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Published: Saturday, 6/9/2012 - Updated: 3 years ago

Civil War Trust to honor work of Johnson's Island group

Dr. David Bush, professor of anthropology at the Heidelberg University. Dr. David Bush, professor of anthropology at the Heidelberg University.

A man who has worked for decades conducting archaeological digs in northwest Ohio is to accept an award today in Virginia from the Civil War Trust on behalf of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson's Island Civil War Prison.

Johnson's Island, on the coast of Lake Erie three miles from the city of Sandusky, is the first nonbattlefield site to receive the trust's prize, called the Brian C. Pohanka Preservation Organization of the Year Award.

Mary Koik, spokesman for the Civil War Trust, said the trust chose the Friends and Descendants for the award because of their work cataloging a largely untold side of Civil War history.

The Civil War Trust is the nation's largest organization dedicated to preserving that era's history.

Speaking by phone en route to Richmond for the trust's annual conference, David Bush called the award "wonderful recognition of what the Friends and Descendants have done."

Mr. Bush began archaeological investigations on the Sandusky Bay site in the spring of 1989 when he realized how many remnants of the Civil War prison lay beneath the soil.

Since then, as chairman of the Friends and Descendants and director of Heidelberg University's Center for Historic and Military Archaeology, Mr. Bush has turned the island into an active site for research, excavations, field trips, and undergraduate and graduate-level courses. Johnson's Island was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1990.

Excavations there have yielded remnants of the prison's buildings as well as personal artifacts, letters, and diaries that belonged to the 10,000 Confederate officers imprisoned there between 1862 and 1865.

Mr. Bush said the most surprising discovery is an abundance of gold, copper, and silver -- the materials imprisoned officers used to make jewelry to send home to their loved ones.

These clues to the past, and the Friends and Descendants' efforts to catalogue and share them with the public, prompted the Civil War Trust to recognize the group.

"Johnson's Island is something pretty remarkable," Ms. Koik said. "The experience of the common soldier was profound, but prisons aren't anybody's first thought when they think of the Civil War."

The Friends and Descendants will share this year's award with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.

Sam Craghead, a spokesman at the museum, said he is familiar with Johnson's Island and called sharing the award with the Friends and Descendants a "spectacular honor." Past recipients of the Brian C. Pohanka award include No Casino Gettysburg, the Kentucky Historical Society, and the Natural Bridge Historical Society Inc.

Although the award carries no monetary prize, Mr. Bush said he hopes it will increase public awareness of the group's work and help with fund-raising efforts. He said that creating more interpretative trails on the land they have excavated is his group's next big project.

Contact Jessica Shor at: jshor@theblade.com or 419-724-6516.

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