Sifting through history
In addition to unearthing Civil War history, an archaeology site on Marblehead peninsula at the former Johnson’s Island prison incubates future historians and archaeologists.
The dig, in its 26th year, has introduced history and the science of finding artifacts to hundreds of college students, elementary school children, teachers and volunteers.
“This is the fifth year we’ll be working on block 8,” said project director David Bush, as he pointed out the lay of the land as it looked when several buildings in blocks held Confederate prisoners of war.
Bush, who is director of Heidelberg University’s Center for Historic & Military Archaeology, is an expert in forensic anthropology and historic archaeology and a professor of anthropology.
Headquarters is a semi-circular white vinyl tent that covers the current dig site and is moved as the dig progresses. A “sidewalk” of firewood and planks leads from the outside research area to the inside to keep the researchers’ feet out of the mud during wet spring weather.
A site map shows the front four buildings housed Confederate officers, and the back buildings were for enlisted men.
It was a difference of having five to seven roommates in officers’ quarters, Bush said, compared to 60 men in general housing.
The prison camp operated for 40 months, starting in April 1862. During that time, 10,000 soldiers were held there.
“That’s 10,000 that we have records on,” Bush said. “Of that, the most was 3,256 in late 1864 and early 1865.”
He said the fewest was 200 or so when the camp opened.
It was common practice for the Union and Confederate leaders to exchange prisoners of war on an equivalency basis, he said.
“They would trade a captain for a captain,” he said, “or they might trade a captain for a couple of lieutenants. It probably depended on how well connected they were.”
Union officials chose Johnson’s Island after searching for a prison site in the Lake Erie area.
“They were looking for a place on the islands to house all the prisoners,” he said. But he suspects nearby wineries on islands such as South Bass and Middle Bass might have proved too tempting for the guards. And would have made delivering supplies difficult.
No one lived on the island at the time, it was close to the mainland for deliveries and the landowner Leonard Johnson already had cleared a portion of the land. So the Union leased the land from Johnson and built prison buildings.
“In 1866, the United States decided they didn’t need it any longer so they auctioned all the materials off and just gave it back to the owner. He (Johnson) bought several of the buildings.”
The last building standing was torn down in 1939, Bush said.
In the ensuing years, Bush said, people built houses on the island but the main part of the prison camp area was not developed. It became overgrown with trees and brush.
In the late 1980s, Bush was hired by a developer to investigate the quarry area of the island to comply with federal historic preservation requirements for a new housing development.
He was assigned as an archaeologist to search for historical information.
“I found Native American sites and I had to find the actual prison itself,” he said. “There were 40 years of secondary tree growth.”
During that time, Bush said he began to realize what he had found.
“With that, recognizing the importance of the site nationally, I decided to dedicate a little more time to it,” he said. “It was the first prison built by the Union the U.S. government designed to house prisoners of war. The Union was thinking, ‘If we’re going to house these prisoners in a humane fashion, how are we going to do that?'”
Now, 26 years later, he is still working to find clues about prison life.
“We had all the high-end individuals from the South here coping with their imprisonment,” Bush said.
The prison latrines have been key to finding information.
“Each block has a set of latrines, and they were moved every so often,” he said. “They provide a chronological record.”
Latrines were not just for bodily waste, he said, but the archeological dig has discovered lost and discarded items such as contraband bottles that once contained whiskey and other liquor.
Other items lost in the latrines include buttons from clothing, gold watches, rings, chamber pots, bed pans, mirrors and personal items soldiers carried with them during the war.
“We found a really nice broach that had braided hair in it coiled,” he said. “Anything they were carrying with them had the potential of being lost.”
He said making hard rubber jewelry was popular at the time.
“Digging by blocks, we find the remains of the waste products from the production of those things as well,” he said.
“There’s all of that and I haven’t even mentioned the historical record,” he said. “There’s a tremendous historical record associated with these prisoners.”
To display these items, the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison formed in 2001 as a non-profit organization and opened a museum.
Some items are donated from the families of former prisoners such as poetry, music, photographs and family heirlooms, or the museum is allowed to borrow items for display.
“Every week, there’s something new showing up somewhere,” he said. “We just fund a card that was the image of a large drawing done in 1864. On the back, it listed prisoner William Cox. That was found on eBay the other day and we were able to get it.”
More items include diaries and autograph books that details how prisoners were treated.
“They bring so much information about the prisoners in their own handwriting,” Bush said. “All that is just fascinating.”
In 2002, the Friends purchased 17 acres of the prison site, permanently preserving the former prison as a national historic landmark.
“For the first few years, we weren’t worried about that kind of thing,” Bush said. “We had a good relationship with the developer and we were able to keep this land away from proposed housing.”
But the front part of the prison camp where they played baseball and the mess hall location has been partially destroyed by housing.
“That’s not land that we can continue to protect,” he said.
After years of work, the Friends organization this spring was awarded the 2014 Civil War 150 Heritage Award by the Civil War 150 Advisory Committee.
“I am proud that our group was chosen as a recipient of this award,” said Bush, chairman for the Friends, during an award ceremony in early April. “This award is a reflection of the countless hours our volunteers have spent ensuring that this site affords research, interpretative, and educational use for future generations and is truly a lasting impact.”
The group also was the recipient of the 2012 Brian C. Pohanka Preservation Organization of the Year Award by the Civil War Trust.
Bush said he often has thought about what would have happened if someone else had been hired to do the historical search.
“There’s a lot of companies that would have hired somebody else,” he said. “Maybe somebody else would have focused on something else. I’m glad it was me.”
The site itself has not had a surge of activity that came with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
“We’ve seen a slight increase, but we haven’t seen much,” he said. “We don’t encourage tourism because the islanders don’t like a lot of people.”
However, Bush said the Friends are planning a reenactment Aug. 24 of the 150th anniversary of “the most infamous baseball game that was held out here.”
He said the game was played Aug. 27, 1864, and professional historical baseball teams are going to reenact it. The event is not open to the public, except by special reservations made in advance.
“The space out here is very limited,” Bush said. “But we wanted to do it here. One of the things about this site is just being here where it happened.”
Instead of encouraging large numbers of people to visit the island itself, Bush said he has been working with historians at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont to create an exhibit of Johnsons Island information and items found.
“Privy to History,” a play on words about searching the latrines, opened May 1 and continues through Jan. 4.
“Visitors can see what we’ve discovered without having to travel to the site,” he said.
“Privy to History: Civil War Prison Life Unearthed” is funded by the Sidney Frohman Foundation and the Friends & Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7.50 per adult, $6.50 for seniors ages 60 and older and $3 for children ages 6-12.
The exhibit focuses on history discovered since the 1965 publication of “Rebels on Lake Erie,” by Charles E. Frohman. Bush has assisted with the display, which includes artifacts and personal stories of prisoners and guards gleaned from diaries and letters to help visitors understand prison life, the war and how the two were inter-related.
A visual timeline chronicles the prison’s creation, arrival and treatment of prisoners, and diversions POWs employed during their imprisonment, including jewelry making, theatrical productions and photography. An episode of the History Channel’s “History Detectives” is included in the exhibit, which tells the story of a particular Confederate officer who fashioned a camera from tin cans in order to take photographs of his fellow prisoners.
The exhibit is the latest effort to make findings at the site available to the public.
Another ongoing public project has been providing hands-on school field trips. Students are frequent helpers at the site in April and May.
Two people who work at the site, Felicia Konrad and Marcia George, became interested because school programs.
Konrad, who graduated from Heidelberg University in May, has been working with Bush and his team since summer 2011 – first as a volunteer and now as a paid employee. She also is a Civil War reenactor.
“2011 is when I actually started digging,” she said. “But I was first here during an experiential learning activity during school. That’s what got me interested in archeology and that’s how I ended up back here.
“I’m really interested in the Civil War to start with,” she said. “You don’t often have an opportunity to do research where they actually lived, at a place where they’ve been research for 20 years.”
She said she has found some interesting items.
“We found a hard rubber ring,” she said. “That one was really interesting. And there was a hard rubber comb.
“We found a lot of really interesting buttons,” she said. “I love buttons.”
George said she was an elementary teacher working with special education students when she participated in the summer program designed for teachers, and then took her students to the site.
“That’s how I got started 20 years ago, and I’ve been coming out every year,” she said.
She became interested in how her special ed students reacted to the hands-on learning as opposed to textbooks, and she went back to school to get her doctoral degree on that topic.
She’s retired now and volunteers at the site.
“They (students) get really excited when they find something – even if it’s something simple.
“It’s an interesting take on history,” she said. “A lot of times they only get their history through text books.”
As they’re digging, students and volunteers disturb a small amount of soil at one time, keeping the entire work site level as they go. They search for items as they dig, and then take buckets of soil outside the tent to large screens where they sift through the contents.
“Ninety percent of the your artifacts are found in the screen,” Konrad said.
Among the people who visit, George said a “handful” are interested enough to investigate further, and only a few like her and Konrad are interested enough to pursue it longterm.
“You never know when you’re going to have a fifth-grader who will grow up and become a professional,” George said.
In addition to school programs, the site offers summer camps for kids with interest in history and archeology.
There also are volunteer opportunities for people who like the hands-on work of digging for history.
“It’s rewarding,” George said.