Colonel B. W. Johnson Describes Johnson's Island Prison Camp

Johnson's Island, located in Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie, served as a Prisoner of War depot for Confederate Officers from April, 1862 through September, 1865.  During that period, over 10,000 Southern officers were imprisoned on the island.  Colonel Benjamin W. Johnson, commander of the 15th Arkansas Infantry Regiment at Port Hudson, was there from September, 1863 until March, 1865.  He wrote the following account of the conditions at Johnson's Island for Confederate Veteran magazine.


Col. B. W. Johnson, Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry, writes of Johnson's Island:

A friend of mine calls attention to an article, either by some Northern writer or some apostate from the South, pretending to give a true account of prison life at Johnson's Island during our civil war; and I must say that he either was never on the island during the years 1864 and 1865, or has joined the great army of Mulhatton. I was the colonel of the Fifteenth Arkansas Regiment of Infantry, and on July 9, 1863, was surrendered at Port Hudson, La. From there I was taken to New Orleans, and confined for a time in the Custom House. After that I was transported to Governor's Island, N. Y. Thence I was transferred to Johnson's Island in the fall of 1863. All prisoners were treated well at both of these former places, and there was no complaint, and could not have been any.

When I reached Johnson's Island the prison was not crowded, and the rations were good in quality and sufficient in quantity. In addition to this there was inside of the prison a good sutler's establishment, where we could buy any article that we wished, except liquor - that is, had we the wherewith to purchase.

In the winter of 1863-64 each prisoner was furnished with two so-called blankets, but if any sheep ever furnished any wool that entered into the make-up of those blankets, he must have been of a hairy description, as they were made shoddy and no wool in them. Each prisoner, when he entered that prison, was furnished with two of such blankets, and never received any more. The bedding in the bunks consisted of about as much wheat straw as would give an ordinary cow a scant meal. Neither the straw nor blankets were ever changed while I was there.

This prison consisted of thirteen buildings, one of which was reserved for a hospital and the others for living quarters, and when fully occupied would accommodate about fifteen hundred men. They were two-story frame box houses, and with no wood at night, and with the temperature down at one time to twenty-seven degrees below zero it kept the boys quite lively to keep from freezing. In the summer of 1864 the sutler shop was moved out, and rations, which up to that time had been abundant, began to grow short. Complaint was made to the commandant of the prison, who, by the way, was quite a gentleman, and the reply we received was that he was "simply obeying orders from headquarters," which, we supposed, was the War Department, presided over at that time by Mr. Stanton. The rations continued to grow short until it began to look like starvation.

In the fall of that year we were introduced to a new kind of ration, called white fish. This salted fish was about as palatable and juicy as smoked codfish. I suppose that there were hundreds who had never heard of or seen a white fish, much less eaten one; but even the fish was issued only in half rations. The excuse for this was that bacon was high and fish cheap. Each block in this prison had a chief of the mess who drew the rations for his block, and each room had its chief under him. When rations got down so short every man gathered around his mess chief to see that he goat his share of the grub. The long fellow got as much as the short one the fat fellow as much as the lean one, and the hungry ones got just the same. It was certainly equality. I have seen men draw their rations, look at the pile, and remark that they could eat five times that day's rations, and they could have done so. Here was equality. The general didn't get any more than the lieutenant. There was no excuse for such meanness, and many died from diseases brought on from the want of sufficient food.

At the time this reduction in rations took place I suppose that the prison had the largest and happiest army of rats on the face of the earth. Great, big, fat fellows, who had been rolling in luxury on crusts and bones. But soon they began to disappear. They never deserted, nor were they ever paroled, but they never regained their liberty. The boys said they ate fine; I can't say it. But this was not the worst of our troubles. That prison, like a street car, seemed never to get full. When I reached there I think about fifteen hundred were in the prison. They continued to come, and when I left, except those who went out in boxes to the graveyard, there were about twenty-seven hundred men in the prison There was one of these buildings, Block No. 13, known as the "boar's nest." When a prisoner could not get a place in any of the other blocks, he had to betake himself to the "boar's nest," which building consisted, as I recollect, of four rooms about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide; and when I left there, in March. 1865, there were not less than twenty-seven hundred in this prison, and not less than three hundred and fifty in this "boar's nest," which was a living, sweltering, stifling l at of humanity. They had to cook, eat, and sleep in that building. In the winter of 1864-65 smallpox broke out in this building. There were no pesthouses inside of this prison, and when we asked that these smallpox patients be taken elsewhere, we were informed that we could take care of them ourselves, as there was no pesthouse on the island. This is one time that Providence seemed to have smiled on the unfortunate, for, according to my recollection, only about ten or twelve were affected with the disease, and only two or three died. I have interrogated others, whom I left there, as I said before, in March, 1865, and they all tell me that the conditions in that prison never changed for the better. I hope never again to see that miserable place. The black hole of Calcutta possibly was worse, but Andersonville could not have been as bad.


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