The story contained in Prison Pens unfolded from the Virginia Piedmont to Lake Erie and from the Delaware River to the Savannah River. As a prisoner, Wash traveled from northern Virginia to Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, South Carolina, and Georgia. Today, the places where Wash was imprisoned exemplify varying degrees and types of preservation. While each of these places mattered in some way to Wash and Mollie, they are also part of the broader story of America’s Civil War. We invite you to use this page as a starting point for exploring some of the places connected to the journey.
John Brown Engine House
Harpers Ferry was already a household name when Wash Nelson arrived as a prisoner in October 1863. As a symbol of the causes, emotions, and stakes of the Civil War, few places had greater meaning than the Harpers Ferry Engine House, also known as “John Brown’s Engine House” or the “John Brown Fort.” A building that offered a suitable–at least temporarily–holdout for John Brown’s revolutionaries also made for a good prison for secessionists. Although a cell for Wash, the John Brown Fort served as “shrine for lovers of liberty” for African Americans and abolitionists during and after the Civil War.
The fate of the John Brown Fort was not certain for more than one hundred years after the Civil War. Lacking any legal preservation mandate, the building traveled by rail more than thirteen hundred miles in a round-trip journey to the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The fort was a financial disaster at the Columbian Exposition, but in 1895 Mary Katherine Keemle Field found the building a new home at the Alexander Murphy farm, located several miles outside Harpers Ferry. There the building continued to serve as a symbol of emancipation. The National League of Colored Women visited the site in 1896. In 1905, W.E.B. DuBois and participants in the Niagara Movement walked from nearby Storer College to the John Brown Fort. For nearly sixty years between 1909 and 1968, the building sat on the Storer College campus before it was relocated a fourth time by the National Park Service to its original location in Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.
Today the building serves not only a symbol of the struggle for freedom (and, potentially, imprisonment), it also raises important questions about authenticity and replication. Each move resulted in the loss of historic materials, and the building was reconstructed backward. At what point does such a building lose its historic integrity–those elements that convey historically-based significance?
If the John Brown Fort was a way station, Camp Chase was the first of six prisons wash entered during his twenty months in captivity. About 26,000 other Confederate prisoners passed through the gates at Camp Chase. The death-rate at Camp Chase was below average: about 2,260, less than ten percent, died at Camp Chase.
The site of Camp Chase prison, like most large Civil War prisons, was not well preserved. Today it is in Westgate Park Community–an early twentieth century neighborhood located about five miles from the center of Columbus. What is preserved is the Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery, including a Confederate Monument which is maintained by the National Park Service. Curiously, the inscription on the memorial arch reads, “Americans.”
No place of captivity was better documented by Confederate prisoners than Johnson’s Island. While no Civil War prison was “fun,” this documentation of Johnson’s Island prison stemmed more from the demographic of prisoners than the conditions. Built for Confederate officers, the prisoners were wealthier, better educated, and had more connections with northern friends than enlisted men. This meant that prisoners at Johnson’s Island were more likely to keep diaries, write letters, and receive boxes of food and clothing from friends and southern sympathizers in the north. It was one of the healthiest Civil War prisons, with a fatality rate of about two percent.
Compared to the other former prisons, Johnson’s Island is poorly preserved. In perhaps an ironic twist, the island is now a wealthy suburb of Sandusky, Ohio.
As the site of a U.S. hospital and the Confederate prisoner of war camp, Point Lookout contained multiple layers of significance during the Civil War. In 1860, the spot was a summer resort, and it became a military hospital during the second year of the war. The first large numbers of Confederate prisoners began arriving shortly after battle of Gettysburg by the end of 1863 there were nearly 10,000 Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout. In all, about 52,000 Confederate prisoners passed through Point Lookout, and 4,000 died in captivity there.
The State of Maryland only began thinking seriously about preserving Point Lookout during the Civil War Centennial. In 1965, the Maryland legislature created Point Lookout State Park and began to interpret the place’s Civil War history. Although the prison has one or two pro-Confederate histories, the place has never received the careful attention of a professional historian.
In the wake of the War of 1812, the United States built coastal fortifications to better protect U.S. cities from sea threats. These forts had varied histories during the Civil War. For runaway slaves, these Union outposts became symbols of freedom, most symbolically when slaves ran to them seeking protection. In fact, it was a coastal fortification–Fort Monroe–where runaway slaves tested the United State’s appetite for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Unwilling to return three men who had been working on Confederate fortifications, Union General Benjamin Butler carved out a legal category for the enslaved known as “contraband of war.” Wash Nelson experienced Fort Delaware twice during his captivity. The first was as a holding point before he was sent south to Morris Island and Fort Pulaski. He lived at Fort Delaware a second time after his return northward. As in other northern prisons, Confederates lived in barracks outside the fort on Pea Patch Island, with the wide, swift-moving Delaware as a barrier to escape. Today, Fort Delaware State Park is one of the best-preserved places affiliated with Wash’s captivity. Owned by the State of Delaware, the fort is accessible today by boat and a reconstruction of a barrack interprets the living conditions of Confederate prisoners.
Morris Island, located outside Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the more difficult historic sites to reach. Erosion has taken away the part of the island where the prison stood, and the remainder is owned by the Trust for Public Land ,which maintains careful access to the site.
Fort Pulaski National Monument, like Fort Delaware, is one the best-preserved historic sites dealing with Confederate prisoners of war. Although Fort Pulaski is known for many other things–an example of the great damage caused by rifled artillery; the first known photograph of baseball–it is also a site of intentional Civil War prison memory. A wayside exhibit and a small cemetery adjacent to the parking lot are a clear reminder of the Confederate prisoners held at Fort Pulaski.
On John Brown’s Fort, see Teresa S. Moyer and Paul A. Shackel, The Making of Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park(Lanham, NY: AltaMira Press, 2008), 18-21; 88-92.
On Camp Chase, see Camp Chase Site National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, included on April 11, 1973.