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Johnson's Island was a Union prison for Confederate officers during the American Civil War. It was located in Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio. The prison was built on this island for several reasons. Because of the island's isolated location, it would be very difficult for prisoners to escape. At the same time, the island was near several important Ohio cities and lines of road, rail and water transportation. It was relatively easy to acquire building supplies to construct the prison, as well as to secure food to feed the inmates.
Federal officials intended to house nearly three thousand prisoners at any one time. Twelve buildings housed the prison population, while a thirteenth structure served as a camp hospital. Each building was approximately 130 feet by twenty-four feet and was two stories high. Several latrines and two mess halls were built for the prisoners. A sutler's store also operated within the prison camp and sold items to the prisoners. Some prisoners received money from family members and friends. Additional buildings associated with the prison were built on the island, but they were located outside of the confines of the prison camp. These structures included barracks for the 128th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who served as guards for most of the war. Other buildings included various barns, stables and an arsenal. There were at least two forts - Forts Johnson and Hill.
The prison at Johnson's Island opened in April 1862. It continued to house prisoners until September 1865. Estimates vary on the number of prisoners who spent time at Johnson's Island, but it is likely at least ten thousand men spent time there. Of those men, approximately three hundred died at the camp. Most of these men died from diseases common in military camps during the Civil War. Additional men perished trying to escape from the camp or from the harsh winters on Lake Erie. While life was hard at Johnson's Island, it is important to note that the conditions here were better than those at other Northern and Southern military prisons were. One of the main reasons for this was the type of prisoners—officers—housed there. Many of these men came from wealthier backgrounds and received financial assistance from their loved ones. Northern officials also believed officers were deserving of kinder treatment than enlisted men because of the officers' standing in society. Federal officials removed Johnson's Island's original warden, former Sandusky mayor William Pierson, for abusing prisoners in January 1864.
Conditions at Camp Chase, a military prison in Columbus, Ohio, deteriorated greatly once Confederate officers were sent to Johnson's Island. The death rate was significantly higher at Camp Chase than at Johnson's Island..
The Johnson's Island prison was the site for one of the most elaborately planned prison escape attempts of the Civil War.. Confederate Captains Charles Cole and John Yates Beall hoped to free the prisoners at Johnson's Island. They then would form an army from these inmates and travel to Columbus to free the prisoners at Camp Chase. After freeing these men, this newly formed Confederate army would operate across Ohio and create havoc in the heart of the North. The planners believed that Northern officials would have to dispatch Union soldiers currently operating in the Confederacy to deal with this new threat. With fewer soldiers now facing them, Confederate forces might be able to defeat the Northern armies in the South.
The plan began during the early summer of 1864, when Charles Cole arrived in Sandusky. He was working as a representative of the Mount Hope Oil Company of Pennsylvania. Cole used this position to win the trust of some of Sandusky's prominent residents and a number of Union army officers. Cole succeeded in having ten Confederates enlisted in the 128th Ohio Infantry. These ten men were stationed at Johnson's Island and would assist in the plot. John Beall and a group of Confederates would seize control of the Philo Parsons, a passenger steamship operating on Lake Erie. Beall would sail the Philo Parsons to Sandusky Bay, where the Confederates onboard would sail beside the Michigan, the only Union gunboat on Lake Erie. The Confederates would jump to the Union vessel and secure control of it. With Southerners in control of the Michigan, Cole and Beall were certain that the Northern guards at Johnson's Island would immediately surrender.
On September 19, 1864, Beall and twenty-five men seized control of the Philo Parsons. The men then headed the ship towards Sandusky Bay. They anchored the ship outside of the bay and waited for a signal from Cole. Cole had planned a dinner party onboard the Michigan for the ship's officers on September 20. He and a few other men planned to drug the officers. Before Cole could carry out his plot, an officer from Johnson's Island arrived with an arrest warrant. A telegram had arrived earlier that day ordering Cole's arrest for spying. On the same evening on the Philo Parsons, seventeen of Beall's men staged a mutiny and forced Beall to abandon his plan. Cole remained in prison for the duration of the war, while Beall was executed for spying for the Confederacy on February 24, 1865. As a result of this plot, Union officers ordered the construction of Forts Johnson and Hill during the winter of 1864-1865.
Following the Civil War, federal officials sold the prison's buildings and land. Most of the island became farmland. By the 1950s, Johnson's Island became a residential community and a popular vacation spot.