During the Civil War Gratiot Street Military Prison was operated in St. Louis, Missouri by the Union army. Gratiot was unique in that it was used not only to hold Confederate prisoners of war, but spies, guerillas, civilians suspected of disloyalty, and even Federal soldiers accused of crimes or misbehavior. The prison also was centered in a city of divided loyalties. Escapees could find refuge in homes not even half a block away. Many of the most dangerous people operating in the Trans-Mississippi passed through its doors. Some escaped in dramatically risky ways; others didn't and lost their lives at the end of a Union rope, or before a firing squad.
The building that was to become Gratiot Street Prison was a large brick structure with two wings. The northern wing (along Eighth Street) had been the medical college. Abutting the end of the northern wing was the Christian Brothers Academy. The southern wing (at the corner of Eighth and Gratiot) had been the residence of the McDowell family.
Between the two wings stood a distinctive, octagonal tower, three stories in height. The first story, the "round room", was half underground and was used in part as a recreation room, part dormitory. The second story which had been the college's amphitheater, was a single large room often used as a convalescent hospital. It was sixty feet in diameter, having 2,826 square feet of floor space with sixteen foot ceilings. The north and south wings of the building were joined at this level. In April of 1863 quarters for female prisoners were constructed in the "round room" though they were used only until a separate "female prison" was established in a building on the other side of Gratiot Street.
A third story was added to the tower that was accessible only from a long outside staircase on the western side of the building. This third story contained four "strong rooms" that held from one to fifteen men each. The rooms were divided by a cross hallway that was constantly patrolled by a guard who did not carry keys to the rooms. In these rooms were held the highest risk prisoners - those under sentence of death, or with a record of escapes. At times ordinary citizens arrested for drunkenness, seditious comments, or - in the martial law atmosphere of St. Louis - for no stated reason at all, would find themselves held in these rooms.
Absalom Grimes, who spent the majority of 1864 in these rooms, said, "In those stirring war days no man was of importance or standing until he had been locked up in Gratiot Street prison at least a few days... The citizens referred to would be rounded up about town and locked up without charges, apology, or explanation and after being boarded for from one week to two months they would be called before the provost marshal and presented with the oath of allegiance to the United States, which they had to sign without question, no matter how great the effort."
Confederate prisoners of war not under sentence of death would be put in these rooms as a punishment. Captain Griffin Frost, who spent fourteen months in Gratiot Street Prison, made some inappropriate remarks that "excited the dander of a self important little official" who had him locked in with the condemned prisoners for the night. It was a "night of horrors," Frost said. "I could hear the rattling of chains, and the thumping of balls, every time the poor fellows would turn over on their pallets of straw. They seemed cheerful enough when awake, but the moaning and groaning in their sleep told a story which their manly spirits could not hide."
The first floor of the south wing (there was no basement or underground portion in this wing) was used by prison officers. There were four rooms on this level, an office with an adjoining dining room for use by prison officials, and across the hall two parlor rooms that were converted for use for prisoners. A large porch ran the length of the wing.
At first the second story of the old McDowell residence wing was used to house prison guards. They were moved to a row of buildings on the other side of Eighth Street known as Johnson Barracks. The second story classrooms were then used mainly to hold Confederate officers.
The lowest level of the north wing, half underground, held cooking and washing facilities, and a dormitory. The second story held a large dormitory room, "the square room," of approximately 70 by 60 square feet, and a dining room that had been converted for use from the medical college dissection room.
The upper level of the north wing was the prison hospital, with the attic serving as the dead room. Two nearby residences served to provide additional hospital space, as did part of the round room in the octagonal tower, when needed.
A long, narrow yard ran along the western side of the prison, surrounded by a fifteen feet high wooden fence. The yard was divided by a narrow, guarded passage about eighty feet long so that different groups of prisoners could be kept apart.
The prison had a dungeon described by Frost as "the darkest pit of the prison.," and "a damp unhealthy hole, with a strong offensive smell." Though used for punishments, the dungeon was not considered secure enough for long-term confinement.
Adjoining Gratiot Street Prison to the north was the Christian Brother Academy. Numerous escapes took place when prisoners cut through the wall into the Academy. In all cases the escaped prisoners were escorted through the Academy and shown the exit without hindrance.
The neighborhood surrounding the prison created an unusual backdrop for such a facility. It was in a reasonably wealthy residential neighborhood. General Fremont's headquarters was at the corner of Eighth Street and Chouteau Avenue, just one block from the prison. Across the street was the home of Judge Harrison, a southern-sympathizing family that, nevertheless, were friends of James O. Broadhead, the Union Provost Marshal General who is reported as having said that every damned abolitionist in the country ought to be hung. On Eighth Street between Chouteau Avenue and Gratiot Street lived the Bull family. Son, William, said, "Our family and many other families in the neighborhood frequently sent food and other necessities to the prisoners and any that escaped found a place of refuge in my father's house, although if discovered my father's life might have been the penalty."
So numerous were the southern sympathizing households in the area that escaping prisoners could successfully vanish within a block of the prison. This created a situation unlike any other surrounding a major Civil War prison.
After the May 1861 success of General Lyon, Joseph McDowell and one son were among those who fled south. May 31, 1861 his medical college building was searched for munitions, the building confiscated by the Federal government, and remained under Union military control for the remainder of the war. At first the building was used as a barracks, then in December of 1861 McDowell Medical College was converted for use as a military prison under the command of Major General Henry Halleck. Three wagon-loads of human bones, used in anatomy study, were removed from the basement. Cooking facilities and bunks were installed, and iron bars were put on the windows. December 22, 1861 the first prisoners arrived. At first it was still called "McDowell's College," but by mid-1862 it had been rechristened "Gratiot Street Military Prison."
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