I should avoid online Civil War discussion groups. They just give me more research threads to pull. Like I need more.

I’d been following a discussion about artillery over on the American Civil War Message Board. I was thinking I could contribute on a question about unit organization, which referred to Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, as an example.

Capt. Rufus D. Pettit
R.D. Pettit, c. 1861-65

First, I looked to see what that battery was doing at Antietam, and noticed the commander was Captain Rufus Petit (above). I didn’t have much on the Captain, but did know that he had been dismissed from the service in 1865. I wondered why. He seemed to have served honorably on the Peninsula and at Antietam. “Dismissed” is usually bad.

You see how fast the thread-pulling gets me off track?

So I did some more digging on the Captain, and found he did well in the Mexican War (1847-48) and was a respected battery commander in 1862. And that he later became something of a monster.

Monster? Yes, according to Dr. Thomas Lowry (of Tarnished Eagles fame), in an article for the October 2000 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated titled Ruthless Rufus. Here are the lead paragraphs for flavor:

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 …

I’d be naive to expect all “my guys” to be heroes and exemplars, but Pettit’s actions still shock me. Perhaps more particularly because I know the Alexandria buildings where these events occurred–this is close to home.

I’ve read about the conditions at infamous prisons like Andersonville and Johnson’s Island, so I’m not surprised by the brutality at some level. Rather, the Pettit story suggests how pervasive such behavior may have been, if he was even slightly typical of military jailers around the country.

I’d be most interested to hear from readers with expertise in this area.

Meanwhile, I still haven’t posted anything to that artillery discussion …

3 Responses to “Rufus Pettit: solid artilleryman, vicious jailkeeper”

  1. Jeanie Pettit says:

    I would like to know where you got your photo of Rufus D. Pettit.

    My husband and I are Civil War re-enactors and as a school project, my daughter is building a web-site for us as we portray 1st NY Light Artillery, Battery B.

    I would like to use this photo on website if we can.

    Jeanie Pettit

  2. Brian says:

    Hi Pettits!

    The photo was reproduced in company with the article in the Civil War Times Illustrated magazine linked above. I don’t recall the original source the author credited.

    Given it’s in the public domain, you can use it any way you like.

    Please do post back here when your daughter’s site is up, won’t you?

  3. steve gates says:

    I would be interested in knowing more about your web site for the 1st NY Light Artillary. My great grandfather Charles A. Gates served with the unit and I have done considerable research on his story based on his letters (in which he speaks very highly of Captain Pettit). Also, Stephen Dreher from Baldwinsville has done excellent research on the battery’s history if you have not already made contact with him. Please send me your contact information and I’d be glad to share more. Steve Gates

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