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A New Generation Digs Johnson’s Island

By Nan Siegel
3/15/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The prison site on Johnson’s Island has proved to be an un – usually rich resource for archaeologists and historians. Thanks to a combination of historical documentation and field research, the prison stockade, Fort Johnson, the powder magazine, the remains of Fort Hill and the dock have been located. Since 1989, David Bush of Heidelberg University has made this unique site the focus of his work. Bush, founder of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison, has also spearheaded an educational outreach program that involves middle school, high school and college students as well as teachers and adult enthusiasts in research. A recent summer field school focused, for example, on excavating the 1862 sink (latrine) from a prisoner housing block. Civil War Times interviewed Dr. Bush about his work to preserve the island and document wartime events there.

Will you acquire more historic land?

Much of the prison site, mostly where the Union troops were housed, was destroyed by quarrying at the end of the 19th century and through various modern housing developments. Once we retire the current mortgage, we will investigate what lands are still available. Island property is very expensive, so we will have to carefully consider additional purchases.

The biggest loss from the most recent development was Fort Hill, at the highest point on the island. Unfortunately, three homes have been built where it stood.

Just over 90 percent is still privately owned and zoned residential. About 300 mostly summer residences are on about 70 percent of this land. There are about 50 acres on the interior of the island that are still potentially available for housing development. If these lands were to go for housing, it would have an impact on some of the archaeological resources associated with the prison. It would also cause a visual impact to this site. Additionally, our attempts to create a more visitor-friendly site will entail getting the current landowners of the island to embrace the history that is contained there. We have come a long way since we first entertained the idea of preserving this historic site, however, and I am confident that we will be able to continue to share it with interested people for generations.

What is the greatest benefit of your educational outreach program?

The Experiential Learning Program in Historic Archaeology, run by Heidelberg University, allows us to bring middle school and high school students to Johnson’s Island to engage in the firsthand discovery of Civil War history. They gain an appreciation of the connection between the historical records we have from these prisoners as well as artifacts that were left behind.

Our programs also involve college and graduate-level students and adult participants. There are many reasons why our adult students come to the site. Some are descendants of former prisoners, some have always wanted to be an archaeologist and others want to know more to take back to their classrooms. Whatever their reasons, most don’t realize just what they’ll experience as they make that connection to the past.

How can the Civil War community support your efforts?

Members of the Civil War community have been very supportive to date. Several Round Tables send us yearly checks. One reenactment group, the 14th Ohio Volunteer Infantry/3rd Arkansas, has raised more than $14,000 for land purchase.

There are two things that could help to promote our work. We continue to need financial help to retire the $356,000 mortgage on the 17 acres that includes the prison compound and Fort Johnson. We now have that mortgage down to $124,000 and want to retire the mortgage by the Civil War’s sesquicentennial and then proceed with other objectives.

Civil War buffs can also help by providing us with any information they may have on either the guards or any of the 9,000 prisoners who spent any time at Johnson’s Island. I receive inquiries every week from descendants who are researching ancestors, and many times we are able to provide them information about their relatives.

What keeps you going on this project?

I’ve been involved with Johnson’s Island for 20 years. When I first began investigating this site, I realized it was going to be very special. The discoveries that have been made to date are truly phenomenal. For instance, this year we found an 1851 English gravy boat and an 1850s presidential smoking pipe in the 1862 hospital latrine. Discovering items like these never fails to give us pause, as we ask ourselves who owned them, how they got to the hospital, and what role these items played in the daily struggles each prisoner faced.

There are also the human stories that I keep discovering. Not only the stories associated with the prisoners and guards, but also the stories of all those who make connections to this site every year. It is truly a rewarding place to visit.

 

To find out more about the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island, go to www.johnsonsisland.com.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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