Prison Journal Jan – Feb 1863

Gratiot Street Prison

“Camp and Prison Journal”

by Griffin Frost

January – February 1863




Buy a reprint of Frost’s full book from:

Available from Camp Pope Bookshop

reprint no longer available, but check Camp Pope’s inventory of other fine books

and check their other Missouri-related publications

The journal of Captain Griffin Frost was written throughout the war, much of it while Frost was a prisoner at Gratiot Street Prison and Alton Prison and is one of the very few published primary sources available on Gratiot. He published it in 1867 in response to the outcry against southern treatment of prisoners in places like Andersonville. Frost hoped to make it clear that northern treatment of prisoners was just as bad as southern. In this perspective the book was a failure for though deathrates were comparable in northern and southern prisons, the conditions in Gratiot were entirely unlike those in Andersonville, something that becomes immediately and abundantly clear when reading his narrative.

Frost was a newspaper editor and may have rewritten or enhanced some portions of his journal before publication. The portions that leap out in this regard are the occasional pro-southern/anti-northern mini-rants he indulges in which stand out jarringly at times from the flow of the rest of the narrative. On the other hand, Frost was a writer and he was bored with the tedium of prison life so may have unleashed his writing exuberance at times in his journal. He clearly is a skilled writer and writes a lively, interesting tale even in short entries. His information about events taking place around him is not always correct–something that may surprise a reader taking a journal written at the time as being a wholly reliable source. But Frost was limited by his perspective and the information he got and so sometimes reports as fact things that were only rumor. Annotations throughout will try to clarify these moments.

Points in Frost’s writing that grate most on the present-day reader (or so one hopes) are his occasional racial comments. They are harsh and wholly insulting yet will be included here without editing as they do reveal an important aspect of the times and the thought processes that needs to be faced squarely and not glossed over. Try to view these passages in their historical context yet also be aware they do not represent the views of all people at that time, yet by the some token were shared by a number of people from both sides of the conflict.

Though Frost’s narrative covers his entire wartime experience, only those portions that take place in Gratiot or Alton will be presented on this website.

PREFACE.Whenever we permit our thoughts to dwell upon the “Land we Love” we feel that she has a peculiar claim upon us—we have loved her from manhood, firm and true—and feel anxious to contribute our mite to succor and comfort her in her sad and desolated condition. Rivers of tears have been shed by her dear ones, excited by the fierce and cruel treatment of her foes! War has spread over her fair bosom, its desolation and carnage, and the eyes of her widows and orphans have been bathed in tears. In placing this Journal before the public we claim for it no merit save strict regard for truth; it is embellished by no brilliant scintillations of wit—no towering flights of fancy and imagination, but it tells the plain unvarnished truth—represents facts as they actually existed. And if this poor tribute, will be instrumental in silencing those who are ever and anon invoking imprecations upon the officers having charge of Andersonville, Libby and Belle Isle prisons, neither of which, we are sure, can exceed in atrocities those of Gratiot, Alton, Camp Douglas and Morton, as a careful perusal of this work will convince any right thinking individual, then will we feel compensated for all our perplexity in concealing our notes while languishing in Northern prisons, and for our trouble in gathering together the remaining facts preparatory to publication.


January – February 1863

JANUARY 1, 1863.—Arrived, last night, in company with one hundred and four other prisoners, at St. Louis; confined same night in Gratiot street prison. The weather being extremely cold we had a very disagreeable trip indeed, nothing to eat for twenty-four hours, and when we reached St. Louis we were as hungry as wolves. We had to stand in the street for over an hour before we could be admitted to the prison, during which time one poor fellow took a congestive chill and died. Before our admission we were searched, and deprived of our money, knives, papers, and in fact everything we had about us, (except my journal, which they were unable to find.) We were then shown to our quarters, the upper room in the round building—a very dark, gloomy place, and very filthy besides. From Springfield to Rolla we were made to walk most of the way. We had no tents and were compelled to lie out every night without shelter; sometimes it would rain, and in the morning we would find ourselves wet, muddy and nearly frozen, the roads were also very rough, and by the time we reached St. Louis we were nearly worn out with fatigue, and were glad to get to a place where we could rest even though it were a prison. Can’t say much about our new hotel as yet, as we have not seen enough to justify us in doing so.

JAN. 2, 1863.—Discover this morning that Gratiot is a very hard place, much worse than Springfield; fare so rough, it seems an excellent place to starve. Am not particularly fond of any prison, but must say that I give Springfield the preference over this.

JAN. 3, 1863.—Have found several acquaintances since my arrival—a brother-in-law, and one John Miller, a member of company “A,” and several others who used to belong to Price’s army. They have been here for some time, and as yet see no prospect of getting out.

JAN. 4, 1863.—This morning our quarters were changed to the lower room of the square building; it is in many respects a better place, but very cold, almost impossible to keep warm. We have only two stoves to over a hundred men.

JAN. 5, 1863.—There are now about eight hundred prisoners in Gratiot, and more coming in every day from all parts of the country. We are allowed only two meals a day, and it keeps the cooks busy to get through with them by dark. Some two or three hundred eat at a time, and the tin plates and cups are never washed from the first to the last table. For breakfast we have one-fifth of a loaf of baker’s bread, a small portion of bacon, and a tin cup of stuff they call coffee. For dinner the same amount of bread, a hunk of beef, and a pint of the water the beef was boiled in, which is called soup, and sometimes a couple of boiled potatoes—all dished up and portioned out with the hands; knives, forks and spoons not being allowed. Many leave the table as hungry as they went to it.

JAN. 6, 1863.—The hospital, which is the highest room in the prison, contains a great many, sick at this time. The Sisters of Charity visit them daily, ministering to them, and supplying them with such delicacies as their poor appetites can receive, and their weak conditions require.

JAN. 7, 1863.—Received orders to-day to move ourselves and baggage to the officers’ quarters—find it a great improvement on the old position, much cleaner, and not so crowded. There are eight of us in a room sixteen feet square, Lieut. Edmonds, of Shelbina, and Rev. Mc. Bounds, of Shelbyville, among the number. We have bunks instead of that horrid floor, to sleep on, and our fare is better and more plentiful, and brought on the table in better style. We have the privilege of using knives, forks and spoons, which we prefer to the finger plan in vogue below.

JAN. 8, 1863.—We have the privilege of promenading in a large hall, which we avail ourselves of for exercise. We have a good view from the windows, where we stand and watch for the Southern ladies to pass. God bless them, they always give us a pleasant smile; it is like a glimpse of Heaven to look in their dear sympathizing faces.

JAN. 9, 1863.—For the first time since I left home, on the 2nd of September, 1861, I received a letter; all well and doing well. Hope I shall hear from them every week while I am here, and enjoy the pleasure of talking to them, a few words at a time, with my pen. We are allowed to write but one page only, and our letters are all inspected, and if not gotten up according to the taste of the ‘exquisite’ who examines them, they are thrown into the litter basket and the envelope returned.

RYAN, Patrick John, archbishop, was born in Thurles, county Tipperary, Ireland, Feb. 20, 1831; son of Jeremiah and Mary Ryan. He was professor of English literature in Carondolet Theological seminary, St. Louis, Mo., 1852–53; ordained deacon in 1853, and priest, Sept. 8, 1853. In 1856 he was made rector, remaining in that position until 1860, when he assumed charge of the Parish of the Annunciation in St. Louis, serving also during the civil war as chaplain to the Gratiot Street Military prison and hospital, and declining a commission as chaplain in the army.

Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans,1904.

JAN. 12, 1863.—Yesterday—Sunday, was a very lonesome day, nothing to do or read, and had it not been for Father Ryan coming in, and preaching us a good sermon, I scarcely know how we could have gotten through the day. We have two or three Methodist divines in prison, who are permitted to preach occasionally.

The ladies of St. Louis are very kind, they are constantly relieving our necessities, and seem thankful that it is in their power to do so. I hope the poor fellows below are not forgotten; their case amounts to actual suffering, while we are comparatively comfortable.

JAN. 14, 1863.—Heard some talk yesterday of an exchange of prisoners; hope it will soon come round, God knows we all long to breathe the pure air of Dixie once more, free from the tyrant rule we are now under. To-day we are cooped up in our den, not allowed even to put our heads out of the windows, if we do the guards are ordered to shoot us. One of their own men was put in here for some offence, and probably without knowing of the order, looked out at the window, when the guard fired, and the poor wretch fell dead. Our consolation was, that it was not one of us, but it looked hard to see even an enemy killed in that way.

JAN. 16, 1863.—Nothing of interest transpiring in the prison; we go over the same old round of dull monotony, hear nothing from the outside except when a new victim is brought in. If we could have some papers or books we could do very well, but it will do no good to grumble.

JAN. 19, 1863.—Yesterday was another long dull Sunday. Time in a prison passes slowly. The officer of the day comes in on a tour of inspection; if he is a gentleman his visit is an agreeable episode, if otherwise, which is most frequently the case, he adds insult to injury, and his presence is a nuisance. That over, and our two meals swallowed, the leaden hours drop on to us again and drag heavily along until nine o’clock, P. M., when the lights are extinguished, then our misery becomes invisible. We and darkness keep the secret between us, and many is the hour we pass in silent sad communion. We hear numerous reports from the lower quarters: prisoners complaining of insufficient food. God help them if it is any worse than when I was there. I wonder if it can be true that the prisoners’ rations are sold, and the money pocketed, while the poor fellows are left to starve on less than half of prison allowance. The matter ought to be looked into by those in higher authority.

JAN. 20, 1863.—Still heavy complaints from below about not getting enough to eat, and if this thing continues they will all be in the hospital or grave yard in a very short time. All through the night may be heard coughing, swearing, singing and praying, sometimes drowned by almost unearthly noises, issuing from uproarious gangs, laughing, shouting, stamping and howling, making night hideous with their unnatural clang. It is surely a hell on earth.

JAN. 22, 1863.—A very notable day for me, the grand epoch in my prison life. I have enjoyed 30 minutes conversation with my dear wife—a whole half hour!!

If measured by its length of bliss

I surely lived an age in this,

For in a moment’s rapturous thrill

Was joy enough a life to fill.

Mary E. R. Johnson married Griffin Frost Sept. 10, 1857 in Marion Co., Missouri.

I could rhyme along ad infinitum, but the thirty minutes came to an end. The time was up, she had to go. If possible she will see me again, though I scarce dare hope it. It was with great difficulty she succeeded to-day; the Provost Marshal told her it was against the rules, but she plead so hard that he granted her a permit.

JAN. 23, 1863.—Did not get to see my wife to-day. She went to the Provost’s office and tried again to obtain a permit, but was denied; the best thing she could do was to write me a note, informing me of her unsuccessful efforts, and that she would leave St. Louis to-night on the one o’clock train. May God protect her in her midnight journey.

JAN. 25, 1863.—We hear nothing of an exchange, fear it will be some time before one takes place. Prison life grows duller, wish they would hurry up and get the thing over, it is not very entertaining to sit here and wait the result. Why don’t they clear out the prisons and let us fight it out?

JAN. 28, 1863.—Some of the Federal officers now guarding us are a disgrace to the military service. They do not understand the first principles of gentlemanly courtesy, and as for bravery, who ever heard of a brave man insulting a woman or a helpless prisoner. An ignorant ruffian might, and the source would be considered, but an officer in the army of a country, making the boasts and pretensions which the United States do, is expected to possess some refinement. Hence I assert that Col. Kinkaid is a disgrace to the stars and stripes. He told some five or six Confederate officers that he would not believe one of them on oath, and that their wives, and indeed all the Southern women, were prostitutes of the very lowest class. Such language coming from an object occupying a position which a gentleman ought to fill, needs no comment. Did it ever occur to the uniform that the tables might be turned? He would whine a different tune if he were in a Confederate prison, however he will never be so fortunate, for a person of his stripe never goes where there is any danger of being captured.

Much fault was found with Masterson later on. He was generally reviled by the prisoners, yet later ended up joining their ranks as he was found to have been pilfering from the prisoners’ funds.

The officers of the prison, Capt. Masterson, sergeants Kyser and Glenn, we find no fault with at present. They extend us all the kindness and courtesy which the nature of the case requires and permits, especially Kyser, who has the respect of every officer in prison; but the officers of the regiment now guarding us, are perfect devils—there is nothing too low, mean or insulting, for them to say or do.

JAN. 31, 1863.—Was introduced to McDowell’s College just one month ago to-night. Have learned but little in the way of dissecting the human body, not for the want of subjects however, as there are three or four deaths every day. Received a present yesterday from Mrs. Meredith, the prisoner’s friend, consisting of a pair of drawers, pair of socks, and a shirt; articles of which I stood in great need. God bless the aged Dorcas.

FEB. 2, 1863.—An old woman has for some time been allowed to visit our prison door, and peddle out such little articles as we have need of, and are able to buy, such as edibles, paper, pens and ink. She was a great institution; indeed, we regarded her as a necessity. They tell us she is to come no more—prohibited because she is a Southern sympathizer. Poor old woman, wish she had had Union notions, it was the contents of her basket that we appreciated.

The Graybeards, Letters of Major Lyman Allen, of the 37th Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry, The “Graybeards” Including The Diaries of Viola Baldwin His Step-Daughter by Harriet Stevens

buy this book at

FEB. 3, 1863.—We are now guarded by the 37th Iowa, called the “Silver Greys,” composed mostly of old gentlemen—nice old fellows, kind and fatherly—wish I could say as much for some of their officers, especially Kinkaid and one Malcolm.

FEB. 5, 1863.—Were informed to-day that no exchange of officers will take place until President Davis recalls that “blood-thirsty proclamation” relative to retaining Federal officers. Have seen some fine specimens of birds, which formerly belonged to McDowell’s museum, but all in a ruined condition, the prisoners crowding round in their dirt and despair have wrought a great deal of destruction on the Doctor’s premises. The walls are literally covered with names and scribble. Many a poor fellow has written here the only epitaph he will ever have. We often hear of prison walls having ears; old Gratiot will have a “tongue to tell a tale,” which, if it were told, would “curdle the blood in the veins of youth.”

FEB. 7, 1863.—Learned to-day that several of the “Grey Beards” or Silver Greys, have deserted, and gone, nobody knows where, probably to Dixie to see Uncle Jeff; as it is said that some of them liked him a great deal better than Old Abe. So much for the wisdom of age. Time may bring all the Yankees to their senses; though I must confess, the old Father will have a pretty heavy undertaking, for they are “joined to their idols.”

FEB. 10, 1863,—The Southern ladies of St. Louis by their untiring kindness, make us forget as far as possible, that we are strangers as well as prisoners. Our own families could do no more for us. We are continually receiving from their hands, contributions of clothing, to be distributed among the most needy. The only return the helpless captive can make is fervently to pray, “God bless them.”

We are divided into messes, six or seven together, and take it by turns cooking. It looks odd to see a man round with an apron on, cooking and washing dishes. Since they have let our “Old Woman” come back and sell to us, we get along pretty well—fix up a bread pudding occasionally, probably not in the style our lady wives would order, but we enjoy it hugely.

Col. Daniel Frost, 11th West Virginia Infantry, Co. F., USA, died of wounds received in battle, July 1864

FEB. 12, 1863.—I learned to-day that my brother Dan. Frost is a Colonel in the Federal army, and his son a Major. Strange position for them to occupy. With Dan’s opportunities he ought to have known better; he is a noble man, I love him like a father, but I fear he is fighting against his principles.

Graduates have been rather scarce this winter, but once in a while we send out a hopeful to take the oath, give bond and security, and join the militia. I won’t take my diploma just yet, don’t feel prepared to pay for it.

FEB. 16, 1863.—In the lower quarters are four very old men, who all have a ball and chain, weighing from 50 to 60 pounds, attached to their legs. These implements of torture they drag round when ever they wish to move. Grey hairs and chains did not use to match well in America, they were only found as rare specimens, in the dungeons of the old world, but we are progressive; we manufacture our own curiosities.

Our gentlemanly officers in command, have issued instructions to the guard to “run his bayonet through the d—d rebels” if they crowd round the door when the old peddling woman comes.

FEB. 24, 1863.—Have just returned from the hospital, was there just one week. The Doctor pronounced my case bronchitis; suffered very much with my throat and breast, and a distressing cough. For the first three days I grew no better, the medicine seemed to have no effect, but on the fourth my cough loosened, and I improved rapidly. I was placed in a comfortable room with three others, and we were visited daily by the Sisters of Charity, who administered our medicine, brought us our food, &c. I attribute my speedy recovery to their kind attentions, and womanly nursing.

FEB. 25, 1863.—Eighty-five prisoners were sent off to-day—some say for exchange, others for Alton, I lean to the latter opinion. Among them was one man, very feeble, who was kept up with the rest by being pushed along with the bayonet. A pretty sharp argument and strong stimulus.

FEB. 26, 1863.—Some 70 or 80 prisoners were brought down from Alton to-day, for trial. Col. Ben. Hawkins, of Marion county, Mo., made his escape from prison last night. May success attend him.

FEB. 27, 1863.—Sixty more prisoners left here to-day for Alton. It is said, whether truly or not, time must determine, that they are taken there for the purpose of being sent off on exchange. The weather is miserably gloomy, and the sickness in the hospital is proving very fatal in the last few days.