We have reams of official information about the Civil War: battle reports, troop rosters and service records, executive orders, documents from the War Office, and much more. Perhaps the most revealing in any collection are the personal journals of the participants, private writings that were not necessarily intended for public reading. In these papers we find an intimate picture of a soldier’s experience and gain a perspective not available in official documents.
Griffin Frost, a captain in the Confederate Army, was a prisoner of war in the Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis and in Alton, Illinois. A former newspaperman, he had a good sense of observation and an eye for detail which he employed in the notes he kept throughout the war.
The summer of 1864 was extremely hot – as only a St. Louis summer can be. Frost wrote that the rooms were like bake ovens. At night, with windows opened in the fond hopes of catching a breeze, legions of bugs and rats attacked, all too clearly visible, Frost commented, in the lamplight.
Frost mentioned a scared young solder and the teasing he got from his fellow prisoners. He praised the “true Southern ladies” who were allowed to visit and bring gifts for the prisoners.
One prisoner Frost deemed an “eccentric genius.” He was a handsome young man with blue eyes and glossy black hair that he managed to keep scrupulously curled. Feminine Joe, the men called him, and Frost noted that he had an unfortunate habit of making advances to the men. The other soldiers spurned his attempts and often scolded him; but, said Frost, “he was a noble, generous fellow and we were all fond of him.”
With racial slurs that we would not tolerate today, the captain wrote about the African Americans who walked past the prison and “made all manner of faces, appearing to be quite happy at seeing the incarcerated southerners.
Transferred to the Alton Prison in 1864, he received amnesty there fifteen months later. He resumed his newspaper career after the war and polished up his war diaries for publication in 1867. After nearly forty years as owner and editor of various local papers, he retired to Arkansas and died in 1909 at the age of 75.
Griffin Frost’s stories tell us of experiences that were likely common to most soldiers and prisoners, an intimate portrait that is missing from official documents and most history books. These were real people, our ancestors, and we learn how much we share with them, far removed as they are.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society