Letters & Diaries

Letters from prisoners offer great insight into how the prison was being viewed by its unwilling occupants.

This letter from a prisoner named Thomas Skinner was written just five days after the prison had opened. It is very informative letter and one of the earliest examples of prison letters.


Johnson’s Island April 15, 1862

Dear Pa,

I was very sorry indeed that I had to leave Camp Chase just at the time when I was most looking for you to visit me. Camp Chase is not to be compared at all with this place neither in health or comfort. Although we had to forsake a great many things in the furniture line (such as chairs tables plates cups dishes &etc. and also a Negro boy that we had hired who was a splendid cook) I think the Comforts of this place will compensate for them all. This must be a very healthy climate. There is always a cool invigorating breeze from the lake such as I never felt before. We are almost three miles from Sandusky, Ohio. Sandusky is a very nice looking place. We, being the first Secesh they had ever seen. I have purchased such clothes as I most needed with the money you sent me. I will copy from my book my expenses since I have been a prisoner and send to you. I would be very glad to see you if you will be permitted to come. We are in very comfortable quarters only four in a room the houses are two storys high large windows and are plenty nice for soldiers. Write to me soon and often give me all the news. Why Dint Jim Murphy write to me Aunt Lilly and Aunt Marion Belle. Give My love to all the Family

I remain Your Affectionate Son
Thos. C. Skinner.

Direct Your letters as follows
Thos Skinner
(Care Maj. Pierson)

Another aspect of our investigation includes diary readings from prisoners and guards who were at Johnson’s Island. A selection from these readings is posted here.

These excerpts are taken from the diary of William Peel of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, occupant of Block 8 at Johnson’s Island. He was a Lieutenant captured at Gettysburg.

16th [April 1864]
News from Forrest today is pretty stirring. He is reported to have captured Ft. Pillow on the 12 inst. He had previously demanded the surrender of the Ft. offering the rights of Prisoners of War to the white soldiers, while the slaves-of which there were some 200 there in arms, who had been recruited in Ga.-found in arms should be returned to their masters; but if he had the place to take by assault, no protection was guaranteed to negro soldiers.
They refused to surrender, leaving him to storm the Fort. The result is pictured by the Yankee press as a horrible massacre. The place seems to have been garrisoned 600 men, 400 of whom were killed many of them brutally butchered after they surrendered. All the negroes but 7 or 8 were killed or buried alive. Some–in the latter case–having “scratched-out” & are now in Hospital at Paducah. A number of women and children there in camps & schools are represented to have been killed.
We are not bound to believe all of these statements, for we know news papers in general & those of the Yankees in particular, don’t always confine themselves strictly to the truth. If such were the case, we would have been exchanged long ago. Indeed the war would have been ended sometime since, for the papers have had the rebellion “crushed” at least a hundred times.
Today’s paper contains quite a lengthy speck by Mr. Long in which, as far from retracting any of his former sentiments, he come out in still plainer terms.

26th [April 1864]
I was favored, by the morning mail, with a package of late Baltimore papers, accompanied by a letter from Miss Dona. The letter informed me that I had fallen into another egregious blunder in my correspondence with her. It will be remembered that I recd., by express a few weeks since, a couple of anonymous – if the expression is admissible – boxes. I was somewhat perplexed to decide exactly from whom they had come, but being unable to settle it elsewhere than on Mrs. M + Miss Dona,+ ,as I had written but a day or two previous to the former lady, I at once determined to pour my store of gratitude at the feet of Miss Dona, content, for the time being, through her to express my thanks to Mrs. M.
My letter today leaves me almost as much in the back ground as ever, simply informing me that Miss Dona “was not the good angel who sent me the box of good things” but that “the credit – was entirely due a fair lady, with blue eyes + light hair.” This is a partial picture of Miss Maggie, but to write to her would be another “leap in the dark”. Shall I make it?

18th [May 1864]
I find myself in a very bad state of health today. I had a chill before daylight this morning and fever until a late hour of the forenoon. Dr. Latimer came in and gave me an enormous dose of blue mass and I have been in bed all day, until late this ?? when I felt compelled to get up and answer Miss Dona’s letter, and acknowledge the receipt of my box.
We are told today that we will not be allowed to receive, hereafter, any Copperhead papers. None but Black Republican are to be allowed us I suppose.
Reports rec’d today are highly encouraging to us. Banks is said to have surrendered his army to Kirby Smith on the 4th ??, while Grant, when last heard from, was in retreat. Rumors from Gen. Johnson are not so favorable. Gen’l Sherman is said to be crowding him back.

22nd [May 1864]
Being still the victim of the slow fever which has been annoying me for several days past, I remained in bed until 11 oclock; at which hour a congregation had began to assemble, at our Block, for worship. Col. Lewis was to preach, + the house was soon full, + many were unable to get in. In order that all might be accommodated, they moved out into the yard, + there beneath the broad ethereal expanse–for forty years the only temple of the wandering tribe of Israel–the vertical rays of the noonday’s sun tempered by light grey clouds that hovered over, as if sent for the purpose-they preyed +sang hymns of praise to Heaven, + the minister, with that flow of eloquence that ever awaits his bidding, pointed the children of the world to the Lamb of God, + represented in a forcable [sic] manner, the importance of prisoners, here + elsewhere, making continued + earnest endeavors to move the Arm Omnipotent in behalf of our suffering country.

31st [May 1864]
Grant is reported to be within four hours march of Richmond, but I imagine, as indeed do the papers that make this representations of affairs, that he will scarcely reach the long-sought city in so short a period. He has yet a couple of Hills to climb, + a powerful Longstreet to traverse; + besides obstacles, it has generally proven disastrous to such crafts as that which Grant commands, to drift too far Leeward, which I rather think Gen’l. Grant has already done.
As I was taking my usual evening walk down on “Suttler’s lawn”, I was attracted by a tremendous yelling up on the street. I suspected the cause, for the boat had just come over, + on approaching the crowd, learned, sure-nough
[sic], that some half a dozen prisoners had come in.
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.

Lieutenant Peel died at Johnson’s Island and is buried in the Confederate Cemetery there.

From the Diary of Robert Smith, occupant of Block 4 at Johnson’s Island:

30th [April 1864]
Saturday- Pleasant. I made a beautiful breast pin verigated shell with scoliped gurta-percha [hard rubber] border. I received a letter from George of date March 10, 1864.

Breast pin made by Robert Smith

Breast pin made by Robert Smith

6th [May 1864]
Friday- I have made three finger rings today which I intend carrying to Dixie (set with gold).

One of the finger rings Smith took back to Dixie

One of the finger rings Smith took back to Dixie