The Union Army had a problem when it seized St. Louis in 1861. Although a significant portion of the immigrant population was against slavery, many native residents, whose wealth, economic ties, and livelihood depended on the “Peculiar Institution,” were hostile to the new occupying military government. It even erupted into deadly riots several times during the Civil War, as I have previously written. The Union Army, commanding different leaders throughout the war, went to two prisons downtown St. Louis to control rebellious citizens and send a message to the rest of the city.
The Union Army seized Lynch’s Slave Pens at South Broadway and Myrtle Street and the McDowell Medical College at Gratiot, Eighth streets, and used them as prisons during the war. I wrote two weeks ago about the slave pen. The irony of imprisoning slave owners, and their sympathizers, in such a locked up, was evident, especially since John Charles Fremont was the first commander of the Department of the West, which was based in St. Louis, was well-known as an abolitionist. Many Union officers set out to abolish slavery early in the war, long before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In 1861, President Lincoln even reversed Fremont’s Emancipation of Missouri’s Slaves.
McDowell Medical College was a natural choice due to two reasons. The famous Joseph Nash McDowell was the owner and proprietor. He was pro-slavery but was not the most respected doctor in St. Louis. After the 1843 riots, when mobs gathered to burn bodies at local medical schools, McDowell was well-known for buying cannons to defend his college. His target was likely to be German American doctors like Adam Hammer, an abolitionist, and revolutionary who worked in St. Louis to professionalize medicine. Lynch’s Slave Pens also had a second reason. It was situated in the middle, south of downtown, of the neighborhood where many families were pro-slavery.
It is possible to find extensive documentary evidence regarding who was held in these two facilities. This is due to regular coverage in the Daily Missouri Republican newspaper. The first task was to remove the names of former owners from the buildings. Lynch’s Slave Pens was transformed into the Myrtle Street Prison and McDowell Medical College into the Gratiot Street Prison. Gratiot Street Prison was larger, but the Myrtle Street Prison was required to accommodate the overflowing number of prisoners. The Union Army used the subterranean cells of the slave pens to punish troublemakers. Inmates from St. Louis were also held in the massive Alton prison, Illinois. Ordinary Confederate prisoners of war were held at North St. Louis’ Benton Barracks. They would later be involved in the Hyde Park riots on July 4, 1863.
According to an 1862 article, the prison was susceptible to overcrowding. Fremont was replaced by General Henry “Old Brains”, Halleck. He visited the Gratiot Street Prison to see worsening conditions. Dr. Colegrove made recommendations to improve the prison. “These people, while guilty of crimes against God, should not be exposed to the ravages and diseases of the world …”.” Alton was also recommended. This was ironic because of the high number of prisoners who died of disease during imprisonment there during the Civil War. In 1862, Myrtle Street Prison was opened to relieve overcrowding at Gratiot Street Prison. Twenty prisoners were sent to clean out the cells and five soldiers guarded them.
Union soldiers who guarded prisoners were not always hungry. Galusha Anderson (Reverend) wrote a chapter about his experience as an abolitionist living in St. Louis during the Civil War. The next-door neighbors were pro-secessionists and planned a huge feast for his friends who were being held in Gratiot Street Prison for sedition over Thanksgiving. Anderson says that the food was “piled high” in the front hall and then was delivered to the prison officer on duty. Anderson acknowledges that the officer misunderstood the “most vulnerable” as his guards who were outside during the cold, wet November weather.