JOHNSON’S ISLAND, Ohio David Bush loves latrines.
“These things are time capsules,” he says, poking a boot at the mossy stones that mark one of the pits where thousands of Confederate officers followed nature’s orders.
For the past decade, Mr. Bush has been excavating the site of a Union prison camp on Johnson’s Island, a Civil War Alcatraz in the cold, steely waters of Sandusky Bay. Prisoners were always losing or hiding things in latrines, so the dark night soil where the outhouses stood has proved a fertile vein of artifacts everything from combs and jewelry to bones and pottery.
Mr. Bush once found several curls of something white and fragile that he thought might be a bird skull. Then he noticed some print; they were scraps of newspaper, preserved by lime.
“I thought that was remarkable,” he says, “once I got over the fact of what the men used the paper for.”
Like those prisoners marooned in Lake Erie, Mr. Bush finds himself in an odd place these days. The developer who owns the prison site has run into financial difficulties and needs to sell the land. He’s given Mr. Bush until the end of the month to raise money to purchase the property and save it from being bulldozed for vacation homes.
Now this Maine native, this longtime Ohioan this Yankee is appealing to descendants of the Confederate prisoners to help buy and preserve the place where their ancestors languished.
Mr. Bush has organized a nonprofit group called Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island (www.johnsonsisland. com), based in nearby Clyde. He is mailing a fund-raising pamphlet to hundreds of interested parties south of the Ohio River. If the site is to be saved, he figures Southerners will have to do it. He only hopes they’ll feel more kindly toward the island than their great-grandfathers did when the Union commissary tried to sell them souvenir pictures of the camp for $3.
There weren’t many takers. As one of the prisoners, Capt. W.A. Wash of Kentucky, wrote, “Few of them wanted to see the place longer than was absolutely necessary.”
Driving along the western shore of Sandusky Bay, it’s easy to miss the turnoff to Johnson’s Island. An inconspicuous historical sign marks the causeway. Bearing left on Confederate Drive, you pass some of the homes that hug the beaches of the 300-acre island. Soon you come upon a rectangular cemetery where 270 Confederates rest under ranks of Georgia marble. At water’s edge, a bronze infantryman faces eastward across the bay toward Cedar Point, an amusement park famed for its roller coasters. Sometimes the distant screams sound strangely like Rebel yells.
Without a guide, you’d never notice the place where those sleeping Confederates spent their final days. The heart of the prison yard is hidden in the wooded interior of the island. The frame buildings are long gone. Only the eroded ramparts of a star-shaped fort are obvious in the underbrush. This patch of scrub has yielded one of the richest troves of Civil War artifacts anywhere.
“Johnson’s Island is a very important archaeological site,” says Edwin C. Bearrs, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service and an authority on Civil War sites.
Mr. Bush, an anthropologist at nearby Heidelberg College, has brought the prison back to life one trowel at a time. Since he and his students began digging in 1989, they’ve uncovered thousands of objects from the soil of a place where as many as 3,000 Confederates at a time were held. Working from Union records, the archaeologists have located many of the 13 barracks and 60 privies and have painstakingly unearthed them to a depth of 5 feet.
“You can tell a lot about how they lived,” says the bespectacled and gray-bearded 50-year-old professor.
Take Block 1, where prisoners who renounced the Confederacy and took an oath of allegiance to the United States were transferred. They apparently received better treatment, Mr. Bush says. “We’ve found wine and liquor bottles in the latrine there. Alcohol was considered contraband in the rest of the prison.”
Johnson’s Island was not a horrible place as Civil War prisons go. Of the 60,000 POWs who died during the war, only 300 to 400 perished on the island many fewer than at more notorious camps, such as Georgia’s Andersonville or New York’s Elmira.
Still, the men suffered. Their drafty barracks were so cold during the winter that water jugs froze solid. In the later stages of the war, when prisoner exchanges stopped and rations were cut, the captives got so desperate that they’d eat anything. Some latrines have surrendered dog and rat skeletons.
Despite privation, the men managed to bring some beauty into their lives. One of the most common objects the archaeologists have found are pieces of jewelry carved by prisoners from hard rubber, some of them with initials and exquisite shell inlays. The Confederates sent them to loved ones back home or arranged to sell them in Sandusky for spending money.
Handling their personal effects has driven Mr. Bush to learn more about the prisoners. Almost all were officers, well-educated and literate. Mr. Bush often hears from descendants who have photographs or unpublished diaries. He likes to read from them when he goes to area schools to talk about the prison sometimes wearing a scratchy wool Confederate uniform he had made for such occasions.
Mr. Bush tells students about the prisoner who gave birth and was paroled when it was revealed that she had been passing as a man. Or about the ingenious inmate who fashioned a working camera from spyglasses and oyster cans. Or about prison snowball fights and baseball games and minstrel shows staged by a troupe of jailbirds who called themselves the Rebellonians.
Or about the numerous escape attempts, some successful, most not. One prisoner, Lt. Charles Pierce of Louisiana, tried to break out seven times only to die of yellow fever in New Orleans two years after the war ended.
Johnson’s Island is listed as a National Historic Landmark, but the designation does nothing to stop private landowners from doing as they see fit. The Ohio Historical Society repeatedly lobbied the state legislature to buy the site, but never succeeded. Preservation groups such as the Civil War Trust focus their efforts on saving battlefields.
With no government funds forthcoming, Mr. Bush is counting on donations from history buffs, Confederate heritage organizations and the hundreds of POW descendants who have contacted him over the years.
By Christmas, he had raised less than half the down payment. Reluctantly, he has begun to prepare himself for the possibility that the island’s days as a living dig soon may be history.
“I’d hate to leave it,” Mr. Bush says. “This is slow work. I’d say 95 percent of the site remains to be excavated. We have a lot of latrines left.”