Voices From the Civil War

Two books of correspondence from Johnsons Island
Yay! New books!

Two new books just arrived, research fodder for a class paper I’m writing on archaeological excavations done at Johnson’s Island military prison.

The Johnson’s Island site covers a 16.5-acre Civil War-era military prison camp on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie, in the state of Ohio. It housed Confederate officers, and was in operation from April 1862 through September 1865.

One of the first digs unearthed numerous personal artifacts, including fragments of fine china and crystal that were apparently shipped in by families of prisoners to help them “maintain their Southern lifestyle.” So there’s an interesting cultural contrast between the “southern gentlemen” prisoners and their midwestern warders. There’s also a contrast to be drawn between Johnson’s Island, which housed only officers, and other military prison camps for common soldiers.

Later excavations focused on the infirmary block, latrines, and Fort Johnson, one of the three fortifications built after a failed plot in September 1864 to free the prisoners. On one of the final field seasons, the teams investigated an escape tunnel discovered at one end of a latrine.

Although the dig focuses on the lifespan of the camp itself (1862-65), there is the occasional artifact from indigenous people who occupied the area long before the camp was built.

The site’s archaeology tells us one part of the story, and the historical records another, but a key piece has to be the voices of those who lived, and sometimes died, behind the walls of Johnson’s Island in the waning days of the war, when all hope of exchange had vanished and rations and maintenance were sacrificed to the political goal of forcing a peace.

One of about four shelves of my books about the Civil War. Note Burnside and Sherman cheek by jowl with JEB Stuart.

I’ve been interested in the U.S. Civil War for a very long time, especially in how it affected ordinary working men and women. In less than four years, the nation went through a massive socioeconomic change. Emancipation, yes, but also urbanization, industrialization, and the capitalization of the national economy. These are the same things I find fascinating when I look at medieval history or Shakespeare’s plays.

Another shelf of books about the Civil War. Sam Watkins’ “Co. Aytch” is in the upper right.

But, the Civil War is also one of the earliest wars between literate ordinary combatants, so there’s a vast amount of correspondence from everyday people, the teachers and farmhands and tradesmen who enlisted on either side. I’ve read most of Bruce Catton’s work on the Civil War, as well as Shelby Foote’s three-volume history, and my library includes biographies, collections of battle reports and war correspondence from both sides, and memoirs of private soldiers including Sam Watkin’s “Co. Aytch.”

William H. Peel was a Confederate lieutenant, captured at Gettysburg. Far From Home is his diary, along with historical notes to place his journals in context, transcribed and annotated by historian Ellen Sheffield Wilds. A preliminary skim reveals a far-from-depressing account, the inner workings of a lively, thoughtful man who shares a lot of “gaman” with my own interned ancestors at Poston and Heart Mountain. Peel seems to be writing this private journal partly for himself and partly to record events with an eye toward future writing and publication.

Here’s one of Peel’s entries, about how the prisoners, hungry for news from the outside, reacted to a small group of new arrivals:

“The scene here witnessed was somewhat amusing: The men called loudly for the news. One of the new-comers was assisted to mount a barrel – without a head in either end – to answer their request. He was toppling back + forth in imminent danger of falling overboard, to prevent which some two or three men were holding him up. Silence – Silence was the cry from all parties – the very demand for that object rendering it far from attainable. The would-be speaker was, of course, all this while, in a very uncomfortable position, standing on the edge of the barrel, but notwithstanding this, he was kept so for several minutes, when the crowd were ordered by a sentinel to disperse, not a word of news having yet been obtained.”
(p. 189)

Peel tells stories of escape attempts and escapades, of daily life, and of keeping himself occupied during those long months of confinement. He died of pneumonia at Johnson’s Island, two months before the war’s end.

I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island is a look into the correspondence of Confederate captain Wesley Makely and his wife, edited and annotated by the site’s archaeological director, Dr. David R. Bush. Makely eventually gained his release at the end of the war, returned home, and vanished from the historical record. It’s been suggested that happy people leave few records, so it is to be hoped that he and his Kate rekindled their happiness in the brave new world of a modern United States.

Because these personal documents humanize Confederate soldiers at a time when that’s dangerous ground, I should state clearly and unequivocally that I believe the Confederacy to have been on the wrong side of history, morality, and humanity.

But those who ignore the past . . .

Far From Home: The Diary of Lt. William H. Peel. Wilds, Ellen Sheffield. AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 2009.

I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: Life in a Civil War Prison. Bush, David R. University Press of Florida, 2012.

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