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HISTORY OF: Gratiot Street Military Prison
During the Civil War Gratiot Street Military Prison was operated in St. Louis, Missouri 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 Federal 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; others didn't and lost their lives at the end of a Union rope, or before a firing squad.
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. 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.
Most of the dead prisoners were buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. 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.
The location is now the headquarters of Ralston-Purina and has been for over a century. The original Gratiot building was demolished in 1878.
ABSALOM C. GRIMES, SOLDIER, ESCAPE ARTIST
Grimes was a steamboat pilot on the upper Mississippi river at the outbreak of the war. Refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States suddenly required to renew pilot's licenses, Grimes left the river and waited, expecting that in a few weeks the "secession disturbance would be settled." Grimes' own family was Union, his mother saying she had to leave her home in Ralls County because of the animosity of her pro-secession neighbors to her views. At least one of Grimes' brothers enlisted in the Union army. Many others of his relatives, aunts and cousins, aided him in his mail smuggling at great personal risk and cost. The family of his fiancée, Lucy Glascock, was also pro-Confederate. Their wartime romance become famous.
Grimes first joined an irregular Missouri State Guard unit in Ralls County, Missouri. Sam Clemens, later famous as author Mark Twain, was a lieutenant in the "Ralls County Rangers." A Twain biographer gives more credence for accuracy to Grimes' version. Grimes later joined the 1st Missouri Cavalry CSA as a private and was captured near Springfield, Missouri. He escaped while being sent from Myrtle Street Prison in St. Louis to Alton Prison in Illinois.
Before returning south to join his unit, Grimes decided to gather up letters from Missouri families to carry with him, thus establishing himself in his wartime career, becoming "Official Confederate Mail Carrier", with a commission as a major, for General Sterling Price's army. Grimes was captured several times but acquired a reputation as an escape artist, once by escaping from the guardhouse at Cairo, Illinois, then from Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis while chained in close confinement and under heavy guard.
The next time the Federals arrested him they were very serious about holding on to him and several escape attempts failed.
In the last attempt to escape from Gratiot in June of 1864, shortly before Grimes was scheduled to be hanged as a Rebel spy, two men were killed and Grimes was shot and seriously injured. This ended both his escape attempts and wartime career. Grimes was spared execution through the influence of Union friends, eventually being given a full pardon by President Lincoln.
Grimes married Lucy Glascock in March of 1865. They had seven children together but only two--Hudson D. Grimes and Lottie Grimes Mitchell--survived to adulthood. Grimes returned to river piloting, then into other careers, including the ownership of a hotel. He also owned a hunting resort in Lincoln County, Missouri. A few years after Lucy's death in 1903, Grimes remarried to a younger woman named Nell Tauke. Grimes died in March of 1911.
A. C. Grimes Obituary:
Shortly before his death, at daughter Lottie's insistence, Grimes wrote his memoirs. It's likely he never intended the memoirs to see publication, and they weren't published until 1926. The story he tells is true, though contains many errors in dating and sequence of events, but also contains considerable omissions. Grimes was far more deeply associated with the Confederate secret service agents operating under General Price than he says in his book. Still, the book is a fascinating story of the War in Missouri and along the Mississippi River.
Elijah Alexander Mays
Alexander Mays was born about 1820 in Maury County, Tennessee. He was the son of John and Eleanor “Nelly” Dorton Mays.
On December 30th, 1862 E. A. Mays was captured by Captain Bruett of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. The Union Captain stated that Alexander had refused to take the oath to the United States and to give bond. He stated that Alexander said he would not care if he had to work his lifetime at the fortifications. He was taken to Van Buren, Missouri for a few days and on January 6, 1863, when his youngest son Andrew was only 8 years old, Elijah Alexander Mays, civilian, Reynolds County, Missouri, was confined to the Gratiot Street, Union prison in St. Louis, Missouri. On January 26th, Alexander was listed as “unaccounted for”. There were a great many escapes made from these prisons and it might be that he tried, but on February 5, 1863 he was back and made a statement to the authorities. He stated that he was born in Maury Co, Tennessee, was 43 years old, a farmer, married and had four children. When asked why he was arrested, he stated that "I don't know-Have no idea-thought I had always been a good loyal citizen." When asked if he was a southern sympathizer he stated that "I hate to see the south crushed as it is spoken of - I rather think I am." The interviewer stated that he did not make a good impression and doubted that he was truthful. He also stated that he was mild, firm, vigorous and healthy. It was also stated that "No doubt a traitor at heart, but too ignorant to do much harm."
In March of 1863 smallpox broke out among the prisoners causing them to wonder that “every disease under heaven does not break out in the lower quarters, half starved and crowded together as they are in dirt and rage.” On February 26th Alexander was sent to the Burnett Hospital. It is possible that he too had smallpox but there is no record of his ailment. The records are confusing but on either March 9th or April 25th, 1863 Alexander was sent to the Alton, Illinois prison.
It appears that on August 3rd, Alexander was sent back to the Gratiot Street prison, where by October, there were nine hundred and sixty prisoners, many without bunks. On September 2d, the Judge Advocate recommended that E. A. Mays be kept in prison during the bushwhacking months (September and October) and then released on bond of one thousand dollars. Through all this Alexander survived, for on November 27, 1863, while in the Gratiot Street prison, is a single final entry, "Sent South of the U.S. lines.” It appears that Alexander never made it back to his family and home.
Robert Payne Byrd~"F" Co. MO 12th Infantry
Robert Payne Byrd traveled south from Ironton to Oregon County, MO where, according to his CSA service records, he was enlisted in Company F of Colonel James White's 3rd (later 9th) Missouri Infantry, CSA on August 2, 1862 by T.H. Turner. Lieutenant-Colonel Willis M. Ponder resigned from White's 3rd/9th Missouri Infantry during March, 1862 and formed another regiment of his own during July of 1862 -- it appears likely that Robert Payne Byrd was in this unit, also called the 9th Missouri Infantry, commanded by Willis M. Ponder.
Active training and drills took place at Camp Shaver, near Pocahontas, Randolph County, Arkansas. Ponder's 9th Missouri Infantry then moved to Izard County, Arkansas during September, 1862 for additional training. During reorganization at Yellville, Arkansas on November 14, 1862, Ponder's 9th Missouri Infantry was redesignated the 12th Missouri Infantry, C.S.A. A composite muster roll for this unit lists Private R.P. Byrd in Co. F, Ponder's 12th Missouri Infantry.
Payne Byrd apparently went AWOL, and according to his CSA service record, was captured by Federal soldiers somewhere in Oregon County, MO on January 28, 1863. His service records also state that he was then sent to Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis, MO, from West Plains, Howell County, MO on February 3, 1863. He arrived in St. Louis and was received at Gratiot Prison on February 8, 1863. On February 11, 1863, Pvt. Robert Payne Byrd was "examined" by Federal Colonel (?) M.V.G. Strong and a Captain A. Olsen (?) there at Gratiot Prison as a POW.
The last notation on his CSA service records states that Pvt. Robert P. Boyd (sic), Co. F, White's Regt. appears on a monthly report of Gratiot Prison from March 1 to 31, 1863. The last notation reads: "Where captured -- Oregon Co. MO. When captured -- Jan. 28, 1863. Received -- Feb. 8, 1863. Discharged -- Mar. 6, 1863. Remarks -- Small Pox Hospital." As best as can be determined at the time of this writing, Payne Byrd contracted smallpox and was removed to the so-called Small Pox Island (McPike's Island) in the middle of the Mississippi River and offshore from the Alton, Illinois POW camp. It is assumed he died there and was buried in a mass grave with other CSA POWs who died from smallpox at that time. No records yet found indicate exactly when he died or where. Interestingly, the Bible belonging to his father, John Wesley "Jack" Byrd, back in Stewart Co. TN records his death as being on April 7, 1864. The exact date and place of Pvt. Robert Payne Byrd's death is still unknown to any of his current relatives.
May 12, 1998 - by Kenneth E. Byrd, Indianapolis, IN
Another possibility for the place Byrd was sent when he contracted small pox is given in The Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis (1899), which says:
The quarantine establishment answers as a quarantine and small-pox hospital, and is located on a tract of land of about fifty-four acres, which tract is on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about one and one-half miles below Jefferson Barracks. It was purchased by the city in 1856 for a quarantine ground... At the extreme west end of these grounds is a cemetery which was used up to 1877 as a burial place for the pauper dead of the city and the patients who died in the hospital on the grounds.
The Execution of Barney Gibbons
Specifications: In this, that he, Barney Gibbons, a private of Company A, Seventh Regiment United States Infantry, duly enlisted in the service of the United States on or about the 27th day of July, A. D. 1861, at or near San Augustine Springs in the Territory of New Mexico, did absent himself from and desert said service and go over to and join with rebel forces in arms against the government of the United States.
Asst. Adjt. Genl.
Witness: Richard C. Day in Col. Wm Meyers Office
According to Sergeant Day, Barney joined the 7th Regiment at Camp Floyd, Utah Territory with a batch of recruits from Newport, Kentucky. When the hostilities broke out Company A, 7th Regiment found itself isolated at San Augustine Springs, New Mexico Territory. The hapless Barney Gibbons made a statement to the Court defending his pleas of innocent:
The hapless Barney Gibbons made a statement to the Court defending his pleas of innocent:
All I have got to say is the charges against me is false. I never belonged to the United States Infantry, but there was a man, my brother, who went by the name of Barney Gibbons, that did and he belonged to that company. I was in Texas at the time, and was in a light battery. My brother pretended to say that he was not treated well and left them and joined us. He resembled me very much and I suppose this man arrested me under that name for this reason. My name is Benjamin Gray. I never assumed the name of Barney Gibbons. My brother did. He joined under that name. He got into trouble and assumed that name to get out of it. I have a cut on my lip and so has he. I was born in Pennsylvania. I came up to Fillmore in Col. John Baylor’s command. I never was in the service of the United States. The company, rebel company, that I belonged to was broken up and I was assigned to a gun boat, the Sachem, but I was dissatisfied and the first opportunity I left them. I never saw this man before that. I know of I might have seen him at the time he stated, but I don’t recollect it. I was in the rebel service at the time this company of the 7th U.S. Infantry surrendered. I was in a battery when the regiment was taken.
The court deliberated and found Barney Gibbons guilty of desertion. The sentence was equally as terse.
And the Court does therefore sentence him, the said Barney Gibbons, a private of Co. A, Seventh United States Infantry, to be shot to death with musketry, at such time and place as the commanding General may designate. Two-thirds of the members of the Court concurring in the above sentence.
The date was set for August 13th. A unique aspect of Barney Gibbon’s execution was it was the first military execution of a Union soldier to take place in St. Louis. The military establishment wanted to make a spectacle of it and to impress the Union soldiers with the seriousness of deserting over to the enemy.
The day before his execution, Barney Gibbons provided a little more detail on his errant behavior. He admitted deserting with eighteen other soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry as Richard C. Day testified. He also admitted fighting in the battles of Valverde, Apache Canyon, Johnson’s Ranch and Albuquerque. While in Texas his artillery unit was transferred to the Confederate ship, Sachem. He did not like the duty and escaped on the captain’s gig to the blockading Union ship, Princess Royal. He disembarked at New Orleans and drove a Quartermaster’s wagon until May 1864 when he came to St. Louis. He joined the workers on the Pacific Railroad and cut ties near Knob Noster and Warrensburg, Missouri and again, returned to St. Louis in June 1864.
SOURCE: File No. LL 2210, Barney Gibbons, Proceedings of a General Court Martial Held at St. Louis, Mo. July 13, 1864, National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm M1523, Proceedings of U. S. Army Courts-Martial and Military Commissions of Union Soldiers Executed by U.S. Military Authorities, 1861-1866.