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Monday, February 6, 2012

Foot burning in the Civil War

As I've noted before in my post about scalping (Warning: graphic image) the Civil War was anything but civil in some parts. One common method of torture in the Trans-Mississippi theater was foot burning.

An example from Turnbo's Tales of the Ozarks: War and Guerrilla Stories is typical. Silas Claborn Turnbo was born in Taney County, Missouri in 1844 and fought with the 27th Arkansas Confederate Infantry. After the war he collected many tales from the Ozarks about the chaotic times that region experienced. In one story, he relates how a man named John Sights or Sykes living in Madison County, Arkansas, lived alone in a sparsely populated region. Two of his sons were in the Federal army and two in the Confederate army. He himself was for the South. Sights/Sykes sent his daughter and slaves to Texas for the duration of the war and sent all his valuables with her.

Turnbo relates: "One night in the fall of 1864, a set of cut-throats rode up to Sight's house and told Mr. Sights in a threatening way to give up his money. His answer was, 'I won't do it, you devils.' They told him they would make him do it.

"'Well,' said he, 'go to work if you think you can make me do it, you heathenish set of scoundrels.'"

The gang then strung him up as if to hang him, then let him drop. They did this twice but he refused to tell them anything. Interestingly, this is the same method of interrogation used on Reuben Samuel, the father-in-law of Jesse James in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of Frank James and his guerrilla buddies.

When hanging didn't work on poor Sights, they "tied his feet fast together and his hands behind his back and took his shoes and socks off his feet, and when this was accomplished, the wretches picked him up and poked him feet foremost into the fire and pulled him back, then jabbed them into the fire again." They continued this torture until "the flesh on his feet was burned to a crisp and the flesh on his legs was cooked half way to the knees."

Eventually they left him for dead. Later one of his few neighbors happened by and summoned a doctor from the Federal army, who had no choice but to amputate both legs. Sights survived the war for four years and all his children survived too, but they must have all been forever traumatized by what had happened.

Note that Turnbo doesn't state which side the ruthless gang was on. Chances are they weren't on either side. Northern Arkansas was sort of a No Man's Land at that time, filled with deserters from both sides, bushwhackers who claimed to fight for the South, Jayhawkers who claimed to fight for the North, and simple bandits. More on that next time.


  1. Could this be where the phrase "holding someone's feet to the fire" came from? I had always thought it was just a figure of speech... but maybe it wasn't.


  2. Hmmmm. . .good question! I'm not sure if the expression is older than the 1860s. Perhaps the practice is too. In the days when everyone had an open fire in their house, it would make the most convenient source of torture. I expect the expression does stem from the practice, but may be very old.


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