Battlefield Markers & Monuments: Johnson Island & McPherson’s Grave

Emerging Civil War welcomes back Frank Jastrzembski to share about a recent trip and his musings on historical graveyard markers.

My wife reluctantly agreed to go on another of my weekend cemetery hunts. Only a few weeks before, we had taken another couple to visit Brevet Brigadier-General Orland Smith’s grave in Green Lawn Cemetery after a day at the Columbus Zoo. The best season to visit old cemeteries in Ohio is the fall. For our next trip, we headed west to hit both the Confederate cemetery on Johnson Island in Sandusky Bay and General James B. McPherson’s grave in Clyde, Ohio (a forty minute drive between the two).

Johnson Island Cemetery

This wasn’t the first time I had heard of the Johnson Island cemetery or of the prisoner-of-war camp. I had regrettably never made a point to visit the cemetery. I can now say that I had overlooked the most interesting cemetery in Ohio.

I like to visit the graves of Civil War generals since I live in Cleveland, Ohio, far from most Civil War battlefields. I find cemeteries just as fascinating as museums or battlefields. Most people find cemeteries creepy, but they have the opposite effect for me. How else can you get any closer to these historical figures?

We decided to take a day trip to Johnson Island on the first weekend of October to see what it was all about. It couldn’t have been a better day to travel; a nice breeze, leaves changing to all kinds of stunning colors, and plenty of sunshine. I made the same drive along OH-2 W probably fifty times to go to Put-In-Bay or the amusement park Cedar Point. It took us about an hour and a half at arrive to Johnson Island’s causeway.

For a fee of one dollar (the ticket machine only takes cash), we crossed the causeway to the privately owned 300-acre island (The causeway did not exist during the war). The cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public from sunrise to dusk. You can’t miss it. The rest of the island has homes built on it where the original prison camp was located.

The cemetery grounds are surrounded by a black iron gate, with 206 neatly arranged marble tombstones commemorating the Confederate soldiers who died during their internment in the prison camp. An informative sign with the history of Johnson Island is close to the parking lot.

Confederate officers were segregated from the regular soldiers at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, and transported to Johnson Island Prison in 1862. The prison operated from April 1862 through September 1865. Over 10,000 officers spent time there during this period. Some notable Confederate prisoners included: Colonel Henry Kyd Douglas, Generals Isaac R. Trimble, James J. Archer, John R. Jones and M. Jeff Thompson.

I walked down each row one at a time. I carefully glanced at the names, checking from what state each man came from and his army rank. I drifted from the center of the cemetery to the far corners (as I usually do) to pay my respects to those tombstones that likely get overlooked. These men were from all over the Confederacy. Some even came from as far as Texas or Arkansas. Most of the markers have names carved into them, but others are listed as unknowns. These marble markers replaced the original deteriorating wood markers after the war.

I continued to the main gate of the cemetery bordering Lake Erie. In the distance, I could clearly see Cedar Point. Streaming across the top of the gate in white are the words “Confederate Cemetery, 1861-1912.” Two newer markers with a few words about the cemetery and the names of those buried there flank a nineteen-foot bronze statue of a Confederate soldier looking off into the distance. This statue, sculpted by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a Jewish VMI cadet wounded in the Battle of New Market in 1864, was dedicated in 1910.

I sat on a nearby bench outside the front gate for a short while with my back facing the fence and in the direction of Lake Erie. A few other people were there too to pay their respects. My mind drifted to the men buried here, and I began to ask myself: What famous battles were these men captured in? Why were their bodies never returned home? Were they forgotten about by their families?

At first, I felt sympathy for these men. Then I thought, I couldn’t think of a better place for these soldiers to be buried. Well-maintained, protected from urban sprawl, and tucked away with a beautiful view, this was as serene as it gets. I experienced something in this cemetery, not something that I can easily describe, but it was powerful.

If you are interested in learning more about the prison’s construction, what a prisoner’s life in the camp, or the daring escape attempts (some of them successful), I recommend checking out Roger Long’s 1987 article in the Blue and Grey Magazine. It is a fascinating article, well worth a read.

My wife and I hopped back into our car and headed south toward Clyde. I always wanted to visit the grave of the highest-ranking Union general killed in the war. Now, being nearby, I had a reason. The cemetery is named after its most famous occupant.

James McPherson’s Memorial

I could quickly tell that the citizens of Clyde are proud of being connected with McPherson. His boyhood home (from the age of seven to thirteen) is still standing. In 2014, the citizens of Clyde celebrated the 150th anniversary of his funeral. Sandusky County Judge John Dewey made a speech and children of the community placed a large wreath by McPherson’s grave.

McPherson’s monument is impressive. It looks a monument found on a battlefield like Shiloh or Gettysburg, not something you would find in a small Ohio town. At the highest point in the cemetery (be prepared to walk up a slope), a bronze McPherson appears to be issuing orders with one leg resting on a displaced cannon, while holding a pair of binoculars in his left hand. The statue is surrounded by cannon and cannonballs, and a large American flag in the background at half-mast. Satisfied with our afternoon trip having paid our respects to both Confederate and Union men (something I never thought I would be able to do in Ohio), we headed back to Cleveland to plan our next Civil War cemetery trip.

James McPherson’s Memorial