Island History – Civil War Era
Letters to and from Confederate Prisoners
Confederate Prisoners on Johnson’s Island were allowed to send and receive letters on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there was a rule that required the letters be no more than one page. This was true for both outgoing and incoming letters. Supposedly, all letters were examined by censors and any letter over one page was considered to be contraband and therefore not delivered to the prisoner. This rule led to prisoners using every square inch of the page to write their messages. At times the letters greater than one page were removed from the cover, and the empty cover was sent to the prisoner. When General M. Jeff Thompson was imprisoned on Johnson’s Island in September of 1863, he took steps to eliminate the one page rule. He struck a deal with those censoring the letters. Long letters were to be read by the censors in the evening rather than during the day. Thompson would see that they received two and one-half cents per page for each page read. The censors agreed, but the matter had to be kept secret. This worked well as the censors were able to make several dollars more per day than their pay. However, the scheme fell apart when a prisoner complained to the prison commandant that he had to pay a dime tax to receive a four page letter. After the matter was investigated, the long letter mail was stopped.
The letters transcribed herein are only a few samples of the many letters written by prisoners. Several of both the original letter and transcription are displayed at the Johnson’s Island Museum in Marblehead, Ohio.
Prisoners requesting that money be sent to them had to first receive permission from the commander of the prison to make the request. The following letter, dated Dec. 20th, 1864, was written for that purpose and shows how the prisoner applied for permission. Any money that the prisoners received was removed from the letters and kept by the Commandant. The prisoners could then buy goods at the prison sutler’s store, and the amount would be deducted from the money held by the Commandant.
Dec 20th, 1864
Col E A Schovile,
I have the honor to apply through you to the Commander of this Post for permission to receive Thirty (30) Dollars from my uncle in Ky (who is anxious to send me the same) I am in great need of the above amount to defray expenses.
Yours most Respectfully,
L L Stanford
Capt. 3rd Ga. Cav
Block 4 Mess1 Co 7
Dec 25th 1864
You will see that I have the approval of the Commander of the Post to receive from you Thirty Dollars, which you will please send me. My health is now Good; I have been sick since I last wrote you, and was compelled to use what little money I had . I know that it will give you
pleasure to furnish me. I will remunerate you in the future.
My love to all the family. Your Nephew. Capt 3rd Ga Cav
Reverse side of letter
Application of Capt.
L.L. Stanford to receive
Officer Supt. Prison Money.
Dec 21st 1864 __ __ __ __ __
E A Scovill (Signed)
Lt. Col. 128th O.V.I.
H’d Qrs. U. S. Forces
Johnsons Island, Ohio,
By Command of
Col. C. W. Hill
J. H. Huntington
Capt of a.a.a. Genl.
The next letter was written by L. D. Hatch to Sergeant W. W. Powers of the 8th Alabama Cavalry. Powers was a prisoner at Camp Douglas near Chicago. The letter expresses Hatch’s desire to have news of those from the 8th Alabama Cavalry so he can relay it to their families. Letters from one prison to another prison are somewhat rare. Many times they were written to inquire about the condition of relatives who were also prisoners.
Johnsons Island Ohio March 29th 1865
Your letter of the 22nd instant reached me by yesterday morning mail. I was very glad to hear from you so promptly and to know that you are getting on comfortably for a prisoner. For several months we
suffered here very much for something to eat, but all restrictions have now been taken off the sutler and we are living well. I hope your rheumatism has deserted you before this. The extreme cold of last winter and the changeableness of the climate has been a severe shock to many of our men. I notice a great deal of sickness especially among the
Prisoners captured at Nashville. Nearly all of them have suffered with rheumatism or pneumonia since their arrival. You must keep me posted about your condition and that of other members of the regt with you so that I can send word to your families by every opportunity. A friend leaves here on exchange tomorrow and I will send word to your wife how you are. I have rec’d no later news from home that 6th February and will write you when ever I hear anything. Capt Wescott left here last week for
Greensboro. I have good reason to believe that I will go about three weeks hence. If you should leave be sure to write me. I wish you would write to Wightman. I have not heard from him in some time. Harrison Hutchison and Britton all well and send their regards.
Your true friend,
L. D. Hatch
The next letter is from a POW on Johnson’s Island, R. C. Champson, to Captain B. N. Cocke, imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland. The letter is typed as it was written, including misspelled words and lack of punctuation. Most likely Captain Cocke was transferred from Johnson’s Island to Point Lookout to be exchanged. The reference to General Terry’s cousin is that he became the prison sutler and sold goods from the store inside the prison stockade. General Terry was Commandant of the prison for approximately four months in the spring of 1864. More importantly, he brought additional infantry regiments with him to guard the prison and repel any attempt to raid Johnson’s Island by Confederates marching across the ice of Lake Erie from Canada.
A listing for a Captain B. N. Cocke was not found in the General Registers of Prisoners for Johnson’s Island. However, there is a listing for a Capt. B. M. Coke of the 7th Missouri who was captured at Helena, Arkansas, sent to Johnson’s Island, and then transferred to Point Lookout, February 10th, 1864.
Johnsons island Ohio March the 28th / 64
In reply to yours of the 17th I tells you that we are all well and glad to hear that you are having a good time and some prospect of getting off to Dixie. As for the beans there is some on hand yet. Cap I must confess that I never thought of any box coming to you and neglected to look at the letter before forwarding it. Here is another, I will not do anything more. Andy says that them buiscuitts was for a full meal and the worst of all he had me and little Joe to help him and we did our part – and more too; as for making pictures when we get to Dixie I’ll do anything to accommodate you and amuse the ladies. Success to Col SS and GH the same to all your inquiry is not comprehendible though we know of Dixie being invaded by scouts from Jons Isle since you left here. I think you have better have sent
Dolan some pennywinkles or snakes as they would have been more
nourishing to the Duck though I sepose she is fond of mass to if she had enough to weddle in. Genl Terys cousin is settling here now and sells anything Mr Johnson says he is coming in tomorrow to. Some of the boys ask him if he would have any pictures. He sayed he wouldn’t so it will be impossible for me to obtain them for you though I would be glad to accomadate you Dolan says thank you. It is the very trick he wanted. Kelly says mention all the boys and let us know what they are doing Peat anyhow excuse incompotency yours as ever. R. C. Champson
One way for a prisoner to leave Johnson’s Island was to take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States. The prisoner had to first apply to take the Oath. He was then segregated from the prison population and assigned to a separate prison block. This was done for the safety of those taking the Oath as they were repudiating their loyalty to the Confederacy. Until 1865, only a small number of prisoners took the Oath because of their fierce devotion and loyalty to the cause for which they were fighting. However, in the Spring of 1865, many prisoners did take the Oath, feeling the cause for which they fought so hard was dead. The following letter written by prisoner Tom Wallace shows that “swallowing the eagle” (taking the oath) was not done without a great deal of soul searching.
Tom Wallace was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Kentucky Regiment and was captured at Bardstown, Kentucky on July 6th, 1863. He was transferred from Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio to Johnson’s Island on October 10th, 1863. He was released on his oath on June 11, 1865.
U. S. Military Prison
Johnson’s Island _ May 1st 1865
My dear mother,
Perhaps you may be surprised when I tell you that I have made application for the “amnesty oath”. I think that most all of my comrades have or will do as I have. I don’t think that I have done wrong, I had no idea of taking the oath until I heard of the surrender of Johnston and then I thought it worse than foolish to wait any longer. The cause that I have espoused for four years and have been as true to, in thought and action, as man could be is now undoubtedly dead; consequently I think the best thing I can do is to become a quiet citizen of the United States. I will probably be released from prison sometime this month, if so I will go home immediately via Cincinnati. I wrote to Mr Barret for a hundred dollars and to you for a suit of citizens clothes, both of which I will have to wait the arrival of. Your letter of the 20th reached me yesterday. I will take your advice about sending home whatever I have that is worth
shipping. Please write to me immediately and inform me where your home is, so that upon my arrival at New Albany I will have no difficulty in finding it. Love to all.
Your devoted son,