It’s a little past dusk on Saturday night, Fourth of July weekend, and we’re having the time of our lives in the simplest of ways. Matt and Scott have discovered that the really big catfish are coming in close to shore after dark here on Johnson’s Island, and the kids are reeling them in one after another. Except for a single white perch and a Goby, every fish they’ve hooked has been between fourteen and twenty inches and we can hardly get them unhooked and back in the water before one of our kids has another one on the dock. Their proud mothers are crowding in to take I-phone pictures and it’s just a matter of time before one of us falls in the water. We’re running back to the patio for tackle, flashlights, gloves and pliers while all around us, and all around Sandusky Bay, dozens of fireworks explode in the sky casting our red shadows on the dock and in the water as the surface explodes with yet another catfish or sheephead struggling to shake the hook. Matt and I are laughing, holding little flashlights in our teeth and trying to get night crawlers hooked and back in the water while excited six-year-olds exclaim “I GOT ONE!” for the twentieth time tonight. I hope these kids remember this for a long time. It’s hard for me to imagine a night much better.
The day has been a delight, and I’ve been particularly fortunate to have been invited to the cottage of my friend, Dr. Jack McIver. You see, besides being a fellow fishing nut and outdoor enthusiast, Jack’s an armchair historian, like yours truly. Since coming to Johnson’s Island in the 1980′s, Jack has become an authority on this tiny spot of land’s role in the Civil War. As hard as it is to believe, given the hundreds of cheerful holiday picnickers, boaters, wave-runner daredevils and contraband firework technicians around us today, this island once held a garrison of about thirteen hundred Union troops, and almost ten thousand Confederate Prisoners from 1862-1865.
Why (in the world) were prisoners kept way up here? Well,as soon as the government conceded that no, the boys won’t be home by Christmas, it became concerned about the possibility of Confederate prisoners escaping back home to have a go at the Union lines again. So, last stop going north, our very own Lake Erie Islands! And why not Kelly’s or South Bass? Easy, they were exposed to attack and Johnson’s Island is protected by Sandusky Bay!
You may have heard rumor of the Confederate cemetery here, but it’s no rumor. Just after you cross the causeway and make a turn you’ll find a little plot of shady graves with a bronze statue of a soldier looking south and orderly rows of about 200 white tombstones. This is all that remains on this vacation garden spot of what was one of just two prison camps in Ohio. Given the limited resources and primitive state of medicine in that day, it’s surprising it’s not a bigger cemetery. But, in the summer months anyway, Johnson’s Island wasn’t that bad a place to be, if you had to be a prisoner of war. Generally, the rules were lax and most prisoners whiled away the days playing cards, visiting with others or enjoying the fresh air and mild weather. Under guard of course, they were even allowed to fish!
I’m not one who dabbles in ghost stories, but although the shore is cluttered with docks and quaint little cottages, my mind can strip it all away to when there was only reeds and cattails and once a rebel boy standing here with a home made cane pole, angling for the ancestors of the same catfish we’re toying with today. Of course, to him it was probably a much more serious affair; we’re throwing all of ours back, and he would’ve seen a catfish as a treat, or maybe even something he could trade for a little contraband!
But a little digging into the history shows us a scene on this shore that was not so pleasant, as it was right here that two men from Kentucky, convicted of spying for the South, were executed by firing squad. It’s hard to think of as I look down on the beach that is now littered with the shells of zebra muscles, sharp as broken glass to the unwary barefoot stroller.
The winters were quite a different affair to these Southern men, I am sure. As I stoop to read a gravestone of a man from Mississippi, I think how he must have regarded the Lake Erie winter as absolute hell on earth. But perish such thoughts today! It’s still warm, there’s fireworks and the fish are biting and this tiny little island is so much nicer for we fishermen here tonight than for a few unfortunate soldiers a long, long time ago.