From 1862 to 1865, more than 10,000 Confederate inmates were held in the Johnson Island Civil War Prison. Some never left: about 250 white stones — a few with the stark engraving “unknown” — mark the nearby cemetery where men from Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and other southern states found their final resting place.
Save for a modest plaque designating the National Historic Landmark, there are few obvious traces of the nearly 17-acre former prison on the island’s eastern side.
But when the weather warms, schoolchildren, college students and researchers restart the painstaking archaeologicalexcavation begun more than two decades ago.
First, volunteers are needed to clear branches felled during the harsh winter and start work on a trail along the property. Today marks the ninth year the prison site has participated in the Civil War Trust’s Park Day, an event that draws thousands of volunteers to help maintain about 100 war sites across the country.
“A lot of these places have fairly small staff, and coming out of a winter, especially one like this past one, you have really major needs for upkeep and capital-improvement projects,” said Mary Koik, spokesman for the Civil War Trust in Washington. “Something like this really gives you the bodies to be able to do a new walking trail or repair your fences”
The island-work bee attracts about 80 volunteers from northern Ohio and even some surrounding states, and the military prison site is the only Ohio location participating in this year’s Park Day.
Under the watchful eye of David Bush, chairman of the nonprofit historic preservation organization Friends and Descendants of Johnson Island Civil War Prison, and director of Heidelberg University’s Center for Historic and Military Archaeology, work has progressed slowly to dig up and identify old objects buried there.
Bits and pieces pulled from the ground tell parts of the Civil War story: Nails, medicine bottles, ceramic plates and mugs, chimney bricks, chamber pots, and pieces of hard rubber carved by prisoners.
This season, archaeological work will continue at Block 8, a former housing block where about 250 prisoners were held.
A two-story wooden building measured about 125 feet by 29 feet, and through its wooden floorboard gaps fell debris researchers now try so carefully to collect.
After the war, the prison site was farmed until about 1950, then abandoned.