George Alexander McCluskey (dba with the United States Army as George F. Alexander) probably rode out with Co. K, 1st Maine Cavalry on Sunday, Feb. 28, 1864 to participate in the disastrous raid that Col. Ulric Dahlgren envisioned reaching Richmond, capturing senior Confederate politicians, and releasing Union prisoners of war. Among other cavalrymen, about 500 Maine troopers went on the raid.
Scooping up 13 Confederate officers conducting a courts martial at a Virginia Central Railroad whistle stop, the Union riders took a wrong turn a day later (Dahlgren had the local civilian guide hung). Turning back toward Richmond, the troopers rode into a well-executed ambush near the city.
Capt. John D. Myrick commanded the five 1st Maine companies that, like the other accompanying units, fought fiercely to escape destruction at that moment and during the precipitous flight to Union lines over the next few days. Dahlgren was killed; the 1st Maine lost 44 men before reaching safety.
When Ulysses Simpson Grant launched his Overland Campaign in late April 1864, the 1st Maine Cavalry fought almost continuously for months; a day’s rest was rare and noteworthy. By mid-June, McCluskey and his comrades were riding and fighting northeast and east of Richmond.
“The sun was extremely hot, the roads extremely dusty, the men were tired, worn, and, for the most part, hungry … and decidedly cross,” recalled Edward Parsons Tobie, a 1st Maine Cavalry chronicler. “The horses were worn out and half starved, which made riding much harder.”
Each morning, the regiment’s assigned rear guard shot the worn-out horses that could no longer carry riders. Phil Sheridan, made the supreme cavalry commander by Grant, had ordered the poor critters killed and not abandoned to be recovered by the horse-starved Confederate cavalry.
The 1st Maine Cavalry rode and rattled inexorably toward St. Mary’s Church. After camping on Thursday June 23 near “Charles City cross-roads in the driest country” the regiment had ever “camped in” (according to Tobie), the 1st Maine boys awoke early on Friday unaware that, for many, their lives would change forever that day.
Sheridan’s 1st Division troopers escorted a wagon train toward Union lines.
Commanded by Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg, the 2nd Division turned west “on a road running to the right rear, — the only road leading up to Richmond,” Tobie noticed. With Co. G leading, the 1st Maine Cavalry rode point for the division, shoved aside Confederate cavalry pickets, and reached St. Mary’s Church (also called Samaria Church).
There almost the entire Union cavalry division dismounted, formed a firing line, and built rough breastworks made of trees, limbs, and fence rails. Meanwhile, five brigades of Confederate cavalry commanded by Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton approached from the west, dismounted, and attacked.
If the young George Alexander McCluskey wanted excitement, he got it this day.
“At about two o’clock the grand attack was made. It fell on this regiment like a thunderbolt,” said Rev. Samuel Merrill, the 1st Maine’s chaplain; he had replaced the Rev. George Bartlett, a fearless Christian warrior killed in action just 22 days earlier.
“Our men, struck thus suddenly by a greatly outnumbering force, were falling back rapidly,” said Merrill. His horse shot dead “and he himself wounded and bleeding” from a thigh wound, the hard-fighting Col. Charles Smith rallied his men.
“Backward and forward the tide of battle surged,” Merrill said. “Three times the Maine boys rallied and fell back, stopping behind every tree, and log, and fence, and hillock, to load and fire.”
“Here for twelve long hours we contended in the dust and heat, abandoned by our support, driven from position to position, disputing every inch of ground in the face of terrible odds,” remembered 2nd Lt. Henry F. Blanchard of Co. G.
Confederate artillery pounded the 2nd Division cavalrymen, “under a terrific fire of shot and shell from the enemy’s guns,” Blanchard recalled.
The 2nd Division continued to fall back, and the 1st Maine Cavalry continued losing men. The heat prostrated men; Myrick fell out sick, but soon recovered, at least fast enough to avoid capture as the Confederates advanced.
Enemy troops suddenly hit the left flank of the 2nd Division. Disaster might have occurred had not eight additional Union cannons and their gunners suddenly arrived on the field and opened fire. The shooting petered out toward sunset; as the Union troopers withdrew, Confederates rounded up prisoners and rifled the pockets of dead Yankees. Confederate soldiers probably stripped captured and dead cavalrymen of their boots.
The Federal cavalry have suffered heavily; of the 260 Maine troopers engaged in the battle, 10 officers and 58 enlisted men were listed as killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Someone had seen George Alexander fall, likely shot dead; the evidence proved so convincing that Myrick described the private as “killed in action at St. Mary’s Church, Va.”
As for Alexander owing Uncle Sam any money for lost equipment, “the above named soldier leaves no effects — they being lost with his body on the Battle Field,” Myrick reported from “in the field” afterwards.
Alexander’s body was lost all right: to the hellhole called Andersonville.
Next week: A Brit rides with the 1st Maine Cav: Part III — Hell on earth at Andersonville
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.