Gratiot Street Prison

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Elijah Alexander Mays

by Larry Thomas

Alexander Mays was born about 1820 in Maury County, Tennessee. He was the son of John and Eleanor “Nelly” Dorton Mays. Little is known about his father, John Mays including when or where he was born or who his parents were.  In fact about the only thing known for sure is that on April 16, 1818 John married Nelly Dorton in Maury County, Tennessee. John died, or left, in the 1820’s while they were living in Maury County, Tennessee leaving no will. Alexander would have been under 10 years old when his father died.  Alexander’s mother, Eleanor “Nelly” Dorton was born about 1798 in North Carolina, probably Cabarrus County, the daughter of Charles Dorton. 

After John’s death, Eleanor was living in Maury County in 1830 with her three children, including Alexander, next to Robert Mays. What relationship Robert Mays was, if any, is unknown.  In 1840, Nelly was in Marshall County, Tennessee, and was still living there in 1850. Alexander was living elsewhere, and only Nelly’s daughter Gracey was living with her. Alexander had one other sibling, a sister, but her name and what happened to her is unknown. 

The first record of Alexander on his own is on September 7, 1840 in Marshall County, Tennessee when he is named on the record for work on the McColums Gap road. A few months after that, on December 28, he married Sarah Hopwood Beck, the widow of Ebenezer Beck who was about 10 years his senior.  Sarah Hopwood was born about 1811 in Bedford County, Tennessee, the daughter of the Reverend Willis and Penelope Moore Hopwood. Her father, the Reverend Hopwood was a Baptist circuit rider, but later converted and became one of the leaders of the Disciples of Christ faith movement in middle Tennessee. About 1828 Sarah had married Ebenezer Beck and had seven children before his death in 1839.  Ebenezer is buried in the Hopwood Cemetery in Marshall County, Tennessee, near Sarah’s grandparents. Sarah’s father traveled a wide area from almost Nashville, TN down into Alabama to help spread the Disciples of Christ faith. While a devout minister, he also had no difficulties with owning slaves. His granddaughter, Mary Beck Dorton, told that he didn’t believe in whipping the slaves, that if they caused trouble, he just sold them.

The next time Alexander appears is in 1848 when he is named to work on the road with his father-in-law, Willis Hopwood. It must be understood that work on the road also means that you furnish hands to work on the road. It is doubtful that Willis, a minister and slave owner, was actually helping clear the road himself whereas Alexander probably actually did work. 

The first child of Alexander and Sarah that we know of, was Thomas, born in 1841 in Marshall County, Tennessee. Three to four years later, in 1845, a daughter, Gracie Ellen was born and in 1847 their son John Alexander was born, also in Marshall County. The fourth child born of this union was William, born on August 5, 1850, a few months before Sarah’s father died.

On July 19, 1852, their youngest son William Mays died, just short of two years old.  He is buried in the Hopwood cemetery in Marshall County, Tennessee near the resting place of his great grandparents, William and Nancy Willis Hopwood. Shortly after this, Alexander, Sarah and their three remaining children left for Missouri along with Alexander’s mother, Eleanor and her slaves and most likely some of Sarah older children from her prior marriage. They had arrived in Missouri by January 22, 1854 when their last child was born, Andrew Craig Mays.   

On July 13, 1858, Elijah made his mark on a statement for the purchase of 124 and 1/2 acres in Madison Co., Missouri. He stated that he had been living there since July 27, 1857 and that he had a dwelling house and other appurtenances with six acres in cultivation.  Elijah stated that he was 36 years old and was the head of a family. Living in nearby counties were Sarah's children by Ebenezer Beck, Clark, Mary Polly who married William Sennekey Dorton, and probably Malinda Jane who married Harvey Dorton.

For whatever reason, Elijah and Sarah moved a little further west and were living in Reynolds County, Missouri on March 11, 1859. On February 15, 1860 Elijah made a claim for the purchase of 120 acres for 12 1/2 cents per acre in Reynolds County. He stated that he was living on this land and that he had about four acres in cultivation as well as a dwelling house. He also stated that this land was for his personal use and for the purpose of actual settlement. As late as 1871, only eight other families had settled in the valley besides Alexander’s family in one household, and his mother Eleanor in another. 

The land they settled is in a small, quiet valley surrounded by fairly steep hills on what is now highway HH just south of Ellington. Located in the valley was the Bethlehem School and Church.  The first full-time pastor was Rev. Jacob Lewis who arrived shortly before Alexander and Sarah, in 1852. It is likely that their families attended service at the Bethlehem Church as we know Sarah's father was a devout preacher and that her son Andrew was a member of the Philadelphia Baptist Church after he moved to Arkansas. Later on, just before moving, Andrew was attending school at Bethlehem, as well as his older brother John's children and the former slaves of Alexander's mother Eleanor.   

In 1860 Alexander, or E. A., and Sarah Mays were living in Reynolds County with their four children, including Thomas. Ironically, Thomas also shows up in the St. Francois County, Missouri census which was taken a few months earlier, living with Clark Beck, his half brother from his mother's first marriage. In this census Thomas was listed as a coal miner, a job which undoubtedly didn't have much appeal since he was now a farmhand in Reynolds County. Across the road was Eleanor Mays, Alexander’s mother.  On this census she stated that she was a farmer with $200 worth of personal property, that she could not read or write, and that she owned 2 slaves. While Alexander and his mother were unable to read or write, Sarah was, and any papers signed together, had Alexander's mark and Sarah's signature. Another interesting fact was that while in Tennessee he used the name Alexander, but after arriving in Missouri he began using E. A. or Elijah A.  It is known that there was another Elijah Mays living nearby in Tennessee, possibly a cousin or uncle, and our Elijah went by Alexander to avoid confusion. 

A story passed on to the family by Elijah’s grandson Charles Edgar Mays was that while living in Missouri, Elijah was loading the wagon to make a trip to town, his son Andrew wanted to go but Elijah told him “You cannot go this time.” Andrew told his father, “Pap if you don’t let me go, I will cut up your deer hide.” Elijah gave him a little switching and told Andrew, “There will be plenty more if you touch my deer hide.”

The Civil War was a tough time for southern Missouri, having troops from both sides patrolling the area. The town of Barnsville (Ellington after the war) was actually abandoned and ceased to exist during the war. One night in 1863, Union troops came through the area and, according to history books, raided the homes of several families in the Bethlehem area. The history books show that Andrew Chitwood, an older man was shot on his porch. Up the valley a Mr. Bowers, while trying to escape out his back door was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter from his wounds. William Murril and David Angel were persuaded to join and fight with the Union army. But records show that Murril later died in the Alton, Illinois prison in December, 1864, listed as a conscript.

On December 30th, 1862 E. A. Mays was captured by Captain Bruett of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry.  The Union Captain stated that Alexander had refused to take the oath to the United States and to give bond.  Mays papersHe stated that Alexander said he would not care if he had to work his lifetime at the fortifications. He was taken to Van Buren, Missouri for a few days and on January 6, 1863, when his youngest son Andrew was only 8 years old, Elijah Alexander Mays, civilian, Reynolds County, Missouri, was confined to the Gratiot Street, Union prison in St. Louis, Missouri. On January 26th, Alexander was listed as “unaccounted for”. There were a great many escapes made from these prisons and it might be that he tried, but on February 5, 1863 he was back and made a statement to the authorities. He stated that he was born in Maury Co, Tennessee, was 43 years old, a farmer, married and had four children. When asked why he was arrested, he stated that "I don't know-Have no idea-thought I had always been a good loyal citizen."  When asked if he was a southern sympathizer he stated that "I hate to see the south crushed as it is spoken of - I rather think I am." The interviewer stated that he did not make a good impression and doubted that he was truthful. He also stated that he was mild, firm, vigorous and healthy. It was also stated that  "No doubt a traitor at heart, but too ignorant to do much harm."  

In November 1862, shortly before Alexander’s arrival, the Gratiot Street prison had 800 prisoners, when it’s maximum capacity was around 500 prisoners. Captain Griffin Frost, a Southern officer, who kept a diary throughout the entire war, wrote that he arrived at Gratiot on the last day of 1862, one week before Alexander's arrival, that they were escorted to their quarters, “a very dark, gloomy place, and very filthy besides.” The prisoners found that the Gratiot Street prison was a hard place and the “fare so rough, it seems an excellent place to starve.” In March of 1863 smallpox broke out among the prisoners causing them to wonder that “every disease under heaven does not break out in the lower quarters, half starved and crowded together as they are in dirt and rage.” On February 26th Alexander was sent to the Burnett Hospital. It is possible that he too had smallpox but there is no record of his ailment.  In April two physicians were appointed by the Sanitary Commission and declared the prisons to be a disgrace “to us as a Christian people.” “In these rooms the prisoners spent day and night, for the small yard of the prison is scarcely sufficient to contain a foul and stinking privy.... it is difficult to conceive how human beings can continue to live in such an atmosphere as must be generated when the windows are closed at night or in stormy weather. Here were persons lying sick, with pneumonia, dysentery and other grave diseases awaiting admission to the hospital.” The records are confusing but on either March 9th or April 25th, 1863 Alexander was sent to the Alton, Illinois prison.   

Alton prison, 1867 pictureWhile in the Alton prison, Alexander fared no better. The prison was so bad that it had been condemned two years prior to the war and it too had an epidemic of smallpox in 1863. Overcrowding in the prison made the disease impossible to control or eliminate.  Captain Frost, who was also transferred to Alton, stated in his diary that "...this is a much harder place than Gratiot-it is almost impossible to sleep on account of the rats, which run over us all through the night...  There is much sickness' the small-pox is prevailing, and many are dying daily." A nearby island in the Mississippi river, called Ellis, was used for a burying ground. Since the building of the Alton lock and dam this grave site is now under water. Guards transported the wrapped bodies to the island in the darkness where they were placed in common graves. Prisoners, guards, even the doctors feared going to the island, afraid they would never return. No one knows the number buried on the smallpox island. Records indicate 1,613 deaths, but other estimates place the total as high as 5,000.  Other bodies were taken to the old prison burying ground near North Alton.

E A Mays markIt appears that on August 3rd, Alexander was sent back to the Gratiot Street prison, where by October, there were nine hundred and sixty prisoners, many without bunks. On September 2d, the Judge Advocate recommended that E. A. Mays be kept in prison during the bushwhacking months (September and October) and then released on bond of one thousand dollars. Through all this Alexander survived, for on November 27, 1863, while in the Gratiot Street prison, is a single final entry, "Sent South of the U.S. lines.” It appears that Alexander never made it back to his family and home.

At this time Sarah Hopwood Mays’ daughter, Polly Beck Dorton was living in Farmington, Missouri and her husband William was away fighting for the Southern army. It is unknown if the tragedy in her mother’s household was the cause, or some other reason, but in a story related by Elsie Dawson, Polly's granddaughter, Polly decided to travel to Tennessee to visit her mother.  Since the Mays family had long since moved to Reynolds County, Missouri, it was undoubtedly there that Polly traveled and not Tennessee. 

“She (Polly) had a big old mare, with an enlarged knee, about as big as a gallon bucket.  It was caused by another horse kicking her. She also had a fine young mare, but the Captain of the Home Guard told her that his men had their eyes on her and was going to take her. She let the Captain take her to ride himself. He kept her until the war ended. So she and the children made the long trip to Tennessee. 

“On the way, the soldiers would stop her to take the mare. But when they saw the ‘big knee’, they would let her keep the mare. She had to get ‘Passes’ along the way, to get by the armies. The Captains would tell her to hurry, there might be a battle at any time.

“All three of them rode the mare sometimes but most of the time Grandma walked and let the children ride. She found her Mother OK, visited a while and returned home to Missouri.” After the war Polly and her family moved to Craighead County, Arkansas.

It is likely that the family never knew what had happen to Elijah, but sometime prior to 1870, Sarah had married for a third time to James Stallcup. At this time the only child left at home was a 15 year old Andrew. The same year, 1870 her Sarah’s mother in law, Eleanor is listed as Ellen Maze, Maze being a common misspelling in Reynolds County, especially among those that were unable to read and write. She names Rythe, Nancy and William as “whites” and as domestic servants, but in 1860 they were listed as slaves. The courthouse in Reynolds County burned in 1871 so all records before then have been lost. The last record found of Eleanor is when she appears on the 1871 Enumeration of Residents for the Bethelem School. Since Eleanor does not appear on the 1872 Enumeration, and no other record's can be found naming her, it can be determined that she passed away about 1871.  Eleanor had been a widow for over forty years, had traveled half way across the United States. She is probably buried in the old Mays cemetery or the Bethlehem Church cemetery, both south of Ellington. In 1872 Andrew was attending the Bethlehem school but shortly after his grandmother’s death Andrew left Missouri for Craighead County, Arkansas where he married Rosley Caroline Sullins in 1874. James Stallcup died a short while later, around August, 1875.

In 1876 Sarah appears on the county tax list living next to her son Alex Beck. But in September 1876 she and her daughter Gracie, whose husband James McMillin had also recently died, sold the 120 acres of land Elijah had purchased in 1859 to her son, John Mays. Tradition says that Andrew moved his family to Arkansas, so it can be reasoned that he returned to Reynolds county to help move his mother and sister. Sarah moved in with Andrew and his family while  Gracie bought the land next to Andrew on Lost Creek in Craighead County, Arkansas.

John remained in Reynolds Co., Missouri after everyone else had left for Arkansas. He served in the Missouri Militia for two years after the Civil War and was described as 6 foot tall with dark eyes, hair and complexion. About 1865 John married Cisley Chitwood, the daughter of Andrew Chitwood, who was shot on his porch, probably in the same raid that took John's father away. Later he was elected to the local School board for several years in the 1870's. 

Interestingly, Eleanor must have been very close to her one time slaves, for from 1876 forward, these slaves are listed as having taken the name Mays, and continued to live next to John Alexander Mays, her grandson. It appears that these individuals were living on the land that Eleanor was farming in 1860. In the early 1880’s when the last of the Mays family, John, moved to Craighead County, Arkansas and bought land from his sister Gracie, the former slaves moved with him. Nancy Cooper, John Alexander Mays’ granddaughter, remembers her father Charles Edgar talking about “Mammy Blythe” (Rythe on the 1870 census) as taking care of the children when growing up. Several of this family of former slaves are buried on the outskirts of the Ransom cemetery outside Jonesboro, where several of Eleanor’s descendants and in-laws are buried.  

Sarah lived out the rest of her days with Andrew. She died on October 5, 1899 and is buried in the Shiloh Cemetery with a stone that says only “Mother of A.C. Mays”. Her obituary appeared in the Jonesboro Sun on October 12, 1899 stating "Grandma Mays died Thursday, October 5, 1899 at 6 o'clock at the residence of her son A. C. Mays, two miles north of this city, at the ripe old age of 87 years and was buried Friday at 6 p.m. in Shiloh Cemetery." Her grandson, Charles Edgar described her as “...about 5’8” tall, large frame, stood fairly straight and not too fat. Her complexion was that of a high sun tan.” “She wore dresses of many yards of cloth as was the custom in those days.  Her top dress had a deep pocket, I knew she was preparing to smoke. I would get all excited and say ‘Grandma can I get you the light for your pipe? She always smiled and would say, ‘Yes.’” “Besides being kind to me, she was strange and intriguing.”


Sources:

Marriage License of John Mays and Nelly Dorton, issued Maury Co., TN, April 16, 1818, Book W-1, page 27.

1830 Census Maury Co. TN     AGLL Film M19-177, Page 349.

1840 Census Marshall Co. TN       AGLL Film M704-531.

1850 Marshall Co. TN Census   Oct 24, 1850, Page 131.

Letter from Elsie Dawson, granddaughter of Mary Beck Dorton.

Marshall Co. TN Court Minutes Vol A, page 414,  Sept 7, 1840, Alexander Mays appears in Marshall County records for the first time in record for McColums Gap road.

Record of License from Marshall Co., TN, FHL 0024762-Marriage Bonds Marshall Co., TN, license of Alexender Mays and Sarah Beck, December 28, 1840.

Marriage Record of Willis Hopwood and Penelope Moore, Pittsylvania Co., VA

Christian Magazine, Vol. IV, Sept. 1851, p. 288 ; Jesse Ferguson, Editor, “Obituary of Reverend Willis Hopwood”.

Tennessee Christians  A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tennessee; by Herman A. Norton, 1971, Pg. 12-15.

The Story of the Churches The Disciple of Christ, Electronic Version, by Errett Gates, Ph. D.   1905 The Baker and Taylor Co.  pages 164-168

Marshall County, TN Will Book, page 242-246, Will of Willis Hopwood

Marshall County Tennessee Court Minutes 1845-1848,  page 361 Record road work of Alexander “Mase”.

Tombstones of William Mays, William Hopwood and Nancy Hopwood, Hopwood Cemetery, Marshall Co., TN.

Death Certificate of Andrew Craig Mays.

1900 Jonesboro Township, Craighead Co., AR Census.

Madison Co., MO. Land Deed Book G,  Page 731-732

1860 St. Francois Co., MO Census.

National Archives, General Land Entry Files, Patent 37329, Reynolds Co., MO.

Reynolds County, Missouri, ‘Sesquicentennial Year’ 1845-1995, Vol. I, Page 24, 31-32.

Annual Enumeration of Local (School) Board, 1871 and 1872.

1860 Reynolds Co., MO Census, Barnsville PO.

Camp and Prison Journal by Griffin Frost, Reprinted 1994 by Press of the Camp Pope Bookshop, P.O. Box 2232, Iowa City, IA  52244.

Missouri Prisoners of War, From Gratiot Street Prison & Myrtle Street Prison, St. Louis, MO and Alton Prison, Alton, Illinois Including Citizens, Confederates, Bushwhackers and Guerrillas,  By Joanne Chile Eakin, 1995, Printed in Independence, MO  64055.

National Archives and Records Administration, Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109, Union Provost Marshals’ File of Papers Relating to Individual Civilians, Roll 179.

The Cole Family Allied Lines, by Kathe Hager Hollingshaus & Peggy Ann Silva Shumway, Page 276 by granddaughter Elsie Dawson.

1870 Reynolds Co., MO Census, Barnsville, Webb Township

Index of Reynolds Co., MO Probate Records, Reynolds County Genealogy Society.

1876 Reynolds Co., MO County Tax List.

Obituary of Sarah Hopwood, The Jonesboro Sun, Oct. 12, 1899, page 5.

The Jonesboro Evening Sun, Thursday, July 7, 1938, “Over 100 Attend Reunion of Mays Family near City”.

Obituary of Andrew C. Mays, Jonesboro Daily Tribune, Nov. 13, 1937.

Post Civil War Missouri Militia Enrollment List 1865-1866, Reynolds County Missouri, Transcribed by Marcia V. (Moyer) Branstetter, California, MO  65018.

Various Craighead Co., AR land deeds.

Statement of Nancy Cooper, granddaughter of John Alexander Mays.

The Craighead County Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, Spring 1985, No. 2, April 1985, “The Mays Family” by Charles Edgar Mays, page 9-14.


Gratiot Street Prison Main page/Introduction

Prisoners:

Prisoners List Transcription from Gratiot ledgers

List 1-200 men List 2 - 200 men List 3 - 34 men, more to come Women & Children - 212 names  Prisoner Notes

A. C. Grimes -- Confederate Mail Carrier & escape artist

Elijah Alexander Mays - story of a Missouri man held at both Gratiot St Prison and Alton prison

Robert Payne Byrd - story of a Missouri man who vanished to a small pox hospital never to return

Gratiot Street Prison FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about the Union prison in St. Louis

Information Sources -- Print and microfilm sources on Gratiot 

Gratiot Street Prison-Then & Now - The site as it appeared in 1848, the 1860s, and now

Gratiot Journal:journal account of Gratiot Street Prison with notes on the people and events described

January - February 1863

March - April 1863

October - November 1863  

December 1863 - January 1864

March - April 1864

True Tales of the Tenth Kansas Infantry Articles by Howard Mann

Raid On a Nest of Nymphs

Excitement at Alton Prison Story of an escape from Alton, Ill., prison

Paradox of Capt. George D. Brooke

Sorrowful Revenge by Firing Squad the execution of six Confederate soldiers in St. Louis

 True Tales of the Tenth Kansas Infantry: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, The Execution of Barney Gibbons  execution of a Union deserter in St. Louis

Return to Civil War St Louis


 

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