Civil War Prisons

Over-crowded and ill ventilated prisons were apparently common in Civil War Missouri. A report published in the Missouri Democrat of September 20, 1862 after an inspection of the Gratiot Street military prison by U.S. Army Medical Examiner, Surgeon J.B. Colegrove, included many criticisms:

"The number of persons here confined is large too large even for the occupation of a room twice or thrice the size of this; but with no facility for the renewal of fresh atmosphere, the constant accumulation of stagnant air, loaded with impurities, necessarily arising from the presence of so many people, how is it possible to prevent the occurrence of disease? It is impossible."

It is true that quite a few prisoners died from typhoid fever and other diseases and a small number were executed if, before a tribunal Union, officials could prove they acted in violation of laws of warfare by being captured as guerrillas with firearms in their hands. Some were even executed if they were captured as southern troops if it could be proven they had earlier sworn not to bear arms against the U. S. Although the food was poor and quantities were limited, very few died of starvation. The small amount of food did reduce the health of the prisoners and leave them in a weakened state to be subject to disease.

Three popular military prisons in the area were:

  1. Gratiot Street Prison

    Formerly the McDowell Medical College in the south edge of present-day St. Louis near the world headquarters of Ralston-Purina, Inc. After Dr. McDowell took family and slaves and moved to the South early in the war, the Union authorities took over his college and turned it into a makeshift prison early in 1862. The Gratiot Street prison was a hell-hole since it was drafty, had poor sanitation facilities and was not designed as a prison. It was used to house hundreds of POWs, political prisoners, female prisoners, and Union prisoners, such as apprehended deserters, throughout nearly the entire war period. Escapes were frequent and very embarrassing to Union authorities.

  2. Myrtle Street Prison

    Formerly the Lynch Slave Market, in what is now downtown St. Louis. This prison was also infamous for poor living conditions for the Confederate POWs, but had a much smaller capacity than Gratiot Street prison. It was used only for limited periods during the war. Since it was designed to house slaves for sale security was good and few inmates escaped from the Myrtle Street Prison during the war.

  3. Alton, IL Military Prison

Formerly a condemned Illinois State Penitentiary. This prison had the largest capacity as far as numbers of prisoners of all the three, and at its height of use several thousand Confederate POWs and even a few women were housed here. The sanitation facilities at Alton were as bad as the other two and smallpox killed hundreds of inmates here during the war. There were so many smallpox victims at one time that Union prison authorities had those stricken taken to an island in the nearby Mississippi River in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. Of course, a large number of those sent to the island died of the disease and were buried there. Unfortunately, everyone forgot about those burials until 1937 when construction of the Alton Lock and Dam on the river broke through the burial ground and revealed skeletal remains all over the forlorn flood-swept island. A memorial is being erected there in May 2002 to commemorate those poor forgotten victims. In spite of the Alton Military Prison being designed to house desperate criminals, there were a few escapes from this notorious facility often with aid from greedy Yankee guards. The largest included 35 Rebel POWs who dug out under the wall with flatware and all but a few made good their escape in this July 1862 mass escape. Some of them were from northeast MO and perhaps even Monroe County.

Sources: Civil War historian Bruce Nichols using the old Hesseltine book and the 1995 Joanne Chiles Eakins' "Missouri Prisoners of War" book published by the author in Independence, and "With Porter in North Missouri" by Joseph A. Mudd.