Monday, October 13, 2008

Johnson's Island Civil War Prison

(click photograph for larger image)

During the Civil War, the North used Johnson's Island as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers. The island is located in Sandusky Bay, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. Ironically, from Johnson's Island one can see (just across the mouth of Sandusky Bay) Cedar Point, a large amusement park. Johnson's Island was the only Union prison exclusively for Confederate officers, but it also housed regular soldiers.

In late 1861, federal officials selected Johnson’s Island as the site for a prisoner of war camp to hold up to 2,500 captured Confederate officers. The island offered easy access by ship for supplies to construct and maintain a prison and its population. Sandusky Bay offered more protection from the elements than on other nearby islands, which were also closer to Canada in the event of a prison break. Woods of hickory and oak trees could provide lumber and fuel. The U.S. government leased half the island from private owner Leonard B. Johnson for $500 a year, and for the duration of the war carefully controlled access to the island.

As the facility accepted prisoners of war from many Civil War battles, some Confederate soldiers from Caswell County, North Carolina, probably were guests on Johnson's Island.

One such Caswell County soldier was Captain Jeremiah Alexander Lea (1841-1916), who married Harriett (Hattie) Rebecca Graves (1856-1894). Jeremiah Alexander Lea joined the Confederate Army 6 July 1861 (Thirteenth Regiment, known as the "Caswell Boys"), and was sent to training camp near Company Shops (Burlington, North Carolina). Later his regiment became the Sixth North Carolina Troops. Captains were Alfred A. Mitchell (Yanceyville Druggist), William J. H. Durham, Thomas J. Ruffin, and then Jeremiah Alexander Lea. Lieutenants were Quinton T. Anderson, William Flemming Covington, Samuel P. Hill, Monroe Oliver, and Lewis Hardy Walker.

Prisoner of War records show that Captain Jeremiah Alexander Lea was captured 7 November 1863 at Rappahannock Station, Virginia, and transferred to Johnson's Island 11 November 1863. Subsequently, he was paroled and transferred to City Point, Virginia, for a prisoner exchange 24 February 24, 1865. A few weeks later General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appamottox (9 April 1865). Where Captain Alexander Lea was between the time of the prisoner exchange and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee is not known. However, family tradition teaches that he walked home to Caswell County.

After returning to Caswell County, he became known as Captain Jerry Lea. His granddaughter heard him state that the Johnson's Island prisoners ate rats. However, Johnson's Island now is believed to be one of the better Union prisons and had a very low prisoner casualty rate. Jeremiah Alexander Lea and his families (he had two wives) lived in the James Kerr house near Kerr's Chapel BaptistChurch (Caswell County, North Carolina). He, his two wives, and daughter Minnie (1868-1869) were buried in that church cemetery. At the time of the 1900 census he was living with his daughter NancyKerr Lea Florance (1869-1939) in the house that now is the Richmond-Miles History Museum in Yanceyville, North Carolina.

Rappahannock Station
Other Name: None
State: Virginia Location: Fauquier County and Culpeper County
Campaign: Bristoe Campaign (October-November 1863)
Dates: November 7, 1863
Principal Commanders:
Union States: Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
Confederate States: Gen. Robert E. Lee
Forces Engaged: Corps
Estimated Casualties: 1,600 Confederate prisoners
Total: 2,537 total
Results: Union victory

On 7 November 1863, the Union army forced passage of the Rappahannock River at two places. A dusk attack overran the Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, Virginia, capturing more than 1,600 men of Jubal Early’s Division. Fighting at Kelly’s Ford was less severe with about 430 casualties, but the Confederates retreated allowing the Federals across in force. On the verge of going into winter quarters around Culpeper, Lee’s army retired instead into Orange County south of Rapidan River. The Army of the Potomac occupied the vicinity of Brandy Station and Culpeper County.

The Second Battle of Rappahannock Station took place on November 7, 1863, near the village of Rappahannock Station (now Remington, Virginia), on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, between Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early and Union forces under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick as part of the Bristoe Campaign of the American Civil War. The battle resulted in a victory for Union. After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies drifted south and for three months sparred with one another on the rolling plains of northern Virginia. Little was accomplished, however, and in late October General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Confederate army behind the Rappahannock River, a line he hoped to maintain throughout the winter.

A single pontoon bridge at the town of Rappahannock Station was the only connection Lee retained with the northern bank of the river. The bridge was protected by a bridgehead on the north bank consisting on two redoubts and connecting trenches. Confederate batteries posted on hills south of the river gave additional strength to the position.

The bridgehead was an integral part of Lee's strategy to defend the Rappahannock River line. As he later explained, by holding the bridgehead he could "threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part." The Union Army of the Potomac's commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, divided his forces just as Lee expected. He ordered Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to attack the Confederate position at Rappahannock Station while Maj. Gen. William H. French forced a crossing five miles downstream at Kelly's Ford. Once both Sedgwick and French were safely across the river, the reunited army would proceed to Brandy Station.

In all, 1,670 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured in the brief struggle, more than eighty percent of those engaged. Union casualty figures, by contrast, were small: 419 in all. For the North the battle had been "a complete and glorious victory," an engagement "as short as it was decisive," reflecting "infinite credit upon all concerned." Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright noted that it was the first instance in which Union troops had carried a strong entrenched Confederate position in the first assault. But perhaps the highest praise came from Harry Hays, who claimed to have been attacked by no less than 20,000 to 25,000 Union soldiers—a figure ten times the actual number.

The battle had been as humiliating for the South as it had been glorious for the North. Two of the Confederacy's finest brigades, sheltered behind entrenchments and well supported by artillery, had been routed and captured by an enemy force of equal size. Col. Walter H. Taylor of Lee's staff called it, "the saddest chapter in the history of this army," the result of "miserable, miserable management." An enlisted soldier put it more plainly. "I don't know much about it," he said, "but it seems to be that our army was surprised."


Depot of Prisoners of War on Johnson's Island
Interview with Archaeologist David Bush
Johnson's Island Confederate Officers Prison Cemetery
Friends and Descendants of Johnson Island Civil War Prison
Johnson's Island Civil War Prison Archaeological Investigation
Unlocking a Civil War Prison
Johnson's Civil War Prison
Johnson's Island
National Park Service
Official Johnson's Island Memorial Project
Roy Swartz Johnson's Island Page
National Historic Landmarks Program
Doc's News

Long, Roger, "Johnson's Island Prison, Part I - The Prison: 'Hell Has Torments of Cold,' " Blue & Gray Magazine (1986-1987).

Long, Roger, "Johnson's Island Prison, Part II - The Conspiracy: 'Pirates on Lake Erie,' "Blue & Gray Magazine (1986-1987).