Gratiot Street Prison FAQ:
Questions about the Union Civil War Prison in St. Louis, Missouri
by D. H. Rule
How is Gratiot pronounced?
Where does the name come from?
The prison was at the corner of 8th and Gratiot Streets in St. Louis.
Does anything remain on the site?
No. The location is now the headquarters of Ralston-Purina and has been for
over a century. The original Gratiot building was demolished in 1878. As near as
I could determine, the actual prison site is now a parking lot. (see
Then & Now for pictures)
Letters and memoirs sometimes refer to McDowell's College. What is
"McDowell's" or "McDowell's College"?
This is Gratiot Street Prison. The building had been McDowell's College, a
medical college owned and operated by Joseph Nash McDowell. It was confiscated
by the Federal authorities in the spring of 1861. In December 1861 the building
was converted into a prison and later renamed. Even early Federal records often
call the place "McDowell's College."
What sort of area was Gratiot Street Prison in?
It was right in the midst of some of the wealthiest homes in St. Louis.
General Fremont's headquarters in the Brant Mansion were only a block away.
Right across the street was the home of the wealthy Harrison family. Attached to
Gratiot on the north was the Christian Brothers Academy.
See Gratiot Street Prison for a
description of the building and area.
What kind of prisoners were held there?
Unlike other Civil War prisons, Gratiot was used to hold just about anyone
and everyone. Along with Confederate prisoners of war were also held civilians
("citizens"), women, children, confiscated slaves ("contrabands"), spies,
saboteurs, political prisoners, guerrillas and bushwhackers, and even Federal soldiers who had committed crimes or
had misbehaved. Of Confederate soldiers held at Gratiot, the most likely ones
came from battles and states in the Mississippi River region as far south as New
Orleans. They were sent north for processing at Gratiot then moved on to Alton
and other eastern prisons. Also soldiers fighting in Missouri and Arkansas would
be sent to St. Louis.
Was Gratiot the only prison in St. Louis?
No. There were a number of other prisons and buildings used besides Gratiot,
but they all fell under Gratiot's administration (which was run by the Provost
Marshal) and were, effectively, part of Gratiot. Other prisons include Myrtle
Street Prison which was a confiscated slave pen known as Lynch's Slave Pen
(confiscated from Bernard Lynch), Chesnut Street Prison which was the
confiscated home of Margaret McLure and was used to hold women, and a variety of
other buildings in the area surrounding Gratiot.
Were Confederate POWs held there a long time or moved to other prison?
Most were moved to other prisons fairly quickly. Most common destination was
Alton Prison 25 miles away on the Mississippi River in Illinois. From there many
were sent on to Camp Douglas in Chicago, Camp Chase, etc. Or were sent east for
exchange and return south (until exchanges were halted). Gratiot was more of a
clearing house for POWs in the Trans-Mississippi. POWs came from Mississippi
River area battles and surrenders like Vicksburg. Prisoners who were held a long
time at Gratiot were officers who had been caught recruiting behind the lines,
or engaging in other such illegal activities, spies, smugglers, and political
Is there any single list or database of prisoners held at Gratiot?
Where can I look up my ancestor?
No. And there is no such thing as a quick, simple "look-up". Prisoner records
are on a series of microfilms, are handwritten, not in true alphabetical or
chronological order (see Gratiot Sources). Even
the primary microfilms of Gratiot ledgers do not include all the prisoner
names--others are scattered across hundreds of Provost Marshal microfilm
records. The St. Louis newspapers also published daily Gratiot prisoner
updates/arrivals/departures that may include even more names recorded nowhere
else. The names of several hundred prisoners (out of thousands) have been
transcribed on this website, and will continue to be
added to. A published transcription list of Missouri-only Confederate prisoners
was done by Joanne Chiles Eakin and is available from Civil
War Lady's Book Shoppe. The Women and
Children's Prisoner List on this website is the most thorough and complete listing to
date of women and children held prisoner in the St. Louis prisons during the
What were the main causes of death at Gratiot?
Disease--mainly small pox. The prison officials took efforts to contain the
disease and vaccinated against it as far as possible but there were still
several severe outbreaks. All the other typical illnesses common to the era also
affected the prisoners. There is little evidence that lack of food or safe water
(by 1860's standards) was ever a major problem. When inspections revealed poor
food or lack of food steps were taken to correct the situation. Sanitary
conditions were also monitored carefully. While there were
problems--particularly in the early months of operation--there's no indication
that any food shortages or deficient sanitary conditions were intentional and
they were corrected as soon and as well as possible. Also, arriving prisoners
may have had battle wounds that had often gone untreated for several days, as
well as an arduous trip, that affected their survival chances. In the very first
batch of prisoners to arrive at Gratiot one man died practically on the
doorsteps in the December cold. This is not to say conditions were always
pleasant. Treatment was sometimes harsh but not unusually so for the era.
What was the capacity?
1200 was the recommended maximum number but over 2000 people were kept at
Were there many escapes?
Yes. At one time the St. Louis newspapers mockingly referred to the prison
have bars made of cobwebs. The biggest single escape was in December 1863 when
about 60 men escaped through a tunnel. Others cut through the wall into
Christian Brothers Academy where they were--without hindrance--shown the exit.
This is not to say escapes came easily or without cost--a sizeable number were
killed in the attempts and others thwarted. Being in the location it was, in the
midst of often sympathetic houses, made it easier to make good an escape. A safe
hiding place could be found often as near as half a block from the prison.
What was security like? How were people kept in?
The main factor keeping people in was--as with most Civil War prisons--the
concept of a "dead line". Except in the case of Gratiot, with its very small
outdoor yards, there was not a physical dead line, but rules stating that standing at a
window, putting arms or head out, etc. would get you shot. One Federal soldier
who'd been put in the prison for misbehavior didn't last even a day as he was
shot by one of the guards. Guards patrolled the streets and alleys adjacent to
Did executions take place at Gratiot?
A few. Most were conducted off-site, mainly at the city jail or Benton
Where were the dead buried?
Most were buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery (you
can search burial listings here). Some were claimed by families and taken
home for burial. Some--particularly smallpox victims--were buried in cemeteries
at the small pox hospitals or on a Quarantine Island in the middle of the
From the webmasters of Civil War St. Louis...
Noted Guerrillas and, the extremely rare,
A Terrible Quintette
on a searchable CD-ROM:
Click here for more
information and to order