Escapes from Johnson’s Island
Those who planned to escape and those who actually did
In 1863 and 1864, there were many prisoners who thought about leaving Johnson’s Island, with or without being exchanged. One group consisted of escape planners who organized the men into five details or groups from the 12 prison blocks. General Trimble was the ranking officer in charge but would not participate, nor order the men to attempt the escape. The reason was that one of his legs was amputated at Gettysburg making it physically impossible for him participate. The generals in charge of the details were M. Jeff Thompson, James J. Archer, William N. R. Beall, John R. Jones, and John W. Frazer. Each of the five generals then chose ten colonels whom they knew and could trust. The colonels then chose ten officers each whom they knew to be trustworthy. In this way a force of 500 men that could be trusted was created. Of the many plans that were discussed, the one that was adopted consisted of rushing the main gate when it was opened for the wagon carrying goods shipped by the Express company; then overpowering the guards and then rushing and capturing the steamer that delivered the express packages from Sandusky. Perhaps this was the best mass escape plan since the guard garrison on duty was only half of the Hoffman Battalion, about 200 soldiers. Once the prisoners had control of the island, they would sail to Sandusky and capture boats at anchor in the harbor. The boats would then take all the prisoners to Canada which was only a few hours away. Unfortunately the escape was delayed for three days because one of the groups was not ready. On the third day, the escape attempt was abandoned when the U.S.S. Michigan, with her 14 cannon, steamed into Sandusky Bay and anchored off of Johnson’s Island.
There were twelve prisoners known to have escaped from Johnson’s Island. Many more tried to leave but were apprehended before leaving the island. It is difficult to determine the total number of escape attempts, as some men realized they would be caught and therefore returned to their blocks before being detected. At times, the entry in the remarks column of the list of prisoners simply said – not here, must have escaped. Most of the successful attempts were by deception – dressing in clothing similar to the guards and walking across the ice to Sandusky or Marblehead, thence to points south to the Confederacy or north to Canada.
One prisoner, Lt .Charles Pierce, 7th Louisiana, was the most persistent and unlucky prisoner when it came to escape attempts. His seven attempts included tunneling, scaling the stockade wall and crossing the ice to Cedar point, and two attempts posing as a Union guard. Unfortunately, he was caught every time and remained on the island until the war was over. In contrast to Pierce’s bad luck is the experience of 2nd Lieutenant D. Woodson of Company K of the 28th Virginia. He was captured at Green Castle, Pennsylvania on July 2, 1864. Fortunately for Woodson, he escaped in February of 1864, but the escape was not reported until June 30th, 1864. Apparently, his prison mess mates knew how to keep a secret while they enjoyed Woodson’s rations.
Another hard luck prisoner was Col. D.R. Hundley who was commander of the 31st. Alabama Infantry. On January 2, 1865, Hundley, dressed as one of the guards who called the role of the prisoners each day, slipped out of the stockade gate. The guards were distracted by friends of Hundley’s who started a fight just as he reached the gate. The morning was extremely cold, and Hundley pulled the cape of his outer coat around his head so that the guard at the gate could not recognize him. Once out of the stockade, he made his way to the ice and crossed Sandusky Bay to the city of Sandusky. At the railroad terminal, he had second thoughts about taking a train to Detroit because of the number of Union soldiers at the terminal. Instead he started to walk in the direction of Detroit, through a blinding snowstorm, following the railroad tracks. To his disappointment, after walking for four days, he came to the city of Fremont which was only about 25 miles southwest of Sandusky. He was able to convince a hotel night clerk that he had fought at the front, and the clerk gave him a room. However after seeing a wanted poster for another prisoner, the clerk alerted the local authorities about Hundley. After some sleep and two good meals, Hundley was arrested and returned to Johnson’s Island. Hundley remained on the island until he was released on July 25, 1865.
Escape to CanadaFour prisoners were successful in escaping from Johnson’s Island to Canada in January 1864. Their journey started by scaling the stockade wall on January 1, 1864, one of the coldest nights ever experienced by the prisoners while on the island. Six prisoners started, but only four made it all the way to Canada. Led by Major John R. Winston of North Carolina, the group scaled the stockade wall late in the evening, during the change of guard. One of the group, Major Stokes dropped out quickly because he felt he was not dressed warmly enough. Captain Thomas Stoakes set out by himself to cross Sandusky Bay after being seen by a guard. The remaining men, Major Winston, Captain G. H. Davis, Lt. C.C. Robinson and Captain J. H. McConnell, crossed the ice of Sandusky Bay to the Marblehead peninsula. They then walked to Port Clinton, stole two draft horses and eventually made it to Detroit without being detected. All that remained was to cross the Detroit River which was not frozen solid. They accomplished this by jumping from ice slab to ice slab and finally set foot in Canada.
All information from web site:http://www.johnsonsisland.org/history/war.htm