Item #7504 [Original drawing depicting the U.S. Gunboat Michigan at Johnson’s Island Prison, Lake Erie, Ohio.] U.S. Gun Boat Michigan.
[Original drawing depicting the U.S. Gunboat Michigan at Johnson’s Island Prison, Lake Erie, Ohio.] U.S. Gun Boat Michigan.

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[Original drawing depicting the U.S. Gunboat Michigan at Johnson’s Island Prison, Lake Erie, Ohio.] U.S. Gun Boat Michigan.

[Johnson’s Island, Ohio, ca. 1864.]. Ink and color pencil on wove paper, 3.187” x 6.312”, plus margins. Manuscript poems by E. A. Holmes and Charles E. McCarthy in ink on verso. CONDITION: Good, light dampstaining at right margin and bottom-right corner, tiny black specks and old stab holes etc. at top edge indicating removal from sketchbook or album.

An eyewitness drawing by an imprisoned Confederate officer at Johnson’s Island Prison depicting the U.S. Gun Boat Michigan—the target of a notorious failed plot to liberate the prisoners there. On the verso are two poems, one on the subject of imprisonment at Johnson’s Island, the other a love poem written by an Irish-born Confederate poet who composed multiple pieces during the Civil War.

This drawing depicts a view from inside the prison, showing the Michigan anchored in the waters nearby, an American flag flying just above its stern. Seen in the foreground are the stockade walls of the prison, a portion of the prison’s promenade ground, several small buildings (perhaps a latrine and a shed), two armed guards on duty outside of the prison’s walls, and three prisoners. The town of Sandusky appears on the horizon to the left. The drawing was evidently once in an album compiled by a rebel prisoner on Johnson’s Island.

Operating from April 1862 to September 1865, Johnson’s Island Prison was built on the island for the security provided by its isolated location and for its proximity to various important Ohio cities and lines of transportation. The prison housed some 3000 prisoners at a time and saw an estimated total of 10,000 men, most of them officers, confined there during the war, some 300 dying while imprisoned. Conditions were better there than at most other rebel and Union military prisons. In 1864 the prison was the site of one of the most elaborately planned prison escape attempts of the war, spearheaded by rebel Captains Charles Cole and John Beall. Working in tandem with Cole, Beall and a group of Confederates were to seize the Philo Parsons, a steamship operating on Lake Erie and then seize the Michigan, the only Union gunboat on Lake Erie. The officers believed that once they were in control of the Michigan the Union guards at Johnson's Island would immediately surrender, enabling them to free the prisoners. While Beall managed to capture the Philo Parsons, the operation was foiled when Cole, who planned to drug Union officers aboard the Michigan during a dinner party, was arrested for spying on the same day that seventeen of Beall’s men staged a mutiny on the Philo Parsons, forcing Beall to abandon his plan.

Commissioned in 1844, the USS Michigan was the first iron-hulled ship in the US Navy. During the Civil War, she was armed with a 30-lb. Parrott rifle, five 20-lb. Parrott rifles, six 24-lb. smoothbores, and two 12-lb. boat howitzers. The Michigan was the target of another Confederate plot in early 1863. Lieut. William Murdaugh planned to lead a group of rebel naval officers to Canada where they would purchase a small steamer, man her with Canadians, and steam to Erie to board Michigan and use her on the Great Lakes. However, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ultimately did not approve the plan. The Michigan cruised on the Great Lakes during most of the war, providing an element of stability and security. On 28 July 1863, shortly after New York City was shaken by draft law riots, the vessel’s Commander John Carter reported from Detroit: “I found the people suffering under serious apprehensions of a riot… The presence of the ships perhaps did something toward overawing the refractory, and certainly did much to allay the apprehensions of the excited, doubting people.” In August of 1863, the Michigan was called on for similar service in Buffalo, NY. In 1864, amid new rumors of Confederate conspiracies in Canada, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered Michigan to be “prepared for active service as soon as the ice will permit.”

The verso features two manuscript poems, one of which is incomplete, the other potentially complete. The first poem is entitled “Johnson's Island” by Lieut. E. A. Holmes of Virginia. The two stanzas read:

Oh who would have thought tho’ a Prophet had told us, / A few years ago that such things could e’er be; That strangers might come and in prison behold us, / Confined in a land. That yet claims to be free? / The storm blasts of winter sweep o’er Lake Erie, / In silence we bear our lost comrades to rest; / No more will they stroll with the listless and weary— / They ‘sleep their last sleep’ in this Isle of the West!

The second poem, “To —”, is attributed to Charles E. McCarthy and is dated 10 April 1865. The two stanzas read:

In future years, ‘my darling,’ think— / When brighter scenes surround thee; / Of one who lived his dreary way, / Nor knew the glory of the day, / Nor loved it; ‘till he found thee. / And when the record of the years, / Still faithful shall have proved me; / O was the hour that saw us push, / And whisper softly to your heart— / ‘He loved me.’ / And O my love should sorrow come, / And shower tears about thee; / Should falsehood and suspicion smart[?]. / Think ‘mid that ‘winter of the heart.’ / Of me who ne’er could doubt thee. / And when a sad unhappy fate, / Afar from thee hath moved me; / Think all our friendship o’er again, / And whisper, softly, softly then— / ‘He loved me’

Three poems by McCarthy appear in The Sunny Land: Or, Prison Prose and Poetry, including “Listening,” “Privates in the Ranks,” and “The Four Brothers.” The poet is described as “Liberally endowed with that quick and brilliant wit peculiar to his countrymen, and of a genial disposition" and said to have been "a general favorite among the prisoners confined at Johnson's Island.” A manuscript example of the poem “Private in the Ranks” is held by Tulane University.

Born in Limerick, Ireland, Lieut. Charles E. McCarthy (1840–?) was the son of a man who vocally supported the 1848 Irish rebellion and sought asylum in 1851 in the U.S. Before the war, McCarthy resided in Algiers, Louisiana and worked as an Express Agent. At the war's outbreak, he joined Co. A of the 30th Regiment Louisiana Volunteers. Soon promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, he saw action in the battles of Baton Rouge, New Hope Church, the Atlanta campaign, Jonesboro, Franklin, and Nashville. On the second day of the Battle of Nashville, 16 Dec. 1864, he was captured and sent to Johnson's Island, where he remained until 21 June 1865, when he was released. After the war he worked as Agent for the Texas Express Co., and lived in Galveston.

REFERENCES: James A. Houston, Editor. The Sunny Land: Or, Prison Prose and Poetry (Baltimore, Innes & Co. 1868), pp. 263, 265-266, 355, 482; Naval History And Heritage Command. “Michigan.” Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships at; Johnson's Island at; Poem written by Lieutenant Charles E. McCarthy, entitled "Private in the Ranks" at

Item #7504