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An enigmatic figure who left few documentable details of her life or wartime experiences, Sarah Jane Smith was a Confederate sympathizer who sabotaged Union military telegraph wires and poles on two known occasions near Springfield and Rolla, Missouri, in 1864.
The known details of Smith’s life are limited to information gleaned from court documents, due to her illiteracy (she signed her statement to the provost marshal with an “x”) and lack of a fixed residence. Although several secondary sources describe Smith as a smuggler and saboteur of two years’ duration, there is no documentation of her involvement in any smuggling activity or in any sabotage activities other than the two incidents chronicled in her trial records.
Born in approximately 1846, Smith lived in Washington County in Arkansas by the outbreak of the Civil War. Her mother died in approximately 1859. Her father, John Smith, enlisted in 1862 and served as a private in a Confederate regiment under Major General Sterling Price.
Around the time of her father’s enlistment, Sarah Jane Smith moved repeatedly between Springfield and Washington County, sometimes in the company of other refugees. While en route to Arkansas in the spring of 1864, she met three cousins in Cassville, Missouri, on their way to Springfield. These cousins are often described in secondary sources as noted guerrillas, but they are never identified in primary documents, and the extent of their activities remains unknown.
Smith and her cousins stayed for two weeks in the woods ten miles from Springfield, where they sabotaged four miles of telegraph wire and poles. She was arrested and jailed in Springfield for two or three weeks before authorities released her in Rolla without trial. She stayed in Rolla until late August, when she attempted to return to Springfield. She was apprehended at Lebanon, Missouri, and authorities returned her to Rolla.
On September 7, while traveling down the Springfield Road, Smith met a civilian attorney from Rolla named Williams and a young sergeant from the Forty-eighth Missouri Infantry (whom Smith claimed to be a Confederate deserter and fellow member of a secret society, although she refused to identify him). Each man offered to pay her five dollars to cut the military telegraph wire on the Springfield Road, six miles from Rolla. On September 8, she cut the wire with an axe provided by Williams but was arrested soon afterward.
Despite her claims of ignorance, lack of payment, or further contact with the attorney or sergeant, authorities tried Smith in St. Louis, Missouri, before a nine-member military commission with Colonel William Barstow of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry as president. Smith faced prosecution for two specifications of the same charge (violation of Special Orders No. 32 issued in 1861 by the Department of the Missouri). The first specification charged her with intentional aid to the enemy by cutting four miles of the U.S. Military Telegraph in Greene County, Missouri, in May 1864, which destroyed telegraphic communication in that area. The second specification concerned cutting telegraph wires from Rolla to Springfield in September.
Smith pleaded not guilty to all charges and specifications, but two-thirds of the commission found her guilty and sentenced her to death by hanging. Major General William Stark Rosecrans, commanding the Department of the Missouri, ordered the provost marshal general for St. Louis to conduct her execution on November 25, 1864. On November 17, however, authorities reduced her sentence to imprisonment for the duration of the war at Alton Military Prison in Alton, Illinois, based on the examination of two physicians who declared her incapable of understanding the severity of the charges.
Prisoners at Alton suffered from notoriously poor conditions, including outbreaks of smallpox in 1862 and 1863 that killed several hundred inmates. In February 1864, Surgeon and Acting Inspector of Prisoners of War Augustus M. Clark, under the authority of the U.S. Commissary General of Prisoners, declared conditions at Alton particularly unfit for female prisoners. In the spring of 1865, Dr. T. A. Worrell, surgeon-in-charge at Alton, reported Smith to be extremely ill. As a result, authorities released her on April 11, 1865. Nothing further is known about her life.
For additional information:Foreman, Jacob G. The Western Sanitary Commission: A Sketch of its Origin, History, Labors for the Sick and Wounded of the Western Armies, and Aid Given to Freedmen and Union Refugees, With Incidents of Hospital Life. St. Louis: R. P. Studley & Company, 1864.
Sanders, Charles W., Jr. While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Sara Jane Smith Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Online at http://www.ozarkscivilwar.org/archives/688 (accessed November 3, 2015).
Sutherland, Daniel E. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2009.
Robert Patrick Bender Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell
Last Updated 7/20/2017
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