Events News

May 31, 2007

The Man with the Keys to the Prison

2007-2008 AIA Lecturer David Bush talks about his excavations at Johnson’s Island Civil War POW Camp.

How have you been able to combine the first-hand accounts of the prisoners with the archaeological evidence from the site? Do you think you would have the same view of the site without both sources of information?

One of the unique aspects of the Johnson’s Island Civil War military prison site is its tremendous historical and archaeological record. I recognized this early on, and continue to be surprised and thankful for it. There is not a day that goes by at the site that we don’t read something from a prisoner or guard written on that same day some 140 years ago.

Letter from A. F. Swadley at Johnson's Island to his brother in Denver, Colorado Territory

Letter from A. F. Swadley at Johnson’s Island to his brother in Denver, Colorado Territory (Courtesy David Bush)

Having a wealth of primary accounts enables me to view any research topic from many perspectives. For instance, for years we have been recovering evidence of the hard rubber (gutta percha) craft items carved by the prisoners. The archaeological record from Block 4, one of the 12 main prisoner housing blocks, has given us a clear record of how these items were created. We know what form the hard rubber came to the prison in; how it was carved; how various gold, silver, copper, and shell sets were placed into these carvings; and the variety of objects made. However, what is missing from the archaeological record is the humanistic element that can only come from their own accounts. When we read how the prisoner worked for days on these items, packaged them ever so carefully, and sent them to their family back in the South, we realize these items allow the prisoner to stay connected to their family. When we read from their wives and mothers how much these items are valued, the connection is complete.

Our current research at Block 6, the hospital, is also enhanced by the historic record. I was fortunate enough to have a descendant of Major Henry Eversman, a Union surgeon, provide copies of more than 100 letters Eversman wrote to his fiancee while he was serving at Johnson’s Island. These letters not only relate to his treatment of the prisoners, but also tell of the social life of Union officers at this prison. We also have many accounts from the prisoners of their treatment, or lack of treatment, for illnesses they were suffering from. These accounts demonstrate how there is in many cases, no one truth. The archaeological record provides one set of data, the surgeon’s letters provide another, and prisoners from 1862 to 1865 provide many additional accounts of what it was like to be severely ill at the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison site.

It is difficult for some to realize now, but my view and understanding of the Johnson’s Island site changes all the time. Of course, the major facts of its use don’t change, and the physical locations of the major features of the site don’t change, but my understanding of what it was like to be a prisoner at that time continues to be impacted by each new artifact discovered and each new primary source I read. This is certainly one of the main reasons I am as much, or even more, captivated by the site as I was 18 years ago.

What kind of public archaeology and education do you provide at the site? What do you feel visitors take away? Why do you think education of this sort is so important?

In our Experiential Learning Program in Historic Archaeology we offer middle-school and high-school students–as well as their teachers and adult chaperones–an opportunity to experience the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison site through discovery. Using the scientific method, and combining the historical with the observable, we take the students through various exercises allowing them to learn about the site by experiencing it. The day at the site begins at the Confederate cemetery, asking the students to reflect on the human patterns observable in the cemetery. Hypotheses are suggested for these observations, and further data is presented to help refine some of them. I will typically read at least two primary documents (a Union and prisoner account about the cemetery) and after reading these, we discuss how the hypotheses can be revised. This sets the stage for the rest of the day–making observations and revising our thoughts on how things were at the prison.

Students being taught to identify artifacts in the screen

Students being taught to identify artifacts in the screen (Courtesy David Bush)

Traveling from the cemetery to the prison compound, the participants realize just how much the land has changed since the Civil War. There are no visible signs left of the old prison and it requires a bit of imagination to realize this is the site where more than 10,000 Confederate officers were once imprisoned. Arriving at the prison compound, participants receive instruction in the proper protocols for removing soils and recovering artifacts. My assistants and I help these students read the artifacts, showing how each item relates to human activities of years past. Excitement grows as new finds reflect how the sick prisoners were treated.

I firmly believe that for someone to begin to understand about past human experiences, they need to connect to them. Discovering artifacts from the prison first hand and hearing actual accounts of those imprisoned makes a very real connection. I believe the young students are beginning to build a context for understanding human experiences. The teachers and adults participating are usually overwhelmed at the wonderful experience they have just encountered.

The Experiential Program is one of the most rewarding educational activities with which I am involved. My assistants–mostly students from Heidelberg College–share their excitement with the participants and it truly is contagious. Some days we find many different items, other days not so much. My assistants are excellent in helping the young participants to appreciate whatever is found.

Another aspect of the research conducted at the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison site is the opportunities available to the undergraduates at Heidelberg College. The cultural materials recovered from this site are from 1861-1866. There is not much contamination from later land use. Therefore, when conducting studies of these cultural materials, my students have an opportunity to learn specifically about a type of material from a very small time frame. Some of the cultural contexts for our materials are specific years and months. Therefore, we can explore questions of material change over a discrete period of time. This type of research is not easily found at a small liberal arts college. Thus, our students not only obtain valuable research experience, they also gain experience in working with the general public and younger students.

You’ve done a lot of work with descendants of the prisoners and guards at Johnson’s Island. Are they receptive to your outreach? What do you hope for when contacting them? Some recently came to a lecture you gave in Orlando–can you elaborate on that experience?

An important part of my research is the development of the historical record for Johnson’s Island. In recent years, I have had contact with hundreds of descendants of prisoners and guard from Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. Each time a descendant contacts me with a request for information, I ask them what information they may have about their ancestor that found himself at Johnson’s Island. I would have to say in the majority of cases, the descendant has some information about their ancestor that we do not have from the official records kept by the Union. Whether it is a picture of the ancestor, the pension records, or letters, all of these help us in getting to know that prisoner just a little bit more. Occasionally, they have a diary, or other items that provide a wealth of information we use to help tell many of the prisoners’ stories.

In all this contact with descendants, it is sometimes difficult to relate as often or as much as I would like to. Having to teach courses, run the field programs, and chair the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison, I often run out of time in the day to respond to descendants’ requests. Volunteers like Jo-Anne Randal and some of my students help in this research and correspondence. However, I could use even more help.

Many descendants come to mind when thinking about how they have helped to discover and preserve the history of the prison. Many have donated the actual historical documents to the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison, a nonprofit historic preservation organization that has purchased 17 acres of the prison site and Fort Johnson. In donating their ancestor’s items, they have insured these items will be available for all future generations to appreciate and learn from. However, one family comes to mind as the most generous of all. These would be the descendants of Robert M. Smith, 2nd Lieutenant of the 61th Tennessee. Robert Smith was captured in May 1863 and found himself at Johnson’s Island from early June 1863 through February 1865. He was then transferred to City Point for exchange.

Photograph of Robert Smith

Photograph of Robert Smith (Courtesy David Bush)

While at Johnson’s Island, Robert Smith got involved in many activities. He carved some very beautiful jewelry and he also made a camera and took pictures of the prisoners, which he sold for $1.00 thus having a thriving business while in prison. But before I get too much into his story, my point is to tell about how I came to know Robert Smith.

In the late 1990s, I was notified by Geoffrey Feazell of Daytona Beach, Florida, that he had an ancestor who was at Johnson’s Island. I was going to be traveling in Florida so I had arranged to have him visit me near St. Petersburg. When he arrived, he and his father had brought with them a box that Robert Smith had made and in which he put jewelry he had carved at Johnson’s Island as well as four mounted photographs he had taken in the attic of Block 4. The box contained a card describing how he had managed adroitly taking the pictures. Geoffrey also had a diary that Robert had kept at Johnson’s Island as well as a few letters he had written. Additionally, there was a photographic card in the diary of a picture of eleven prisoners drawn by William Cox in January 1864. In all, it was a virtual gold mine of artifacts and documents from Johnson’s Island. I believe we spent several hours that day just admiring Robert Smith’s skill and abilities, given where all these wonderful accomplishments had taken place.

Over the years since that first meeting, I have gotten to know Geoffrey Feazell very well. He keeps me informed of how his grandmother, Nancy Feazell (the granddaughter of Robert Smith) enjoys knowing we are working so hard to tell Robert’s story. Geoffrey has loaned the box with the photographs and jewelry, the diary, letters, and much more to the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison for our use in telling how prisoners found ways to keep in touch with family and friends.

Most recently, Geoffrey and his father came to a talk I was giving at the Orlando Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America. There was a nice crowd there, and it was a special treat to have descendants of a prisoner there to truly make it more personal. I had planned to include some of the Robert Smith story in my talk, so it was such a bonus for the attendants to see the Feazell’s there. To my great delight, they brought with them another photograph they had found that Robert Smith had taken while at Johnson’s Island. This photograph was being kept in a daguerreotype case. There was no information on the identity of this prisoner. However, it continues to represent the ingenuity of Robert Smith and the desire for prisoners to have their image to give to loved ones.

What have been some of the most interesting finds or results from the site?

I am constantly being asked variations of “What is the best find you have made at Johnson’s Island?” Sometimes it is in the form of “What is the biggest thing you have found?” or “What is the most valuable thing you have found?” It is difficult for any archaeologist to answer these questions, because, at least for me, it is not just the artifact but where within the site that it was discovered that make finds significant. It is difficult to apply degrees of historical value and, after all, historical value is how we judge the importance of our finds. Certainly what makes Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison site most significant is that it represents the treatment of the prisoners through both the wonderfully intact archaeological record and the expansive historical record. The first and greatest discovery was that behind each block where the prisoners were housed are intact latrines representing small segments of time from April 1862 until August 1865. These time capsules are providing magnificent insights into prisoner treatment and lifeways, as well as significant data in the study of mid-nineteenth-century cultural material.

Photograph taken by Robert Smith at Johnson's Island

Photograph taken by Robert Smith at Johnson’s Island (Courtesy David Bush)

Over the years, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much we have learned about the prisoners’ crafts from both the historical and archaeological records. Learning how the prisoners worked with the limited number of small hand tools available to them has been most gratifying. Knowing how important these items were to their family is a realization that I am still learning to appreciate.

Being Confederate officers, most of the imprisoned were well educated and were from families of some means. This translates into their having access to things the normal enlisted would not have. Each year we find items that are unexpected but represent this wealth that finds it way to the prison. I believe a cameo that was discovered several years ago fits into this category.

We have a great variety of mid-nineteenth-century buttons representing all types of garments the prisoners would have worn. Currently, one of my undergraduate students is analyzing these for a publication we are going to put out on the cultural material of the site.

How does Carl Zipfel, the owner of the property, feel about the excavations? What are some of the challenges or advantages of working on privately owned property?

Early meeting with Carl Zipfel investigating the site

Early meeting with Carl Zipfel investigating the site (Courtesy David Bush)

In 2001, the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison (Friends) was established as a nonprofit preservation organization to save as much of the prison compound and fortifications on the island as possible. In October 2002, the Friends purchased 17 acres (at a cost of $350,000), including about half of the prison compound and all of Fort Johnson from the developer Carl Zipfel. He has been very cooperative over the years in allowing our excavations to occur at the site, but it was felt in 2001 it would be better to have the most significant portions of the site protected into perpetuity. The mission of the Friends is to manage this land for research, educational, and interpretative uses. Currently, the Friends raise money to pay off the mortgage and assist in other maintenance tasks for the property.

For some time now, I have been doing much more than just being an archaeologist. I have been heavily involved in the preservation of this National Historic Landmark site. Juggling the archaeological research interests with the preservation needs takes up just about all my time. I have been working with the board of the Friends in finding ways to raise the money necessary to pay off the mortgage, and then proceed with additional goals.

I am also the director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg College. In this role, I try to develop programming for our students while at the same time facilitating the investigation of many of the historic military sites within the Northwest Ohio region. Johnson’s Island is certainly at the center of the Center’s work, but we have also conducted archaeological studies at sites like the Fallen Timbers and Buffington Island battlefields. These allow our students to not only gain exposure to military sites from various time periods, but also sites with different uses.

The long association of David Bush and the Johnson’s Island excavations with the AIA began in 1999 with the article “Doing Time” in the July/August issue of ARCHAEOLOGY. Since then, his research has appeared on the ARCHAEOLOGY website with the Interactive Dig “Unlocking a Civil War Prison” and the exclusive online feature “Tales From a Civil War Prison” with letters and diary entries of some of those interned in the camp. For more about Johnson’s Island, see also the project website, which includes a 2002 letter from Nancy C. Wilkie, then President of the AIA, endorsing Bush’s efforts to preserve this unique site. Check the AIA Lecture pages for dates and locations at which David Bush will be speaking.

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