Johnson’s Island

Johnson’s Island

A Prison for Confederate Officers

Roger Pickenpaugh

Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2016, 123 pages

Book Review published on: April 14, 2017

The toll of human suffering in the American Civil War is chronicled in this account of the famous Union prison at Johnson’s Island. Roger Pickenpaugh delivers a compelling account of the life cycle of the Johnson Island prison from October 1861 to June 1866. From the establishment through the closing, he exposes the reader to the struggles from both sides of the fence through the vision and words of those who were there. He addresses the efforts to administer and operate a prison within a fledgling system not yet equipped physically or conceptually to deal with prisoners.

The Union recognized early on the need for a commissary general of prisoners to ensure their security and proper welfare. However, there were no established facilities, available experienced leaders, or logistical infrastructures to fill the void. Instead, the desire to obtain the cheapest property, combined with thrifty leadership led to the establishment of Johnson’s Island.

Pickenpaugh illuminates the difficulties involved in the parole and exchange programs that caught thousands of prisoners, on both sides, in the middle. While the Union would not officially recognize the Confederate States of America, by 1862 they entered into an agreement based on the calculated worth of various ranks. He details the thoughts and effects on the men imprisoned at Johnson’s Island as this exchange system collapsed from a myriad of responses to policy changes on both sides.

Additionally, the book delves into the daily life of the prisoners, escape attempts, and executions. Moreover, it provides an in-depth discussion of the struggle to maintain both the medical and sanitary conditions in the prison. One of the most fascinating aspects was the reciprocity enacted by the Union in regard to Confederate prisoners. The deplorable conditions and treatment of Union soldiers held in the South resulted in an official policy of retaliation. This policy ordered the reduction of rations, the elimination of condiments and a restriction on supplemental provisioning, this led to prisoners consuming rats to survive.

Lastly, Pickenpaugh delves into the difficult decision that faced each prisoner at the end of the war; whether to take the oath of allegiance or remain steadfast to the Confederacy. Although they were sad at the loss, they were elated to know they would soon go home. Of note is the prisoners’ respect and saddened response to the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

Book Review written by: Maj. Vincent P. Particini, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas