A Brit rides with the 1st Maine Cavalry: Part I — fibbing to fit in

 

On Jan. 4, 1864, George E. Alexander — a British subject born in New Brunswick — enlisted as a "Soldier in the Army of the United States of America." Alexander claimed he was 18 — but he actually was only 17, and his real name was George Alexander McCluskey. As Pvt. Alexander, he was assigned to the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment.

On Jan. 4, 1864, George E. Alexander — a British subject born in New Brunswick — enlisted as a “Soldier in the Army of the United States of America.” Alexander claimed he was 18 — but he actually was only 17, and his real name was George Alexander McCluskey. As Pvt. Alexander, he was assigned to the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment.

The young recruit so assiduously trying to enlist in the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment on January 4, 1864 looked suspiciously young, hardly needing to shave yet.

The kid swore up and down — and officially on his enlistment papers — that he was of legal age to fight for the United States. Angus P. Davis, “Captain & Provost Marshal” for the “District of Maine,” rechecked the paperwork before trying to trip up the enthusiastic youngster.

“What’s your name again, son?” Davis probably asked.

“George E. Alexander, from Bridgewater,” the recruit replied.

Well, the spoken name matched the written one, so Davis decided to accept the kid.
His enlistment papers revealed that Alexander was 18 and four months old when he enlisted as a private in Co. D, 1st Maine Cavalry at Augusta that day. Listing his occupation as “a Shoemaker,” Alexander affirmed his birth in Westfield, New Brunswick.

He also willingly agreed “to serve as a soldier” in the American army “for the period of three years, unless sooner discharged by proper authority.” Because Canada had not yet confederated, Alexander could not claim Canadian citizenship; by birth a British citizen, he did “solemnly swear, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America.”

But he still went to war as a Brit. In that capacity he had very good company, because hundreds of similar subjects of Queen Victoria entered Maine to join the Army or Navy. More than a few British soldiers deserted Her Majesty’s Army to serve in the United States.

His horrid scrawl indicated that Davis had “minutely inspected” Alexander “and that he was entirely sober when enlisted.” A surgeon with equally execrable handwriting certified that he had examined Alexander, who was “free from all bodily defects.”

Davis noted that Alexander stood 5-4½ and had blue eyes, light hair, and a light complexion. This description suggests that the new cavalry trooper had blond hair.
Much of what Davis noted about the newbie was true; his physical attributes were spot on, and he was from New Brunswick.

But Alexander actually was George Alexander McCluskey, born in Westfield, New Brunswick on August 24, 1846. That meant he was only 17½ when he talked his way into the 1st Maine Cav.

Any why did McCluskey join? Did the promised bounty influence his decision? As Pvt. Alexander, he was guaranteed a $300 bounty, of which the government paid him $60 upon his signing his name on the literal dotted line.

George Alexander McCluskey might have decided to join the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment because he was familiar with horses from growing up on a farm.

George Alexander McCluskey might have decided to join the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment because he was familiar with horses from growing up on a farm in Bridgewater in Aroostook County. His childhood had been marred by the deaths of his parents. McCluskey, having enlisted as Pvt. George Alexander, reported to the 1st Maine Cav’s camp in Virginia in early 1864. These re-enactors are portraying Co. A, 2nd U.S. Cavalry during a Gettysburg encampment. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

McCluskey (let’s use his correct surname from this point) had already lived a hard life. According to his direct descendant, Roderick Fraser, McCluskey was 4 when his father, William McCluskey, “drowned going between Westfield and Woodman’s Point on the St. John River.

“One year later, his mother (Elizabeth Webb McCluskey) was visiting a neighbor’s home when the neighbor’s husband killed his wife, children, and Elizabeth McCluskey,” Fraser informed Maine at War.

“According to his U.S, Naturalization document, he (George McCluskey) came to America in 1858 when he was 12 and appeared to be living in Bridgewater, Maine,” Fraser noted. Not until August 23, 1892 did McCluskey become a naturalized American citizen in a Bangor ceremony.

Besides his partial enlistment bounty, McCluskey also received a month’s advance pay for a private, the grand sum of $13. He soon reported to the 1st Maine Cavalry “in the field” and joined Co. K, commanded by Capt. John D. Myrick, a lawyer by profession.

If he also sought adventure, McCluskey timed his enlistment perfectly. The 1st Maine Cavalry had spent the 1863-1864 holiday season patrolling the lower Shenandoah Valley. On Jan. 6, 1864, shortly before McCluskey caught up with Co. K, the regiment went into winter camp near Warrenton east of the Blue Ridge; 1st Maine Cav chronicler Edward Parsons Tobie noted “the camp was laid our with due precision, the company streets being defined under the direction of the colonel.”

Needing to build cabins, the Maine men noticed nearby “a deserted house of ample size.” Being the skilled scroungers they were, the troopers went to work with a vengeance; “in a wonderfully short space of time … but little trace of it was left,” Tobie recalled.

The purloined house supplied “a large amount of lumber, nails, and other building materials,” and the Maine soldiers cut and split white oak logs that became the walls of each four-man cabin. Two shelter-tent halves made an adequate roof, and the men worked water and Virginia dirt — “sacred soil,” they called it — into mud to chink the spaces between the walls logs.

To such a camp McCluskey reported a few days after leaving Augusta. Tobie inadvertently noted the new trooper’s arrival; McCluskey would have shipped to Virginia with other 1st Maine Cavalry recruits, and Tobie commented that “a large number of recruits from Maine joined the regiment and were assigned to the different companies.
“The greater part of these recruits were good and true men, and made good soldiers,” Tobie said.

Next week: A Brit rides with the 1st Maine Cav: Part II — a fight to the finish

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.