Johnson’s Island, unlike most Civil War prisons, was actually built as a prison, rather than being converted from some other use. As such, it was one of the best Union prisoner of war camps. Situated a mile offshore in Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie, it was originally conceived as a facility for officers only – explaining its many private rooms – but with the breakdown of the exchange agreement, it soon held up to 2300 prisoners, of whom all but 59 were Confederate officers. They organized into messes, enjoyed good barracks, and had a very low death rate. Because the prison was built on an island, it was generally considered near escape-proof – give or take the times that Lake Erie froze over, allowing a dozen prisoners to escape.
The most notable event in the prison’s history, however, was the “Lake Erie Conspiracy,” an elaborate plot which involved boarding a local steamer on the morning of September 19, 1864, overpowering the crew and, when face to face with a Union gunboat guarding the prison, overtaking that too - except that before boarding the gunboat, the Southern raiders turned back to get more fuel, encountered a Union steamer, overtook that, put her stunned passengers ashore on an island, and towing the vessel, set out for the prison again. On route the towed vessel was set adrift, however, and for reasons never explained, the mission was aborted; which, from the view of conspirators, was lucky, because a Confederate deserter had alerted the Federals of the plot, and both the gunboat guarding Johnson’s Island, and the prison itself, were lying in wait.
In any case, the conspirators made landfall in Canada, and scattered – to no avail. One of the mission’s leaders was picked up the next day; the other was at large. This, then, was probably the report which Lincoln heard from General Hitchcock, twelve days after the escape attempt, and that he directed be heard, next, by the Secretary of the Navy: “Hon. Sec. of Navy,” Lincoln writes here on October 2nd, “please see and hear Gen. Hitchcock who has just returned from Johnson's Island.”
The escape attempt, which was led by Confederate naval officers Charles H. Cole and John Yeats Buell, would see Cole imprisoned for a year and Buell, who managed to elude capture for four months, executed for piracy and spying.
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, duodecimo, no place [Washington, D.C.]. October 2, 1864. To Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
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