, 1913). CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER “COOPED UP AND POWERLESS WHEN MY HOME IS INVADED” 54 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY The Confederate officers imprisoned at Johnson’s Island suffered through frozen winters, low food rations, and separation from their families and comrades. At the same time, however, many attempted to make the best of the situation by staying in touch with loved ones, playing baseball, relishing the food sold by the sutler, and even producing theatrical performances. The diversity of stories that have emerged from Johnson’s Island makes any investigation of the men who stayed there challenging. The nearly one hundred and fifty years that separate modern investigations from the prisoners themselves alone can make it difficult to discern what prison life was like. To understand the experiences of prisoners on Johnson’s Island, the best resources available are the writings of the prisoners themselves.1 An expansive record of contemporary diaries and letters from these prisoners offers a window into prison life on the island untainted by the passage of time. The prisoners on Johnson’s Island were primarily officers, and consequently they were generally well educated and articulate. Their words provide a direct means of evaluating many facets of prison life in a manner that would be impossible relying solely on newspaper accounts, secondary histories, and postwar memoirs. The diaries and letters of prisoners offer perspectives on many familiar topics, such as food conditions, the cold weather, and prisoner health. Moreover, the prisoners’ writings reveal how these soldiers’ origins in the South shaped their experience on Johnson’s Island. Many, especially from the Border and Upper South, came from communities divided over the war, which complicated their responses to their confinement. Other soldiers’ writings indicate that their home communities offered them important support, especially when these prisoners wrote letters in search of money, food, and friendly contact. Historians have addressed many subjects contained in the Johnson’s Island prisoners’ sources. Yet they have often overlooked how prisoners responded to news of the war, what coping methods they used to soften the hardships of prison life, and how they interpreted the passage of time while confined. Through an analysis of the writings, one can begin to evaluate those aspects of prison life that weighed most heavily on the prisoners in the moment. Were they more interested in news of the war or news from home? Were they more upset by the food conditions or the freezing winter temperature? The written records of prisoners at Johnson’s Island offer a view of prison life that was then more complex and diverse than current scholarship suggests. Defining changing prison conditions or prison life requires analysis of a range of categories to understand the multifaceted lives of the Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island. Numerous available sources address the topic of life in the northern and southern prisons during the Civil War, both at Johnson’s Island and elsewhere. First published nearly eighty years ago, William B. Hesseltine’s Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology is one of the first thorough studies of Civil War prisons and prisoners. CHRISTOPHER BRITTEN SPRING 2010 55 In addition...