During the Civil War, the Gratiot Street Military Prison was operated in St. Louis 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 Union 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 while 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 2 wings. The northern wing had been the medical college. Abutting the end of the northern wing was the Christian Brothers Academy. The southern wing had been the residence of the McDowell family.
Between the 2 wings stood a distinctive, octagonal tower, 3 stories in height. The 1st story, the “round room”, was half underground and was used in part as a recreation room, part dormitory. The 2nd story which had been the college’s amphitheater, was a single large room often used as a convalescent hospital. It was 60-feet in diameter, having 2,826 square feet of floor space with 16-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 3rd 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 4 “strong rooms” that held from 1 to 15 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.
The 1st floor of the south wing (there was no basement or underground portion in this wing) was used by prison officers. There were 4 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 2nd 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 15-feet high wooden fence. The yard was divided by a narrow, guarded passage about 80-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.
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.
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 Gen. 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.
LIFE & CONDITIONS:
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.”
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 building and show the exit without hindrance.