Prison Life at Johnson’s Island
You all probably know that I have been working with a collection of letters written by Confederate POW Henry A. Allen to his wife Sarah. I was looking through my files on Allen this morning and found this newspaper article from the Valley Virginian (Staunton, Va.) dated April 8, 1868. This article deals primarily with how Confederate prisoners of war occupied their time while interned at Johnson’s Island Prison in Sandusky, Ohio – one of the several stops on Allen’s “tour of Yankee prisons” between July 1863 and May 1865. While the author expressly states that he is not attempting to dwell on the harshness of prison-camp life, suggesting that these memories should be swept aside, he nevertheless attacks Stanton’s policy on exchange and mentions repeatedly the multiple privations suffered by Confederate prisoners. Following the descriptive passages is a lengthy poem written by a former prisoner (later killed in action) who similarly condemns the conditions of Johnson’s Island through the sarcastic repetition of the sentinel’s call, “All is well.” The captive protagonist only finds true liberty and an escape from the spirit breaking prison life upon death. You can find this article and many others on the Valley of the Shadow website – I transcribed this article for the site back in 2007ish.
“Little Gate,” cried the soldier on the top of the wall, and the sergeant in charge opened the door seven feet by two, and one hundred Confederate officers filed into the “pen” of Johnson’s Island. just as sun was going down one Sabbath evening, august 2nd 1863. “Fresh fish” was the cry that greeted us on the inside, and we were instantly surrounded by eager enquirers to know where we were from what was the news &c. many of us found comrades who took us into their “messes,” others found bunks where they could. Some of us who were wounded were conducted to a building which by way of distinction from the rest was called a “hospital,” but which was provided with neither medicine doctors nor diet.
There are perhaps few of our readers, who, if they can transmit to their children the honor of having served their country in her time of peril, that had not at some time during the contest, the misfortune to become prisoners of war. While the cartels of exchange were on operation this did not amount to more than a short absence from your command, but when Stanton, the heartless wretch persisted in his advice to Lincoln that it was “cheaper to feed the Confederates than to fight them,” all cartels were broken, they stopped fighting us, and
for our rations were cut down would sustain life, the sutlers were taken out of the prison yard and the exercised over them into the “pen,” lest they should be bribed to smuggle in something to us
Johnson’s Island is about one mile long and half a mile wide, is situated in the mouth of Sandusky Bay as it enters Lake Erie, and three miles out from the city of Sandusky – On the Eastern end of the Island was a lot of about ten acres enclosed by a wall fifteen feet high, which we styled the “pen.” Inside were thirteen buildings arranged in two rows about eighty yards apart, these were the prisoners quarters, and on the wall a line of our “guardians” kept eternal peace, and every half hour during the night they cried the time with “all’s well.”
This prison was set apart for the confinement of officers, and usually its population numbered about three thousand. Once inside all that was left was to kill time, and to do this all kind of enjoyment was resorted to, such as the making of trinkets from gutta percha and shell, with which the yankees could be bribed to supply us, reading, card playing, debating, playing at various games that gave us exercise &c. In winter we had snow battles with a thousand fighting on each side all day long. Gen Tremble on his crutches, Jeff Thompson and old gray headed veterans joined in the contest with the same spirit as if they were school boys. And at night we all in turn watched beside our sick comrades. How hard it was to see a strong man yield up his spirit in so desolate a spot, so far from home and loved ones, with no soft hand to smoothe his dying spirit, no one shed a tear of regret over the soul that was gone to God who gave it.
we were allowed to bury our own dead and we marked each grave with the name, rank, command, age, and date of death, and some were the most beautifully and tastefully executed – The principle events of the day were the calling of the rolls in the morning, the issuing of our scanty rations and the bringing in of our mail, and what joy it carried in our hearts when the cry of “Dixie man” was raised, well do I remember how I forgot all my hunger, all my nakedness, and all the troubles which surrounded me, when I held
and a letter from a loved one away my native land. And at night we gathers quarters and discussed the news of the armies, as the yankee paper the prospects of exchange, and we over our old battles, and marches, and triumphs.
I will not tell you now of our suffering from hunger, from cold, and from the wanton cruelty of our
that is all past and the memory of our pleasant intercourse with the fellow prisoners and fellow sufferers who are scattered over the country rises uppermost as the prison life. Friends there whose association prevented prison from being a Hell must always hold a warm place in the heart.
No one can imagine, except by experience, the joy with which on the 14th of March 1865, I again heard the sentinel cry “Little Gate,” and two hundred of us marched forth and once again breathed the free open air and how proud and almost bursting with gladness was the heart when eight days afterwards we once more stood on Dixie soil, and once more under our noble old leader Gen. Lee confronted defiantly the yankees who had for so many long, weary months kept a cruel and tyrannous watch over us.
Here are some verses written by a fellow prisoner: Lieut Howard C. Wright, of the 30th Va. Regt, from New Orleans, he was a gallant soldier and fell in the last fighting of the war.
“ALL IS WELL”
Silence, deep, profound, mysterious,
Gains her sway with subtle power
O’er the mind She holds imperious
Court within this solemn hour,
And the sable sky is teeming
With her starry courtiers, gleaming,
And the vestal moon is beaming
There as well.
Silence over Erie’s waters,
Restling in the ambient air:
Silence over prison quarters -
Melancholy silence there.
Hark! The spell at last is broken!
Shrill the cry by sentry spoken;
What may not those words betoken? -
“All is well.”
In Half past ten o’clock! and calling
“All is well!” Ah, whence that sigh?
‘Twas like grief in cadence falling
from some o’ercharged heart close by;
Like a weary zephyr dying
Yet the sentries are replying
“All is well!”
From you light house comes a glistening
Like a ray of hope it seems
Eager hearts to false hopes listening -
Hope that only comes in dreams.
Oh that hope of home returning!
Hoping on and with a burning,
Feverish fire of ceaseless yearning.
“All is well.”
See – a bridge of silver glossing
Spans the lake from shore to shore;
Eager fancy o’er it crossing
Seeks to wander evermore -
Seeks to stroll ‘midst childhood’s flowers,
‘Midst affection’s changeless bowers,
Or with love in moonlight hours,
“All is well.”
But the present still intruding,
With its harsh, repulsive truth,
Comes unbidden here, excluding
Sweetest dreams of buoyant youth;
Sweetest dreams forever fleeting,
Fancy’s self forever cheating,
And the sentry still repeating
“All is well.”
“All is well!” The prisoner sleeping
In his bunk so rude and bare
See an aged mother weeping,
Hear a young wife’s whispered prayer.
“All is well!” While hopes forsaking
Leaves behind it only aching;
“All is well?” – While hearts are breaking,
“All is well?”
“All is well!” A spirit tiring
Of its chains will soon be free;
Yes, a captive now expiring
Soon shall find his liberty!
“All is well ! – A soul is fleeting -
Angels hover round with greeting;
And the sentinel’s repeating,
“All is well!”
Peace and a happy and prosperous new year to you!