Q&A 2002

Even as they dug, the site’s future became increasingly uncertain (see “Saving a Civil War Prison,” March/April 2002). We asked Bush about excavations on Johnson’s Island and the risks the landmark faces from development.

David Bush

David Bush joined Heidelberg College's Center for Historic and Military Archaeology in 1998 to focus exclusively on the Johnson's Island Prisoner of War Depot. He is also chairman of the Friends and Descendents of Johnson's Island, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of this National Historic Landmark site.

How did you first become interested in Johnson’s Island?

David Bush: I began my research at Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War Depot in response to a compliance issue for an Army Corps of Engineers permit. This was in 1989, and I immediately recognized the research potential of the site. After conducting the initial surveys to identify where the site was located, I began to develop research about it that have taken me to the present time.

What have the excavations on Johnson’s Island told us about prison life during the Civil War?

David Bush: We have conducted investigations at Block 6, the prison hospital to explore the medical treatment of the prisoners. We discovered that they appeared to have access to both Union pharmaceuticals as well as purchasing patent medicines. Over the course of the 40 months the prison was in use, the amount of access, according to the archaeological record, diminishes.

Our investigations of Block 8 also revealed harsher conditions towards 1864 and early 1865. You may ask how can we be so specific about these dates archaeologically; and the answer is that the latrines that the prisoners used behind the blocks were only used for a short period of time and then filled in. We have been able to arrange the latrines that we have thus far explored chronologically, and therefore can then trace the access the prisoners had to various types of material culture, and then speculate what that meant about their living conditions.

  • We have recovered parasites in the latrines, telling us of some of the illness that prisoners suffered that was not recorded.
  • We discovered tunnels running from the latrines which were not previously known.
  • We have found many hundreds of items related to the prisoners craftworking activities. This is the largest and most complete account of prisoner craft during the Civil War
  • We have learned precisely where the prisoners obtained their items for their craft industry, especially the hard rubber items
  • We can document just how the prisoners’ affluence is reflected in the archaeological record
  • We have discovered personal items from prisoners like J. C. Lee of the 15th Arkansas.
  • We discovered various glass items in the 1860s latrines that were not thought to have been made until after 1870.

Every day we seem to discover something new about the prison. We have such a large assemblage of material culture from the prisoners that it will cause Civil War re-enactors to reconsider just what can be appropriate attire.

You’re still digging at the site, what kind of questions are guiding your current excavations?

David Bush: I seem to use the proverbial “we” when I discuss questions about Johnson’s Island. I guess I have been the one directing all the investigations, but I have been influenced by the thousands of people that have participated in the studies over the years. We have all learned so much from the site.

This year we are continuing to look at Block 4. This is our third year excavating in and around this block. I have been fortunate enough to have records sent to me from various prisoners that were housed in Block 4, which makes our investigations that much more interesting. For instance, Lieutenant Robert Smith of the 61th Tennessee was one of Block 4’s occupants. He made a camera and took pictures of the prisoners at the prison, but did this out of Block 4. He was also an expert jeweler, and made beautiful brooches, rings, buttons, and necklaces. He noted in his diary that he made a set of cuff buttons for General Trimble. The work at Block 4 is to continue to gather data on the actual day to day activities of the prisoners. This year, we are specifically trying to locate the back of the block, as well as explore what specific activities were going on outside of the block between the back wall and the “dead line,” beyond which prisoners could be shot.

What emotions does the site evoke? There’s a definite “hallowed ground” feel to battlefields like Antietam and Gettysburg, is Johnson’s Island similar?

Locket from Block 8 – Fall, 1864

David Bush: Each person experiences Johnson’s Island in their own way. Each day as we discover different things, the reactions of those that are there varies. However, in almost every case, there is always that sense that we are bringing back to life the experiences of those that were held prisoner there, as well as those that were the guard. When you handle an item, such as a ring, that was last worn by a Confederate Officer during the Civil War, it is an incredible feeling of connection. It connects us with the lives of people that were so far from home, so desperate to find out about their family, so discouraged about the prospect of ever getting off that northern island.

We are lucky that the site area of the prison compound is screened from the rest of the island by a forested bank. Because of this, we don’t seen the modern homes as a constant reminder of our twenty-first century existence. We can for a while transport ourselves back in time and truly explore the activities and choices of POWs from the Civil War.

I will never forget when one of the Earthwatch volunteers discovered a locket. As we opened it up, the copper of the locket had preserved braided hair, neatly coiled and tied with a ribbon. It brought tears to the volunteer’s eyes, as she thought of the pain that prisoner suffered.

Have any of the field-school students been descendants of POWs or guards? Or have any such visited the place?

David Bush: One of our Heidelberg College students, Kelly Hockersmith, who graduated from the Anthropology Department and is now in graduate school, was a descendant of Captain L. D. Hockersmith, a member of Morgan’s Raiders that was imprisoned at Johnson’s Island. We have had many descendants come to the site and visit the cemetery as well as the archaeological investigations. Each year, Pat and Carol Cates work with us at the site, and they are the descendants of Captain John Reece of the 1st Confederate Infantry of Tennessee. I can’t even imagine what goes through their minds as they actually dig into their family’s past.

What happens to the artifacts after you’ve dug them up? Any thoughts about an on-site museum?

David Bush: The artifacts are currently being curated at Heidelberg College at the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology facility. The landowner has a long-term loan agreement with the college. It is difficult to speculate about an on-site museum, although I would personally love to see one. However, the island is privately owned and the landowners are not excited about having lots of tourists on the island. The perfect place for one would be in the town of Marblehead, which could also serve as a place to stage visits to the island.

Can you tell us a little about the recent history of development on the island?

David Bush: In the late 1800s, a limestone quarry on the island destroyed almost all of the archaeological remains associated with the Union guard. It removed some of Fort Hill, and almost all of the remaining building sites from the 128th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Little else happened to the island until housing developments started.

The original housing development, called Johnson’s Island Development, started in the 1950s, but did not truly take off until a causeway was built to provide vehicle access to the island in the early 1970s. The perimeter of the island was developed, causing the shore side of the prison compound to be developed with houses. However, the majority of the block sites were to the rear, and have been preserved.

Since 1989, the Baycliffs development has created single family housing on much of the interior of the island, especially around the perimeter of the quarry. This is the first truly planned development, and the only one on the island that has considered the impacts to the Civil War prison site. However, the development is now encroaching on the major remaining components of the prison. These are the two fortifications and prison compound.

What kind of threat is the site facing now?

Historical picture of Fort Hill
Historical picture of Fort Hill

David Bush: The threat is from the housing development. The developer has been very cooperative, but cannot hold onto the remaining property. He needs to either sell it to a historic preservation organization, or sell it for housing. Currently, Fort Hill has been almost totally lost. There were three housing lots that made up Fort Hill, and two have been sold, and one already has a house on it. The remaining lot contains the powder magazine and one of the gun mounts. It is a tragedy that this will be lost. It held a very prominent position on the island.

The threat to the prison compound and Fort Johnson is just as serious. The developer is facing financial difficulties, and may have to foreclose in the very near future. If this happens, then it is quite unclear what will happen to the remaining portion of the prison compound and Fort Johnson that are still preserved.

What are the long-term goals for the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island?

David Bush: The Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island (FDJI) is committed to secure as much of the Prison Compound and fortifications (currently approximately 16.5 acres) either through direct acquisition or by preservation easements. Acquisition and maintenance of the remaining Prison Compound and Fort Johnson are of immediate concern and will be the main focus of the FDJI for the first two years. FDJI recognizes the great historical and archaeological research ongoing and is dedicated to continuing these activities. Educational goals include the continuance of the Experiential Learning Program in Historical Archaeology through Heidelberg College for primary and secondary school students, the Summer Archaeological Field School for undergraduate college students, and various adult continuing educational programs including teacher workshops. Interpretative goals, a very necessary part of this groups mandate, will be undertaken in consultation with the property owners of Johnson’s Island ensuring maintenance of all property rights.

A complete mission statement is at www.johnsonsisland.com.

What kind of response has your nonprofit received since you formed it last year?

David Bush: We have received over 220 donations from members of the interested public, from descendants, and from various foundations. As noted earlier, we are endorsed by the only nationally recognized Civil War preservation organization, the Civil War Preservation Trust, as well as the Archaeological Conservancy and the Archaeological Institute of America. We have had national coverage of our efforts, and continue to promote our efforts through venues like this one. Although we have received many words of encouragement, we still are in need of the finances to complete our purchase of the property.

If the property is purchased by the Friends and Descendants Johnson’s Island, what kind of management plan will you put in place?

David Bush: We plan to immediately take care of some of the threats to the site, and then enter into a five-year planning process. Working with local and national historical concerns as well as with the island residents, and local and state politicians, we hope to arrive at a historic preservation management plan that will protect the historic integrity of this National Historic Landmark. It will require careful planning to ensure the integrity of the site is maintained without major disruption to the rest of the island residents. For further information about the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island, you can connect to www.johnsonsisland.com.