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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Civil War bridge burner goes on trial

There's an interesting item from the Official Records about a trial held in Columbia, Missouri, on March 1, 1862.

"William F. Petty, a citizen of Boone County, Mo., did aid and assist and incite others to aid and assist in the destruction by fire or otherwise of certain rails, ties, bridges and timbers belonging to and necessary for the use of the North Missouri Railroad Company in the transaction of their ordinary business. All this at or near Sturgeon, Mo., on or about the 21st of December, 1861."

Petty pleaded not guilty to burning the Sturgeon railroad bridge or having any knowledge of plans to burn the bridge. Since the punishment for such an act was death, his plea was hardly surprising.

So what really happened 150 years ago today? A carpenter named Jacob Crosswhite testified, "I had been taken a prisoner in Sturgeon before the fire. Was at home in bed when some men came to my house, burst open the door, called me to strike a light. I did so. A man put his hand on my shoulder and told me I was his prisoner. I dressed myself and they carried me up in town; from there to Sturgeon bridge. The bridge was on fire and a good many there. Some were standing around; some piling up chunks on the fire; some tearing up railroad track.

"From that place we marched about four miles to Long Branch bridge; found that afire; staid there two or three hours. There were a good many men there had gone down from Sturgeon bridge. After the bridge was pretty well burned down we went back to Sturgeon. I did not see prisoner at either bridge. First saw him next morning at Mr. Riggs', two and one-half miles southwest of Sturgeon, where the band camped. He was in the crowd of men who had burned down the bridge and tore up the railroad the night before. 'Twixt daylight and sun-up a crowd of cavalry attacked them. Some few men fought awhile; the rest ran. Don't recollect seeing him any more until we got three or four miles from place of fight. I was still prisoner of the bridge-burners. They stopped on White Oak Ridge. They there released Schooler, another prisoner they had, and carried me on with them. They next stopped for any length of time at prisoner's house. I was released on parole near prisoner's house. W. R. Schooler and Adam Gosling were prisoner with me."

Crosswhite added that the men called him "captain" and he seemed to be in charge. Two other former prisoners of the rebel band testified the same thing. None of the three said they saw Petty at the scene of the crime.

Some witnesses to the defense swore that he was elsewhere on the night of December 20/21, when the Sturgeon bridge was burned.

"The court was then closed and after mature deliberation on the evidence adduced finds the prisoner, W. F. Petty. . .guilty. And does therefore sentence the said W. F. Petty as follows: To be shot to death at such time and place as the commanding general of the department may direct."

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