Prison Journal – March – April 1864

Gratiot Street Prison

“Camp and Prison Journal”

by Griffin Frost

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.

March – April 1864

MARCH 5, 1864.—Received orders to-day to get ready for St. Louis. Obeyed and started; within a square of the prison met Mr. Bradley who knew of the order, and came to accompany me. When we neared the depot we discovered that we were too late for the cars. Mr. B. requested of Col. W. permission for me to remain with him in the city until Monday, when I am to start again for St. Louis, but was denied. I was ordered into my old quarters. Mr. B. is quite hopeful in my case, and thinks there is no doubt of my being with my family soon. I trust he may be correct, for I am not like the “young man who has long lain in the grave for his own amusement.”

MONDAY, March 7, 1864.—I hail this morning from the old homestead, the venerable “Mother of learning,” (to suffer) the classic shades of Gratiot’s walls. How strikingly familiar are the strong locks, the iron bars, the boarded windows, the thumping of balls and clanking of chains, and even the posts in the yard, around which Carlin, Grimes, Sebring and others, froze while they sung, making music with their chains, the mockingly suggestive chorus, “Hard times come again no more.” Mr. Bradley has gone home, and I am not released. The whole matter is postponed indefinitely; some little quibble about the papers. So I resign myself once more to the humdrum existence of a prison monotony.

MARCH 9, 1864.—Discovered yesterday some changes in our official circles. Masterson and Burns are both removed—the latter, though ever kind to me, and gentlemanly in his conduct, has left I find with some, as bad a name as Masterson. I cannot believe it was in the man’s nature to be cruel, except as he was compelled to be in obedience to orders; Masterson was cruel, ungentlemanly, and insulting, in a purely personal manner. New prisoners are constantly coming in from the South. Some ten or twelve officers from near Little Rock were brought in last night, among whom I recognized an old acquaintance, Capt. Hobbs, C. S. A. It is a pity Capt. Masterson was removed quite so soon, as a brick wall is being built between the lamp house and street which will effectually prevent us from catching a glimpse of the dear ladies as they pass. I suppose they think they will spite somebody by building it, and in my case I will admit they succeed.

MARCH 13, 1864.—Last Saturday we scrubbed out our quarters and when through, I was so much fatigued as to be compelled to lie down. Suffered all night with neuralgia and next day felt very unwell. Monday I had a letter from my wife. She was so bitterly disappointed when Mr. Bradley arrived without me. She had Annie with her, and was waiting at the depot with a buggy to take me home. She knew I had been sick, and expected to find me feeble, and so was all prepared to take charge of an invalid husband. Tuesday and Wednesday were dull heavy days, and prison life seemed more gloomy than ever before. To-day a new order has been issued changing the aspect of affairs, and making a very material improvement in our condition. A sutler has been appointed for the prison, and we are permitted to buy whatever he chooses to keep, or we to order in the way of provisions; the only difficulty now is, the money to buy with. It can be furnished by our friends on the outside, and will be, in most cases, but such as have no friends to whom they can apply, must suffer on as before, and there are more of this class than one would imagine. We have availed ourselves of the new programme so far as to purchase some apples, which we have enjoyed as those outside can never know anything about.

Some of Joe Leddy’s song lyrics are online at “Civil War Music of the Western Border

MARCH 18, 1864.—Had last night some fine music on the guitar, by Joe Leddy, who sometime since at Batesville, Ark., was sentenced to be hung, but the sentence being commuted, he was sent from there here, and is now locked up night and day. It was sweet and sad to hear his mellow notes warbling out from his gloomy cage. We listened while song after song poured itself forth, now low and tender, now deep and grand, and anon wild, strong, and thrilling. Music at all times pleasant, is entrancing here.

MARCH 25, 1864.—It is useless to repeat that time drags heavily—the old complaint is worn threadbare—yet every day that comes and goes, but adds another link to this chain of incontestable truth, “time drags heavily.” A week has elapsed—fourteen of us occupy a room sixteen feet square. It is thick standing up, but when we wish to lie down, it is somewhat crowded. I spread my pallet on the table and thus escape the jam.

On Sunday a lot of Feds from Myrtle prison, were placed in with us having been fighting among themselves. One of them had his nose bitten off. They were as hard a looking set as I have seen; after remaining a short time in our quarters they were taken to a strong room and put under lock and key. Wife writes, they have not despaired of my release and are still working to obtain it. Yesterday morning we had a “dashing” time for a few minutes, hot coffee flew in abundance, it ended by one man getting his head cut with a cup. It was not exactly a “tempest in a tea-pot” but one very much mixed with coffee. Altogether it was a foolish affair; with the common enemy leagued against us, there should be peace among ourselves.

I was surprised to find among a lot of new arrivals my old friends Col. and Sam. Winston, who were captured in Platte county, Mo. They have been imprisoned at St. Joseph, and while there, the Col. got into trouble with some Federal horse thieves, about forty of whom were in the same prison, they handled him pretty roughly, giving him a “black eye” which he brings into Gratiot.

For more information on Robert Louden see The Boat-Burners; Sabotage of the Sultana, also Prisoner Notes. The little girl described here is his daughter Mollie Louden, the “little baby sister” is Annie, born in Feb. 1864. Louden’s wife Mary in April 1863 had been held in the same cell Robert was now in.

MARCH, 26, 1864.—Col. Winston was called before Gen. Rosecrans to-day, who lectured him severely for being inside the Federal lines, asking him if he did not know that he had laid himself liable to be tried and hung as a spy. Witnessed a sad and affecting sight, such as too often occurs in a military prison. Capt. Sullivan carried up the little daughter of Mr. Robert Loudon to see her father. She could not be admitted within his cell, but the kind hearted Captain held her up so she could kiss her father through the iron bars; he put his hands through and touched her soft silken hair, and asked her if she nursed little baby sister. Then he kissed her again, and told her to kiss her ma for him. Capt. S. is liked by all the prisoners, but it is feared he will not be permitted to remain long in charge as he has too much soul for the position.

TUESDAY, April 5, 1864.—On the night of my last writing, an attempt was made to dig through the wall into the building of the Christian Brothers, but unfortunately it was discovered before the design was completed and no escape was made. Those engaged in the enterprise were promptly locked up. Mr. Bradley wrote me a few days since, informing me that my brother Dan., a Colonel in the Federal army, had written to Gen. Rosecrans concerning my release. My friends are very kind indeed, and I am truly grateful, but it makes me sad every time I see a man go out on oath and bond; every one seems a stroke of the funeral bell for our beloved South: it will be a sorrowful day when I throw my shovel of dirt and march away. It appears however that it is going to be my fate to be reserved for one of the “watchers.” The following document was sent me this morning from Head Quarters:



St. Louis, April 4, 1864.}

Special Order, No. 89.

The instructions of the Commanding General, directing the release of Capt. Griffin Frost, of the rebel army, having been revoked by Special Order No. 66, par. “G,” Head Quarters, Department of the Missouri, of date of March 7, 1864, he will be transferred under guard from Gratiot street prison to the Military prison at Alton, Ill., to serve out his sentence.

J. P. SANDERSON, Provost Marshal Gen.

Capt. GRIFFIN FROST, Gratiot St. Prison.

APRIL, 12, 1864.—Heard last week that a number of prisoners had escaped from Alton. My brother John has been sent from there to Fort Delaware, it seems he finds the latter place a little too tough even for his philosophy. Says he very much prefers Alton. He tells as much as he dares, but what John says means a good deal. He is by no means disposed to be a grumbler, and things have to be bad indeed when he complains. Four thousand prisoners are there awaiting exchange. Having been there myself on a similar errand, but when the crowd was not so great, I can form some idea of the situation. May the good Lord put it into the heart of old Stanton to allow an exchange soon. Col. Winston was out before the Provost on Saturday in company with other officers. Sunday they were preparing to send off a number of prisoners, about 140 privates, who left Monday. Forty-one officers left to-day for Johnson’s Island, where they go to wait for exchange. Would it could be general, and take us all. If the South could gather up all her waste material, she might be strong enough to make a good rally yet.

A Federal prisoner named Cantrel, disputed the word of Lieut. Sebring this morning, when the latter pitched into him and gave him a genteel pummelling leaving a rather ugly cut near the left eye. Matters rested thus until breakfast, when Cantrel slipped up behind Sebring and with a lick unbottomed a bucket over the latter’s head. After which he made all possible speed to the office, on going down stairs he ran against McGinnis and upset a bucket of sugar he was carrying, but nothing stopped Cantrel until he had reported the affair, and was transferred to other quarters, for well he knew that he had best keep out of Sebring’s way.

APRIL, 13, 1864.—I give this day a special mark, for reasons hereafter explained. This morning I was placed back in my old quarters, with the windows on the gallery opened. It is most refreshingly pleasant I find myself for once, with no reasonable cause of complaint, a circumstance so rare, I think it demands notice. My room is comfortable; we are allowed to buy provisions and newspapers are not prohibited. I have said before that Capt. Sullivan is a gentleman. Well, I was ordered before the Provost. Nobody could inform me what was wanted. Getting ready—a guard with his musket took me in charge and we reported at the Provost’s. At the door I met an old gentleman, Mr. Daniel McLoud, of Marion county, Mo., whom I knew; after shaking hands, I went into the office, and there sat my wife and child. The former I saw but a short time fifteen months ago, but the little Annie, not since the war commenced—then she could not talk—now she is equal to an old woman. Our interview lasted nearly three hours. My wife still entertains a hope of my speedy release. When I could stay no longer I bade them an affectionate farewell and reluctantly came back to my prison. My sweet little daughter—she seemed like some bright fairy, or ministering spirit, as she clung round my neck and nestled her head of shining clustering curls so lovingly on my bosom. My noble wife has been a true mother to our darling child. I can write on no other subject—have room for no other thought, so I will close for to-night.

APRIL 17, 1864.—Thursday was a cold disagreeable day, no sensation whatever. Nobody had a laugh, none a fuss, and the musical fountains were all frozen. So we sat the day out like a Quaker meeting. Friday some ladies came in. I don’t know who they were, or on what errand of mercy they descended, but as we saw them enter and heard the low music of their gentle voices, we felt like that Peri, who,

“At the gate

Of Eden stood, disconsolate:

And as she listened to the springs

Of life within, like music flowing,

And caught the light upon her wings

Through the half open portal glowing,

She wept, &c.”

Saturday some of the occupants of Myrtle street prison, were turned over to the tender care and keeping of the Gratiot authorities. Among the number was a son of Judge Soward, of Canton, Mo., who was assigned to our mess. On that day we scrubbed and whitewashed our quarters. To-day we are very nice and comfortable, enjoying the fruit of yesterday’s industry, so we concluded we would celebrate the occasion by having a good dinner, and got one of the sergeants to take a bucket and go out and hail a milk man:

“What’s wanted?” asked the vender of food for babes.

“A bucket of milk for the prisoners,” was the reply.

Gathering up his lines, and giving his horses a crack, he started off, saying:

“I never have, and never will, sell anything to rebels.”

The good natured sergeant had no other alternative but to return with his empty bucket, and thus faded the bright anticipations which clustered around the good dinner “that might have been.” More prisoners arrived to-day.

APRIL 26, 1864.—On Monday we were fully compensated for the failure of our negotiation with the milk man by Miss Laura Elder’s sending us an abundant lot of delicious cake, which we relished as none but prisoners know how. Tuesday a scrap of gossip from Rock Island was handed round; it seems that one of their prisoners, a portly young fellow in Confederate grey, was lately delivered of a fine boy—a new recruit for Uncle Jeff, of course.

Wednesday had a letter from home saying that Gen. Rosecrans had power to release all sentenced prisoners, and as I am in that category hopes are entertained of a favorable action in my case. The monotony of Thursday was broken by Lieut. Sebring’s receiving from Miss Lucy Glasscock, of Ralls county, Mo., a choice variety of most tempting edibles. Ab. C. Grimes was also remembered from the same source. The regiment which has been guarding us was removed on Friday and sent South, some cavalry from Michigan taking their place. We were sorry to witness the change, for the officers of the old regiment were gentlemen, and we had some excellent friends among the men. While they were strict in enforcing orders, they harrassed the prisoners with no petty personal malice or contemptible exhibition of ephemeral power. The new authorities are yet to be tried, they appear to have seen service, which is an argument in their favor. We will forbear comment, and watch the course of events. Yesterday it rained hard all day, continuing through the night, and the clouds are not taken in today. Some ladies however, ventured through the damp to church; wonder if they will hear any prayers offered up for the “prisoners in our midst.” One thing, they’ll hear sure, is the President prayed for. An old Baptist preacher at Hannibal, named Cleavland, had a cannon drawn on him to make him pray for Old Abe, but that was early in the war and I guess they are all whipped into the traces by this time. Abraham ought to be a blessed and fortunate individual, when so many prayers are forced to “spurt out” at the point of the bayonet for him. Our room has become much crowded again, which interferes materially with any effort at comfort, we have hardly room to lie down on the floor, and when all are up stirring about it is impossible to read or write with any pleasure; every one following the bent of his peculiar humor converts the place at times into a perfect Bedlam. I manage to write a few letters, and jot a few lines now and then in my journal, but it is toiling against wind and tide.