Sarah Jane Smith: Condemned to Death
Sarah Jane left her home in Washington County, Arkansas, in 1862 when she was just sixteen and traveled to Springfield, Missouri, in company with a family seeking refuge from the bitter partisan warfare of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Sarah Jane’s mother had died three years earlier, and her father was away in the Confederate Army. Left homeless, Sarah Jane drifted back and forth between Springfield and her kinfolk in northwest Arkansas for the next two years.
In the spring of 1864, on a trip from Springfield to Arkansas, she met three of her male cousins at Cassville who were headed for Springfield, and they convinced her to turn around and go back with them. The foursome started toward Springfield but stopped to camp about ten miles outside town near Wilson Creek, where they cut down several miles of telegraph lines along the Wire Road that ran between Springfield and Cassville.
Caught in the act, they were taken to Springfield and turned over to Union authorities. After a few weeks, Sarah Jane was shipped to Rolla, where she was turned loose about September 1 without a trial, even though cutting telegraph lines was a grave offense in the eyes of the Union.
Sarah Jane started back toward Springfield, walking and hitching a ride with a wagon train. She soon fell in with a lawyer from Rolla and a Federal sergeant who claimed they were members of a secret Southern society. They told her they’d pay her five dollars to go back up the trail and cut the telegraph wires, and she agreed, probably little realizing that she was consenting to commit a crime that was punishable by death. In 1861, General Henry Halleck, then commanding the Department of the Missouri, had issued an order to that effect in response to bridge burning and other acts of sabotage in northern Missouri.
Sarah Jane went back to within about six miles of Rolla, where the lawyer had hidden an ax, and she cut down the telegraph poles. After completing the daring mission, she started back toward Lebanon to rejoin her co-conspirators, but the lawyer and the sergeant were nowhere to be found. Instead, she was arrested on September 7 and taken back to Rolla, where she gave a full confession the next day. She said the lawyer’s name was Williams, but she refused to give the sergeant’s name, even though he and Williams had apparently double-crossed her. She also would not reveal her cousins’ names.
Taken to St. Louis, Sarah Jane was committed to the Gratiot Street Female Prison on October 23. At her trial the next month, she admitted the statement she’d given at Rolla accurately reflected the facts of the case. Her only defense was that she didn’t know it was wrong to cut the wires at the time she did it. She was convicted and sentenced to be “hung by the neck until dead” on November 25.
Federal medical staff intervened to save the young woman’s life. One surgeon said she was given to paroxysms of unconsciousness similar to epilepsy and did not seem to possess the mental capacity to understand the gravity of what she had done. Other doctors echoed the same opinion. Six members of the military commission that had convicted her and sentenced her to death also intervened on her behalf, saying they’d reached their verdict only because they felt they had no other choice, given General Halleck’s order.
On November 17, General William Rosecrans commuted Sarah Jane’s sentence to imprisonment for the duration of the war, and the following April she was released altogether when it was determined that she was deathly ill and could pose no possible danger to the Union.
The brief story above is condensed from a chapter from my new book, Bushwhacker Belles, about the women who aided Missouri's guerrillas.