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Lake Erie Islands Civil War Role Of Major Importance

The War Between the States began on April 12th, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, a key fort occupied by Union troops in South Carolina. Like in any war, the problem of prisoners of war had to be dealt with. In the early part of the war, prisoners from both sides were paroled and exchanged with the promise never to fight again as was the traditional European practice of the time, but as hostilities mounted, this practice wasn’t working.

It became apparent there was a need by both the Confederacy and the Union to establish prisoner-of-war camps. In late October of 1861, General M.C. Meigs, Quartermaster-General U.S. Army, Washington, DC, gave orders to William Hoffman, Lieut. Col. Eighth Infantry, Commissary- General of Prisoners, to find a suitable location for a prison camp.

Among the places he investigated were some of the Lake Erie Islands near Put-in-Bay Ohio. William Hoffman was born in 1807 and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829. One of his classmates was Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate forces. Hoffman had participated in the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War, and the Mohave War. When the Civil War broke out, he was in San Antonio, Texas, and was taken prisoner of war by the Confederates.

He was released in a prisoner exchange shortly thereafter. Hoffman personally traveled to the Lake Erie Islands to investigate the possibility of locating a prison camp there, and after the trip submitted a report detailing the pros and cons of each island to his commanding officer. Here is Hoffman’s report……. (printed as he wrote it).

GENERAL: I have the honor to report immediately on the receipt of your instructions of the 7th instant, I proceeded to the Put-in-Bay Islands, in Lake Erie, with the view of selecting one of them for a depot for prisoners of war, and the following is the result of my examination: On the steamer Island Queen which is engaged in the trade of those islands I passed around the outer ones known as the North and Middle Bass and passed the night at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island.

NORTH BASS ISLAND-North Bass also played a role in the Lake Erie Islands Civil War is about a mile across in any direction; it has upon it sufficient cleared ground for a depot owned by different persona who are engaged in cultivating the soil and fishing, who as I am informed would not be willing to give up their farms for any reasonable rent if at all as they have made their homes there. The boat did not stop long enough to permit me to consult them. But the position of the island is such as to preclude its occupation as a depot.

It is only four to five miles from the nearest of the Canadian islands, the boundary lines being midway between them, which would afford a too-inviting opportunity for their friends to attempt their rescue. Besides being so remote from the mainland and being almost entirely cut off from communication with it for weeks or even months at a time during the winter, it would be necessary to confine the prisoners within secure walls, or the guard would have to be confined within a very defensible work to ensure the prisoners could at no time overcome them and make their escape into Canada.

Further, the island is so distant from Sandusky, the nearest port, it would not be possible before the navigation closes to erect the necessary quarters, hospital, store-houses, &c., which the depot would require.

MIDDLE BASS ISLAND-Middle Bass, which is a mile within the outer island, has all the objections to it which apply to North Bass, besides having no suitable cleared land upon it. I remained at Put-in-Bay till the following day and visited the only ground which seemed available for the purpose. On the northwest point, which forms the bay, there is a space which, by including some timbered land, about ten acres may be cut off by a fence or wall 200 to 300 yards long from the lake to a slough.

The point is a cold, bleak place in winter, exposed to all the prevailing winds. On the other aide of the slough is an open piece of ground, about twenty acres, but it could not readily be inclosed [sic]. The northeast point of the island could, at little expense, be cut off from the rest of the island, but it is occupied by several families who have planted vineyards that yield at the rate of $200 to $400 per acre, and they could not be induced to rent their farms.

At the extreme point is a cleared space of two acres belonging to a tract of forty acres, but if it were suitable for the purpose and could be obtained, the presence of the soldiers there would ruin all the vineyards on the island; there are only twenty to thirty families living there who could offer no resistance to the depredations of lawless men.

SOUTH BASS ISLAND-Put-in-Bay is twenty-four miles from Sandusky, too far distant to afford a reasonable hope the necessary buildings could be put up this winter when it is remembered the navigation closes ordinarily during the first week in December This Put-in-Bay island is also almost entirely cut off from communication with the mainland during the winter and special arrangements would have to be made to secure the guard against a sudden rising of the prisoners.

KELLEYS ISLAND-On the following morning, I proceeded to Kelleys Island, where I remained a day. This island is the largest group and is extensively cultivated in grapes, occupied by about 100 families. Only two locations on the island seem adapted to the purpose. One is the northeast point embracing about sixty acres. A wall of a hundred yards in length would cut off forty acres of this, of which about thirty acres mostly covered with timber would answer pretty well for the depot.

A narrow neck of land divides two tracts into two parts. The low channel is covered with water during the prevalence of the northeast winds to which it is entirely open, and during these storms, as the sea breaks with great violence on the rocky shore, the spray must cover a significant part of the point. The soil is shallow on a bed of rock, and when the trees are thinned out to make room for the buildings, the large remaining trees would be very apt to be blown down by the high winds. I noticed many on the ground blown down in this way.

This point is about three miles from the cultivated part of the island and is connected with the usual landing by an indifferent road. In moderate weather, a vessel might lie at a dock on the northwest side of the point. The number of people on this island and the distance from the vineyards would afford some protection against depredations by the guard, assuming the prisoners could be restricted to this point. Still, the chances are that trouble would grow out of the proximity of so great a temptation.

This land can be obtained for $250 a year, including using the wood as fuel. There is another tract on the southwest point of the island of thirty to forty acres very suitable, except it would have to be enclosed [sic] on three sides. A more incredible difficulty is that it is adjoining extensive vineyards and a wine and brandy establishment, which I fear would be too great a temptation to the guard to be overcome by any sense of right or fear of punishment. This ground can be had for $5 per acre.

The people who live on this island are very willing to do all in their power to serve the Government at this time, even at some sacrifice to themselves. Still, I would be very reluctant to advise them to receive even well-disciplined troops on their island with such powerful and convenient inducements before them to lead them astray. This island is twelve miles from Sandusky, and though there may be enough of the season left to give time for the erection of the buildings and getting out a supply of stores for the winter, it is a very doubtful matter barely possible.

During the winter months, the US Postal Service mail is carried over generally twice a week by a man much experienced in such matters, which is most of the time obliged to use a boat which he hauls over the ice when it is strong enough and in which he crosses the open places. I cannot, therefore, advise an attempt be made to establish a depot on any one of the Put-in-Bay Islands this winter, and there are severe objections to their being occupied for this purpose at any time. Kelleys Island, which may be considered one of the groups, is only four to five miles from the nearest British island, called the East Sister.

I also examined an island in Sandusky Bay opposite the city. It is two and three-quarter miles from the city, and on the other side, it is a full mile from the mainland. It contains about 300 acres, one-half of which, with the privilege of using the fallen timber as fuel, can be leased for $500 a year with the entire control of the remainder of the island, so no person would be permitted to land on it except by permission.

Some forty acres of cleared land affording a good site for the buildings fronting on the water toward the city. Its nearness to the city gives great facilities for building and furnishing supplies and is accessible at all seasons of the year. The only objection is that it is too little isolated, but this may be remedied by enclosing [sic] the ground occupied by the prisoners as to confine them there except when they go out by permission.

The cost of such a work would be much less than for any similar piece on any of the outer islands and is of a minimal greater extent. The city’s proximity would prevent any possibility of a rising upon the guard. If any were to escape, the neighborhood could be put on the lookout for them by discharging a cannon, and their recapture would be almost inevitable.

I recommend this island – Johnson’s Island – as decidedly the best location for a depot I have seen. At this point, Hoffman tells of visits to Toledo and Cleveland but found places there unsatisfactory, too. To form an estimate of the cost and time necessary to establish a depot, I have assumed one-story wooden buildings framed, covered with shingles, ceiled overhead, and for officers, all round, with upright weatherboarding battened, would be most suitable and economical.

A facility 105 feet long, 24 feet broad, with 9-foot walls, divided into three rooms, heated by two stoves to each room, would accommodate 180 men and would cost $800. A building 112 feet long, 29 feet wide, contains twelve rooms, 14 by 16, divided into groups of four rooms by halls, would quarter 48 officers and would cost $1,100. It would lessen the cost somewhat to put two or three buildings of these dimensions together, and if they could be built two stories high, it would still diminish the price. With these estimates as the guide, the cost of all the buildings may be approximated.

A hospital, storehouses, and kitchens will be required, and probably mess rooms, as there will be scant room for eating in the quarters. The vicinity to Sandusky of Johnson’s Island would render it unnecessary to have large storehouses on the island. On the outer island, stores for three months would have to be kept on hand for the winter. For a depot on Johnson’s Island, I would suggest a substantial plank fence to enclose [sic] the ground on three sides, high open picketing closing the fourth toward the water for security in the wintertime.

A gate at one of the angles with a block-house sufficiently large for the guard. A small block-house also at the angle near the water to guard that front. Sentinels should be posted at appropriate points around the enclosure [sic] on elevated platforms so they could overlook the inside grounds. The quarters for the troops in charge should be outside.

Sandusky is a cheap and abundant market for lumber, and I have consulted with an experienced builder there who will give any required security to put up seventeen buildings of the kind I have described by the 10th of December and at the cost I have named, adding the cost of delivering the lumber on the island.

The guard for the depot should consist of 100 to 150 men. One officer and about thirty men would be required daily for guard service, and the duty should be performed most exactly. Both blockhouses should be armed with a small howitzer on a suitable carriage and canister ammunition. A guard boat is always required when the bay is free of ice. The prevalence of stormy weather at this season of the year along the lakeshore would significantly retard the work, and I doubt if the necessary buildings could be erected before the 1st of January.

Though I propose to heat the rooms with stoves, brick chimneys would be required for them, and brick furnaces or fireplaces would be needed in the kitchen. – Lieut. Col. Wm. Hoffman What Hoffman didn’t put into his report was that some of Sandusky’s businessmen who saw opportunities for trade accorded him a warm reception and offered substantial aid to the government he could not do otherwise than select Johnson’s Island.

In late 1861, Federal officials selected Johnson’s Island as the site for a prisoner of war camp to hold up to 2,500 captured Confederate officers. The 16.5-acre prison opened in April 1862. Filming has begun for a documentary about the war.


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