Historical Collections of Ohio
Henry Howe LL.D.
Three miles north of Sandusky, in her land-locked bay, lies Johnson's
Island. Its area is about 300 acres; nearly a mile long and half that
in breadth, gradually rising in the center to a height of fifty feet.
It was originally covered with heavy timber, and a favorite resort of
the Indians, who came here in the fishing season, engaged in
festivities, and brought their captives for torture.
Its first owner was E.W. Bull, and it was called Bull's Island until
1852, when it was purchased by L.B. Johnson and its name changed to
In 1811 an effort was made to found a town on the island, and steps
taken to lay out village lots; the custom house of the port was located
here, but the attempt was unsuccessful and abandoned.
In 1861 the property was leased by the government as a depot for rebel
prisoners. The necessary buildings having been erected, the first
prisoners were installed in their quarters in April 1962, under the
charge of Company A, Hoffman Battalion, which was subsequently
increased to a full regiment, the 128th O.V.I.
The number of prisoners was constantly varying, the largest number at
any one time being over 3,000; but from the period of its establishment
until the close of the war, over 15,000 rebels were confined here, and
owing to its supposed security, the prisoners were largely composed of
As the war progressed floating rumors of an intended rescue by rebel
sympathizers in Canada came to the ears of the Federal authorities, and
the steamer, "Michigan" the only United States war vessel on Lake
Erie, was stationed here. In September, 1864, a conspiracy was
concocted to release the prisoners, at that time numbering about
2,400, arm them, burn Sandusky, Cleveland and other defenseless lake
cities, secure horses, ride through Ohio, raiding the country on the
route, and join the rebel army in Virginia; at the same time the
"Michigan" was to be captured and co-operate with the released
prisoners on land. The narrative of the occurrences which follows is
abridged from that in the "Lake Shore Magazine."
John Yates Beall, a Virginian of great wealth and a graduate of
Virginia University, called the "Pirate of Lake Erie," was the prime
mover in this conspiracy, and was aided in the enterprise by that arch
traitor and fiend, Jacob Thompson, the agent of the Confederate
September 19, 1864, the steamer "Philo Parsons," plying between
Detroit, Sandusky and the adjacent islands, was boarded at Sandwich on
the Canadian shore by four men, and at Malden by twenty more, who
brought an old trunk with them. No suspicions were aroused, as large
numbers of fugitives were constantly traveling to and from Canada at
that time. After leaving Kelley's Island, the clerk, who was in
command of the boat, was suddenly confronted by four men with revolvers
pointed at his head, the old trunk was opened, the whole party armed
themselves, and with Beall at their head took possession of the boat.
Her course was altered and turned back to Middle Bass Island. here the
"Island Queen," a boat plying among the islands, came alongside; she
was immediately boarded, and although her Captain (G.W. Orr) made a
determined resistance, she was soon at the mercy of the conspirators,
together with a large number of passengers. The engineer of the "Queen"
refusing to do the bidding of the captors, was shot through the cheek.
But no discourtesy was offered to any one of us beyond the absolute
necessity of the case, the conspirators being largely educated men and
from the best families of the South.
An oath of secrecy for twenty-four hours was extorted from the
passengers, and they were then put ashore, the Captain of the "Queen"
being retained as pilot, a capacity in which he refused to act. The two
steamers were then lashed together and put off toward Sandusky; but
after proceeding a few miles the "Island Queen" was scuttled and the
"Parsons" continued alone; she did not enter, but cruised around the
mouth of Sandusky Bay, waiting for the signal from the conspirators on
land. That part of the plot had, however, failed.
A confederate officer named Cole, to whom the operations at Sandusky
had been entrusted, had, as a Titusville oil man, been figuring very
largely in social circles, a liberal entertainer, giving wine suppers
and spending money very freely. He had formed the acquaintance of the
officers of the "Michigan" and had invited them to a wine supper on the
evening of September 19th. The wine was drugged, and when the officers
had succumbed to it a signal was to notify Beall, who was then to make
the attack on the "Michigan," But Cole had performed his part of the
plan in such a bungling manner that the suspicions of the officers were
aroused and the commanding officer of the "Michigan," Capt. Carter,
arrested him on suspicion at the very moment when success seemed
In the meanwhile Beall and his comrades waited outside the bay for the
signal; but, as the time for it passed by and it was not given, they
realized that the plot had failed, and made for the Canadian shore,
passing Middle Bass Island, where he had left the "Island Queen" and
"Parson's" passengers, who saw the "Parsons" pass "with fire pouring
out of her smokestacks, and making for Detroit like a scared
pickerel." The captain and others who had been kept to manage the
"Parsons" were put off on an uninhabited island, and when the Canadian
shore was reached, she was scuttled and the conspirators disbanded.
This daring venture excited great consternation among the lake cities
and served to call attention to their defenseless condition.
Beall was captured a few months later, near Suspension Bridge, charged
with being a spy both in Ohio and New York, also with an attempt to
throw an express train from the track between Dunkirk and Buffalo. He
confessed to much of the evidence brought against him, was found guilty
and hung on Governor's Island, February 24, 1865.
Cole, after being arrested managed to warn his accomplices in
Sandusky, of whom he had a great number, and who, thus warned,
escaped arrest. He himself was confined for some time on board the
"Michigan," afterward transferred to the island, then to Fort
Lafayette in September 1865, and was ultimately released after the
close of the war.
The treatment of the rebel prisoners on Johnson's Island was considerate
even to the verge of indulgence; their wants were said to have been
better filled than those of the soldiers guarding them; this was owing
to their being supplied plentifully with money by their friends; they
were well fed, clothed and housed and were allowed every privilege
consistent with security.
The prisoners were all confined within an enclosure of about eighteen
acres surrounded by a stockade eighteen feet high, made of plank, with
a platform near the top, about four feet wide, where the sentinels
walked. This is shown in the engraving. At the east and west corner
was a block-house with small brass cannon. The soldiers' and officers'
quarters of the guard were at the left of the enclosure. The open space
shown by the flag was the parade ground. On the left of the road was a
line of small buildings, hucksters, shops, etc. Beyond appears Fort
Hill. It was an earthwork and mounted a few guns. The graveyard was in
the grove on the extreme right, where to this day are relics.