News Column

Hayes Museum exhibit exhumes prison life during the Civil War

June 1, 2014

By Rose Russell, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio



June 01--FREMONT -- The violin on display at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Museum in this Ohio community of 17,000 may not be a Stradivarius, but its origin and existence reach back in time.

The instrument in the museum's latest exhibit, "Privy to History: Civil War Prison Life Unearthed," was carved with a pocket knife by a Confederate officer from a pile wood found on the grounds at Johnson's Island. The violin is a part of the finds from an archeological dig where a 16-acre military prison built to house 2,500 Confederate officers once stood on the island in Sandusky Bay in Lake Erie.

The instrument's owner, W.C. Stephens, was a prisoner of war.

The violin is among many war artifacts uncovered by an archaeological team led by David Bush, who chairs the Friends and Descendants of Johnson'sIsland Civil War Prison. Also in the exhibit is jewelry that inmates made from hard rubber, diaries that chronicle the prisoners' daily lives, and handbills for plays the inmates put on to entertain themselves.

There's a toothbrush made from cattle femurs with boar hair bristles, and a camera made by an inmate named Robert Smith who took pictures for inmates to send to relatives in the South. The lens in the camera came from the spy glass that Confederate soldiers used to peer on their Union enemies.

Constructed in 1861, its first residents incarcerated in 1862 -- the inmates at Johnson Island were treated well for a time, and they took advantage of it. As educated men of means, Mr. Bush says the dig suggests the prisoners had little to fear.

"It helps demonstrate the fact that at different times they were treated more humanely than at other times," he said.

"One of the lessons I've learned from working at the site for 26 years now is that the prisoner of war experience is really personal," said Mr. Bush, who added that working at the site and reading uncovered diaries made it much more personal for him.

He wants visitors to the exhibit and site to be as moved as he has been as he has unearthed the inmates' stories. Though the title of his book, I Fear I Shall Never Leave this Island, comes from one of several sets of letters between an imprisoned officer and his wife, it fits the anthropology professor at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, who has conducted investigations on the island for more than two decades.

And Mr. Bush is still finding items on the island, a National Historic Landmark. Within the last few weeks, found part of a black presidential pipe, more pieces of hard rubber jewelry, and a gold hairpin that was used to secure a pair of eyeglasses, he said.

Nancy Kleinhenz, communications manager at the Hayes museum, said most of the artifacts were unearthed from latrines at the site. She said the island proved to be a good site for a prison because it minimized chances for prisoners to escape. Not that they didn't try; a rope ladder in the exhibit is proof of that.

Ms. Kleinhenz said the Civil War items will be on exhibit through Jan. 4, 2015. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for persons age 60 and older, and $3 for children, ages 6 to 12. Information: http://www.rbhayes.org/hayes/

Contact Rose Russell at rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.

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(c)2014 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

Visit The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) at www.toledoblade.com

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Source: Blade (Toledo, OH)


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