Captain Dewitt James could hardly believe what he saw his superior doing that day in Washington Street Prison. ‘I made rounds with Captain Pettit,’ said James, commander of the Union prison. ‘Sergeant [Hiram] Belknap had a man tied up with hands behind his back. Captain Pettit criticized the sergeant for not pulling the chain tight enough. Pettit himself pulled the man’s wrists higher behind him and said, ‘Now, are you going to own up to what regiment you belong to?’
The man replied, ‘So help me God, Captain, I do not belong to any regiment.’ Pettit then kicked the man in the face and blood spilled on the floor. From the gray hair, the prisoner seemed to be quite an old man.’
Rufus D. Pettit, the superintendent of Union prisons in Alexandria, Virginia, was convinced the old man had deserted from the Union army, and he refused to ease up until he forced a confession. It may not have been the first time Pettit used violence on prisoners, and it apparently was not the last. Eventually, he was court-martialed for his cruelty, and by November 1865, his future lay in the hands of the military judges.
Before this time in Pettit’s life, there was no hint of the tyrant who came to light in the Alexandria prisons. Early in the war, he was a field officer, known as firm but fair, respected and loved by his men. In those days, he wrote tender love letters to his ‘Dear wife, Elvira.’ Then, suddenly, after his appointment as prison superintendent in July 1864, his personality turned dark.
Sudden as that change was, it may not have been surprising, considering his traumatic beginnings. Both of his parents died when he was only three years old. The responsibility for raising him fell to an aunt and uncle, who probably lived at the Pettit farm in Cold Springs, New York. There, he would have worked the farm with them at least until age 18, when he became an apprentice to architect Elijah Hayden, an ardent abolitionist.
In 1846, when Pettit was 22, the United States went to war with Mexico. Serving with Company A of the 1st New York Volunteers, he found he had a talent for soldiering. He showed skill and composure while fighting in eight battles, including those at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, and Mexico City, where it was reported that his marksmanship knocked a Mexican flag from its pole. He was never wounded, but did return home with ‘chronic diarrhea,’ a condition that would trouble him for the rest of his life.
For the next 13 years, he worked on the family farm in Cold Springs. Then the Civil War broke out, and he decided to sign up for another stint in the army. Taking advantage of his military experience and the credibility it lent him, he recruited an army unit from among his friends and neighbors. It was originally called the Cold Springs Rifles before becoming Company B of the 1st New York Light Artillery, with Pettit as its captain. The unit’s first action was with Major General George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula in mid-1862. During McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, the battery fought at, among other places, Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Gaines’ Mill, and Malvern Hill.
At the campaign’s end the Army of the Potomac found itself at Harrison’s Landing, waiting idly as Abraham Lincoln repeatedly tried to prod McClellan into action. While there, Pettit suffered ‘fatigue, exposure and chronic diarrhea.’ These ailments would cut short his career as a field officer, but not before he fought at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in May 1863. From the former, he wrote home that civilian men fired their shotguns at retreating Union soldiers, while women and children pelted their blue coats with stones. He remarked that the entire city should have been burned to the ground and the streets plowed up. At Chancellorsville, Colonel Edward C. Cross of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry noted, ‘Sunday morning…Petit’s iron battery of ten-pound Parrott’s, all firing rapidly. In a few moments the enemy got a splendid rifle battery into position, which fired with wonderful accuracy. So heavy was the fire that Captain Petit was compelled for the first time during the war to limber up and leave–but was instantly ordered back.’
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pettit resigned from the service for medical reasons and returned home. He remained there for about a year before rejoining the army in March 1864. This time he was with the U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps, a branch of the service for veterans not fit for active field duty. He was assigned to Company F of the 12th Regiment.
On July 20, four months into his service with the Veteran Corps, Pettit was made superintendent and inspector of Union military prisons in Alexandria, Virginia. Sometime after that, his troubles began, and a year later, he was arrested and charged with ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline,’ a blanket charge that essentially covered three separate, major alleged incidents. It seems that Pettit was on a self-directed mission to expose deserters from the Union army–not an easy task considering that prisoners frequently were sent to military prisons without any record of their offenses. Pettit was so obsessed with his mission, his accusers said, that he tortured ‘confessions’ out of men. He of course denied the allegations against him and pled not guilty. After four months of legal delays that followed his arrest, he finally came to trial November 14, 1865, before a court-martial board chaired by Brevet Major General George S. Greene.
The trial opened with Dewitt James taking the witness stand to describe the first alleged incident: Pettit kicking the old man in the face at Washington Street Prison. The vivid description was damning, but Pettit had an explanation: James was lying. In cross-examining James, Pettit said the commandant had a vendetta against him because he had fired him from his post and court-martialed several of his men. James replied that his only animosity toward Pettit was based on his confining men in the Alexandria Slave Pen, the crude prison where slaves were kept before sale. Pettit accused James of complaining about him to Lafayette Baker, chief of the Federal Secret Service, and others. James retorted that these men had approached him to solicit his opinion, because under Pettit’s supervision, the Alexandria prisons had grown notorious for their scandals.
After James’s testimony was finished, the prosecution called Sergeant Hiram Belknap of James’s regiment. Belknap confirmed James’s story of the bloodied old man, adding that as Pettit tightened the chain that pulled the man’s wrists toward the ceiling, he yelled, ‘That is the way I want you to tie up men!’ Belknap continued with a description of the scene that suggested this was not the only time Pettit had tortured prisoners. ‘The old man’s toes barely touched the floor,’ Belknap said, ‘but when Captain Pettit was gone, we’d give the prisoners a bucket to stand on. I saw the blood run from the man’s nose and mouth.’
The second alleged indicent occurred at Princess Street Prison, where Pettit was accused of stringing up one Caleb Smith, alias Caleb Sweet, much as he had done to the old man at Washington Street Prison–but for up to 12 hours at a time. Pettit allegedly did this about half a dozen times before Smith finally gave in and ‘confessed’ to being a deserter. It is unclear whether Smith had ever really been in the army or whether he was simply trying to avoid further pain.
The prosecution called a string of witnesses to support its charge. The first was Sergeant Michael Murray, who was at Princess Street Prison from June 1864 to May 1865. ‘Sometimes he [Smith] could hardly speak,’ Murray testified, ‘and he lost the use of his limbs.’
Another witness, Joseph Bannister, was originally disqualified from testifying because of a prior conviction for deserting from the 106th Pennsylvania Infantry. After some legal maneuvering, however, he was allowed to tell his tory. ‘I was six months in the Princess Street Prison,’ he testified. ‘I well recall Caleb Smith, alias Sweet. He was tied up eight or ten times, for as long as 16 hours each time. Captain Pettit said, ‘I will make him own up or put him in his coffin.’ I saw Sweet tied up in pouring rain and in the hot sun, with blood oozing from his ears and flies picking his eyes.’
On cross-examination, Pettit accused Bannister of asking for money from him in exchange for keeping his mouth shut about the incident. Bannister admitted that he had asked Pettit for money, but he said he was referring to $19 Pettit had stolen from him at the prison.
The prosecution called several other witnesses before submitting 15 sworn affidavits to the court. One of those written statements came from Dr. H.L. Pauli, who operated a drugstore at the corner of Prince and Fairfax streets in Alexandria. He described prisoners strung up so their toes barely touched the ground and mentioned that guards had orders to shoot prisoners who looked out windows.
William Metzger, who ran a bakery at 83 Prince Street, also turned in an affidavit. ‘I saw Captain Pettit knock down a sick man, and I saw a guard shoot a man who looked out the window,’ read the document. M.R. Blodgett saw Pettit put a ring through a man’s nose. ‘The Captain pulled him around, asking him to confess,’ Blodgett wrote. Dempster Hodge stated that he had written a letter of complaint to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about Pettit. Stanton forwarded the letter to Colonel Henry H. Wells, provost marshal general of Union defenses south of the Potomac. Wells replied that Pettit was ‘all right’ and that Hodge was ‘a liar.’
John Long of the 2d Pennsylvania Reserve Corps wrote that he was in jail when a guard shot and killed ‘an entirely quiet and inoffensive man, Samuel Thomas of the 88th Pennsylvania. When we asked Captain Pettit for a blanket to wrap the corpse, he told us to use our own blankets, knowing full well that we had no blankets. When Mrs. Thomas came seeking her husband, Captain Pettit joked, ‘Your husband has been released–in his coffin.”
William S. King of Boston, Massachusetts, described Pettit as ‘worthy of the Spanish Inquisition in its palmiest days,’ and ‘a murderous villain, as bad as [Henry] Wirz,’ commandant of the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison. The 82d Pennsylvania Infantry’s John Miller, who had been a clerk in provost marshal Wells’s office, wrote that more than $3,000 [about a hundred thousand 1998 dollars] had been stolen from the prisoners during Pettit’s tenure as superintendent.
John Landers of James’ Independent Company of Pennsylvania Infantry (named for and commanded by Dewitt James), who worked at the Washington Street Military Prison for a time, recalled, ‘I’ve seen over 100 men strung up 12 hours in a row, often in freezing weather. Most would confess to anything after one night of this treatment.’ William Harmon, also from James’ Independent Company, stated that he saw Pettit ‘knock a man down when he denied being a deserter, and threw him out of a window. The men who were strung up were in agony, arms and hands swollen, begging for release. I have seen the Captain going along the street, shooting his revolver at prisoners looking out the window.’
Another member of the Pennsylvania unit, Sergeant Stacy Cogswell, wrote, ‘Captain Pettit constantly ordered men strung up. Their arms were swollen and their faces were purple, with bloodshot eyes and noses dripping blood, begging for relief. It made my heart sick to see such cruelty.’ He added that the men received no food during these ordeals.
The six other affidavits told the same stories. Several witnesses. Several sworn, written statements. All the same story. Things already did not look good for Pettit, and there was still one more witness to one more incident.
That last witness was Thomas Cumber of 71 St. Azaph’s Street, the victim in the last alleged incident. Cumber had never served in the army. When asked if he knew Pettit, Cumber replied, ‘Yes, sir, I know him very well, at least I do not know anything good about him. In September 1864, he arrested me at gun-point on my own pavement in front of my piazza, where I have kept a restaurant for the past six years. Captain Pettit said I was a deserter and when I denied it he hit me a dozen times in the face and then he broke my nose with his revolver. When I regained consciousness, I was in the Alexandria County Jail at the corner of Prince and St. Azaph’s. The jail is on one corner and my house and restaurant is on the other.’
The case against Pettit was closed, and it was time for the defense. Pettit had his work cut out for him. He would need a miracle to refute the strong case the host of prosecution witnesses had laid at his feet with their vivid descriptions of him brutally beating people on at least three different occasions.
Pettit opened his defense by calling as his first witness Lieutenant Colonel J.H. Taylor, who knew him when he commanded Company B of the 1st New York Light Artillery. Pettit got Taylor to say that he had been an ‘an efficient and gallant officer.’ Major H.B. Burnham, the judge advocate of the court, interrupted, looking at Pettit, ‘You are not charged with inefficiency or want of gallantry, but with certain named offenses and nothing else!’ Pettit retorted that he was charged with cruelty, that it was well known that cowards were cruel, and that because he was not a coward, he could not be cruel. Burnham ignored him.
The next defense witness, Brevet Brigadier General Samuel D. Oliphant, gave a very brief testimony. The gist of what survives in the court documents is, ‘I have no personal knowledge of Captain Pettit’s character.’ Captain Edward C. Kittle of the 61st New York, who knew Pettit from the Virginia Peninsula in mid-1862, did quite a bit better. ‘All the men of his battery thought a great deal of him,’ Kittle said. ‘He was a strict disciplinarian, but no man spoke against him.’
Next up was Colonel Wells, Pettit’s key witness. Wells said Pettit was ‘in every respect a superior officer. It was very rare to ever hear of a case of mistreatment [in the Alexandria prisons] and I investigated every case. I never found any actual mistreatment.’ Puzzled, Burnham asked about a case involving a Samuel Meek. He pointed out to Wells that ‘the War Department investigation found him unjustly detained, illegally arrested, and badly mistreated, all by Captain Pettit.’ Wells said he did not recall the case.
Wells went on to explain that the men Pettit targeted might have deserved what they got. ‘More than in any collection of men I ever saw in my life, these men needed discipline,’ he testified. ‘There were hundreds of professional thieves, pickpockets, robbers and murderers. They constantly assaulted each other. One group attempted to burn the Washington Street Prison while it contained 1,400 men.’
Wells still was not done giving hope to Pettit’s defense. To complicate the matter of overseeing the Alexandria prisons, Wells pointed out, there was no way to verify the identity of many of the prisoners. It was a problem that would have vexed any prison administrator. Prisoners were sent from as far away as Tennessee and Kentucky with no identification cards, photographs, serial numbers, or fingerprint files. The personal-description card that was supposed to accompany each man rarely did. A prisoner could pretend to be virtually anyone.
Next to speak on Pettit’s behalf was First Lieutenant Robert Roberts, who served under Pettit in the 12th U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps and commanded the Prince Street Prison for a year. Roberts swore that no man was ever tied up for refusing to confess to desertion; nor was any man tied up for more than an hour.
After Pettit finished with his handful of witnesses and presented some testimonials written on his behalf, he submitted a written closing statement to the court. For the most part, he reiterated his previous denials.
The court was not impressed. ‘The time has not come and I trust it never will, when any conduct however good, when the discharge of any duty however sacred, when the sacrifice of any interest however dear, can justify or excuse the commission of crime in this country,’ wrote Burnham, ‘and the good of the service and the safety of human rights demand that this selection of flagrant cases for your consideration should meet with a just, and yet a striking, reproof at your hands! No words are necessary to express the utter abhorrence with which such crimes are held by high-minded and honorable soldiers and the universal public! The facts are shamefully eloquent of the ignominy which blackens and obliterates every possible apology which might otherwise have been drawn from his further services.’
Guilty was the verdict, dismissal from the army the sentence. The two weeks of hearings and deliberations had ended with Pettit in shame. He returned to New York State, decided to give up farming, bought a house in Baldwinsville, and began practicing law.
Pettit’s postwar years remain mostly a mystery, but an incident with his son during that period suggests that the harsh behavior that turned up in the Alexandria prisons did not disappear. His son, Rufus H. Pettit, graduated from Cornell with a degree in entomology, taught at Michigan Agricultural College, and went on to invent a device called the flit gun, a bug-spray device that would be known to every American who lived between that time and the propagation of aerosol sprayers after World War II. The former prison commandant reacted by denouncing his son as a ‘butterfly chaser’ and eventually disowning him.
As Pettit entered his 60s, he applied for a military pension for his service in the Mexican War. Listing his occupation as ‘gentleman,’ he was awarded $8 a month. The next year, 1881, he applied for a Civil War pension, based upon a doctor’s affidavit that he suffered from ‘chronic diarrhea, spinal paralysis and cystitis.’ The application was denied, probably because of the court-martial ruling.
A few months later, Rufus D. Pettit, former gallant battlefield commander and brutal prison-keeper, was dead at age 67. Perhaps many of the men of the 1st New York Light Artillery’s Company missed the firm but fair captain who had led them into battle on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862. But no doubt few of the Union prisoners stuck in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1864 felt the same way.
This article was written by Thomas P. Lowry and originally published in the October 2001 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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