The Civil War...150 Years Ago... Ohio's Johnson's Island Prison, And The Tale Of The Magnificent U.S.S. Michigan... (The ship that saved our state!)
When talk around a Civil War reenactment campfire turns to ships and the sea, often the discussion turns to that first great battle between two ironclad vessels at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Union vessel was the U.S.S. Monitor, nicknamed the "Cheesebox on a raft." The Confederate vessel was the C.S.S. Virginia, formerly the U.S.S. Merrimack, a union warship that had been burned to the waterline and captured by the Confederates and converted into an ironclad.
That first battle between iron ships ended as a virtual draw. At that point in the campfire conversation, Civil War buffs will sometimes conclude that these were the first two iron ships built, but that would be a very erroneous conclusion. The first American iron warship was the U.S.S. Michigan, and she had been launched in 1843, fully 20 years before the first battle between iron ships was waged.
Unlike the two squat and relatively ugly Civil War vessels that slugged it out at Hampton Roads, the Michigan was gorgeous to behold. Powered by both paddle-wheel steam and by the wind, the Michigan's naval architecture was sleek and beautiful. One of the first ships built in modular form, the Michigan's parts were shipped from Pittsburgh down the Ohio River and then up the Ohio and Erie Canal to Cleveland, and then over to Erie for final assembly. A funny thing happened when they tried to launch that heavy iron ship into Erie Bay. She got stuck going down the launching ramp and would not move! Abandoning plans to launch her that day, the builders were surprised the next morning to find her sitting peacefully out in the bay, having launched herself during the night!
Built to carry very sophisticated and heavy armaments, plans for the Michigan's potential firepower immediately ran afoul of the Canadians, who insisted that her gun power be reduced to comply with an agreement in place between America and Canada. The Michigan had to carry light arms for a number of years until hostilities with the South became imminent. Up to that point, the Michigan was perhaps America's most powerful warship to sail on the Great Lakes. A very important duty of the Michigan was to help guard the Confederate officers' prison camp at Johnson's Island. Her mission there will be the focal point of this column.
After the war, the Michigan completed a variety of missions and even endured a 20th century name change to the "Wolverine" when it was decided that her former name would be used for one of America's first modern dreadnought battleships. Amazingly, America's first iron ship lasted for over 100 years and remained in active service for most of that time! Decommissioned in 1912, she was in Pennsylvania State Militia service until 1923. Although she was finally run aground at Erie and eventually taken apart for scrap (in 1949!), her bow was salvaged and continues to be on display at the Erie Maritime Museum at Erie, Pennsylvania, along with the reconstructed flagship Niagara, of War of 1812 fame. That museum is reportedly open M-F 8:30-5:00 (call ahead to be sure) and their website is the following: http://www.eriemaritimemuseum.org/flagship_niagara_league/visitor.htm
The Michigan's main mast also continues to rise above Ohio at our nearby Fairport Harbor Marine Museum. A Fairport Harbor website relating to this information may be found here: http://www.fairportharbor.org/lighthouse-and-marine-museum.php
How the fascinating tale of the U.S.S. Michigan/Wolverine relates to us concerns her relationship to a large Confederate officers' prison camp on Johnson's Island on Sandusky Bay. During the Civil War, it seems there was a conspiracy to break those officers out of that camp and form a Confederate army that would then proceed to attack Ohio's north coast, including our area, of course, as well as the Port of Cleveland. Part of that plan involved two hijacked passenger steamers (the Philo Parsons and the Island Queen) as well as an intent to take over the U.S.S. Michigan as she was sitting out in Sandusky Bay guarding the camp. Fortunately for the United States, the plan was discovered in time. The Michigan was able to help foil the plot before it went too far, and therefore took an active part in saving Cleveland and the rest of northern Ohio from a major military disaster. The Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island were then forced to remain in their prison until the cessation of hostilities, and Ohio's north coast was saved!
Ten thousand or more prisoners were reportedly processed through the Johnson's Island prison during its existence. There were relatively few successful escapes during the history of that camp. After the war, the camp's buildings and supplies were either salvaged or sold off, and the island reverted to private ownership. In the years since the Civil War, an attempt was made to turn Johnson's Island into a "pleasure resort" to compete with Cedar Point. That attempt was not successful, and the island properties have since been subdivided into private developments. The only evidence remaining on the island of the prison camp's existence are a few historical signs, along with a well-maintained Confederate cemetery containing the graves of over two hundred souls who perished there during the War Between the States. The island and that cemetery are accessible by a causeway from the mainland ($2.00 fee required for island access), and because all other areas of the island are private, the cemetery is the only part of the island generally open to the public, although a good part of the prison tract of land was purchased by the Friends and Descendants of Johnson's Island a decade ago and is currently being researched.
The Johnson's Island Museum (Open 1-4 p.m. weekends and holidays from Memorial Day to October 1st) has been moved to the beautiful Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky. The Johnson's Island Preservation Society maintains an informative website at http://www.johnsonsisland.org/index.htm
In addition to the websites mentioned and the seemingly endless internet information available regarding both of the above topics, there are two great books that detail fascinating information regarding the U.S.S. Michigan (Strange Adventures of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer) and the Johnson's Island prison (Rebels on Lake Erie by Charles E. Frohman).
I need to mention a special appreciation for Dr. Dave Bush's help with this column. Dr. Bush has been a tireless advocate, speaker, and researcher regarding all things concerning Johnson's Island. For the past 23 years, Dr. Bush (an archaeologist, professor of anthropology, and director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg University) has led "digs" and scholarly research on Johnson's Island while facing heat, mud, snakes, and many other adversities. Dr. Bush is also the Chair of The Friends and Descendants of Johnson's Island Civil War Prison that was formed in 2001 to purchase as much of the prison compound as it could. In 2002, the FDJI purchased 17 acres of the island and have begun a long term historic interpretative plan for this property. Dr. Bush informs me that the public can only visit that area during organized programs which are announced on the web site of the FDJI (www.johnsonsisland.com).
The archaeological and historical research which Dr. Bush has been doing for the past 23 years is now accomplished through both the FDJI and Heidelberg University's Center for Historic and Military Archaeology. Information relating to that research can also be found on the FDJI website: www.johnsonsisland.com