Civil War POW camp's artifacts meant to inspire

2/3/2005
BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
David Bush, left, professor of anthropology at Heidelberg College, and student Andy VanCamp assemble artifacts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont, Ohio, from excavations on the island.
David Bush, left, professor of anthropology at Heidelberg College, and student Andy VanCamp assemble artifacts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont, Ohio, from excavations on the island.

FREMONT - A prisoner of war in a strange place, A.F. Swadley put on a brave face when he wrote to his brother, but he couldn't help letting his longing for home and family show.

"I am well and the general health of the prison is good," the officer told him in a neat hand. "I have never gotten you to consent to write me once every two weeks. Hope you will. For I am always very anxious to hear from you. Write as soon as you receive this and give me all the news you can. I remain Your Affectionate Brother."

The correspondence, dated Sept. 25, 1864, carries this return address: Block 11, Mess 2, Johnson Island, Near Sandusky, Ohio. A reproduction of the letter is part of an exhibit at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center that organizers hope will educate the public about the experience of captured Confederate officers at Ohio's only Civil War prison camp.

The exhibit, "Civil War POWs: Excavating Johnson's Island Prison," includes nearly 500 artifacts dug up at part of the 16 1/2-acre Ottawa County site where more than 10,000 Confederate officers were held from 1862 to 1865.

A watch excavated from the Johnson Island site.
A watch excavated from the Johnson Island site.

The display, which opens Sunday and runs through July 4, is the result of 16 years of excavation and research at the site led by David Bush, a professor of anthropology at Heidelberg College in Tiffin.

Mr. Bush and Heidelberg students who helped with the excavation will discuss the project and the historical importance of Johnson Island at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Hayes museum's auditorium.

"It's unparalleled by any other Civil War site," Mr. Bush said yesterday as he and a pair of Heidelberg students set up exhibits in the museum. "It's unbelievable ... It's such a wonderful resource."

A Civil War-era bullet was recovered at the site. The exhibit opens Sunday and runs through July 4 and is the result of 16 years of digs on the island.
A Civil War-era bullet was recovered at the site. The exhibit opens Sunday and runs through July 4 and is the result of 16 years of digs on the island.

Mr. Bush and his helpers have excavated latrines dug behind three of the camp's 13 blockhouses and found "hundreds of thousands" of artifacts ranging from shards of glass and bits of metal to intact medicine vials and beer bottles.

Items in the display include a pair of yellow chamber pots - used indoors at night when prisoners were prohibited from going outside to the latrine - and personal effects such as a gold pocket watch.

Also exhibited are dozens of pieces of jewelry and other items the prisoners made from hard rubber, including a black ring inlaid with a white shell in the shape of a diamond and a tiny fish trimmed with white fins and tail.

Producing such trinkets gave the prisoners a way to cope with the boredom and loneliness of captivity, Mr. Bush said. "I see it as almost a therapeutic thing for them to do," he said. "When you look at the kind of stuff they were able to carve, it's amazing."

Andy Van Camp, a Heidelberg anthropology student who was helping set up the exhibits yesterday, said he suggested the display to Mr. Bush and Tom Culbertson, the acting executive director of the Hayes Center.

"I'm lucky that I can pursue this," he said. "I think it's neat."

Mr. Culbertson said the exhibit, while having no direct link to President Hayes, fits perfectly with the museum's mission of documenting local history.

"A lot of people are unaware of the Civil War prison on Johnson Island," he said. "It's the first chance many people will have to see things that were unearthed, and learn what the prisoners did while they were there."

Mr. Bush hopes the exhibit will stir interest in the site and encourage donations to an effort to preserve it from possible development.

A group he leads, the Friends and Descendants of Johnson Island, arranged in 2001 to acquire 16 1/2 acres where the prison stood, but must raise $290,000 by October to pay off a mortgage on the property.

"There's so much history there," he said. "There's so much more to be learned."

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.