Gratiot Street Prison FAQ

Gratiot Street Prison FAQ:

Frequently Asked 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.”

Gratiot 1863

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 prisoners.

Gratiot in 1876Is 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 Civil War.

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 some times.

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 the building.

Did executions take place at Gratiot?

A few. Most were conducted off-site, mainly at the city jail or Benton Barracks.

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 Mississippi River.