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Civil War prisons and Ebenezer Magoffin

By Rhonda Chalfant Contributing Columnist

July 29, 2014

Civil War era prisons were notorious for their treatment of prisoners. In December 1861, when Col. Ebenezer Magoffin, Pettis County Confederate recruiter, was captured with two of his sons at Milford, near the Blackwater River north of Knob Noster, he was sent to the Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis and then to the Alton Prison in Alton, Illinois. The following July, he escaped.


The Gratiot (pronounced grass-shut) Street Prison had been created by the federal forces as a place to incarcerate Confederate prisoners-of-war. It also housed Southern sympathizers, guerillas, spies, Union deserters, and those viewed as disloyal because they spoke against the United States, including women with their children.


Gratiot Street Prison was located at the corner of Gratiot Street and Eighth Street in St. Louis, in a nice neighborhood where many Southern sympathizers lived. The building, which consisted of two wings joined to a three-story central tower, had previously housed the McDonald Medical College. Its capacity, according to official records, was 1,200 prisoners, but the prison housed as many as 2,000 prisoners at a time.


Gratiot Street Prison was not only overcrowded, it was dirty and full of disease. When it became apparent to Union officials that more space was needed to house the many prisoners, the Union took over the former Illinois State Penitentiary at Alton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.


The Alton Prison had been built between 1831 and 1833, and opened in 1833. Set on bottom land near the river, it was surrounded by a 30-foot tall stone wall. Archaeologists examining the site have discovered the cells were four feet wide and seven feet, four inches long. They were intended to hold one prisoner; those incarcerated by the state of Illinois worked in forced silence at a variety of trades during the day and occupied solitary quarters at night.


By the late 1840s, social reformer Dorothea Dix, noted for her work on behalf of the mentally ill and prisoners, had condemned the Alton Prison as “unhygienic.” In 1857, the state of Illinois began building a new penitentiary in Joliet, and by 1859, Alton Prison was closed. It was described then as being “wholly unfit in its appointments and sanitary condition.”


In 1860, Lt. Col. James McPherson wrote that the Alton Prison could be converted into a military prison to house up to 1,750 men at a cost of $2,415. In February 1862, Gen. Henry Halleck began sending prisoners to Alton Prison.


The Western Sanitary Commission, designated by the Federal government to oversee the health and safety of soldiers and prisoners of war, visited Alton Prison and described it in glowing terms. The site had “good water, excellent drainage, free circulation of pure air, … and could not be better adapted” for use as a military prison. Those held there were “furnished abundantly with good, wholesome food” and were “entirely satisfied with the kind treatment of officers and attendants.” There was plenty of hot water and soap for laundry, and a good, if not well heated, hospital.


The prisoners held there, both men and women, reported a completely different experience. Their reports were printed in newspapers throughout the country. In June 1862, the New York Times reprinted an account that had originally appeared in the Memphis Appeal. Alton Prison was so crowded that “a breath of fresh air never reaches” the prisoners. Each cell, originally designed to hold one prisoner, now held three prisoners.


The rations were “scanty and frequently of bad quality,” and had to be eaten with the hands, as knives, forks and spoons were prohibited. Prison commandant Col. Jesse Hildebrand of the 77th Ohio hated the “secesh,” as Southern sympathizers were called, and withheld rations to punish them. His superiors respected his animosity to the prisoners and approved his treatment of them.


The overcrowding, poor food, and inadequate sanitary facilities led to the spread of diseases such as dysentery, scurvy, fevers, measles, pneumonia, and smallpox. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners died there during the war.


Attempted escapes were common; many were successful. Perhaps the most well-known escape occurred July 24, 1862, when 36 men led by Col. Ebenezer Magoffin escaped. The official Court of Inquiry determined the men had discovered unused brick ovens under a shed in the prison yard. They climbed to the top of the ovens, then cut through the tops of the ovens.


From there, they cut through eight feet of masonry wall and dug a 50 foot long tunnel three feet below the ground. They cut through the three foot thick stone foundation of the prison wall and fled. They accomplished this with an old spade and some knives stolen from the prison kitchen. Only eight of the men were apprehended after the escape.


News of Magoffin and his company’s escape became national news that focused attention on the infamous prison and the desperate measures men would take to escape it. Next week’s column details Magoffin’s further wartime activities.