A Brit rides with the 1st Maine Cavalry: Part III — hell on earth at Andersonville

A "Memorandum From Prisoner of War Records" reveals the torturous path that George A. Alexander of the 1st Maine Cavalry took from his June 1864 capture in Virginia to his June 1865 arrival in Washington, D.C. He actually was George Alexander McCluskey, a British subject who had lied about his age to join the army. (Courtesy of Rod Fraser)

A “Memorandum From Prisoner of War Records” reveals the torturous path that George E. Alexander of the 1st Maine Cavalry took from his June 1864 capture in Virginia to his June 1865 arrival in Washington, D.C. He actually was George Alexander McCluskey, a British subject who had lied about his age to join the army. (Courtesy of Rod Fraser)

For a dead man, Pvt. George F. Alexander certainly was a lively corpse.

Alexander actually was George Alexander McCluskey, born in Westfield, New Brunswick in August 1846. The 5-4½ , blue-eyed British subject had lied about his age to enlist in the Co. K, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment in January 1864.

The regiment lost 68 men when pounded by Confederate cavalry at St. Mary’s Church in Virginia that June 24. Someone reported McCluskey/Alexander as shot dead on the battlefield; the Co. K commander, Capt. John D. Myrick, officially reported McCluskey/Alexander as “killed in action.”

But McCluskey had actually fallen into Confederate hands. According to his direct descendant, Roderick Fraser, “George was initially taken to Lynchburg” in Virginia; there, Confederate guards herded McCluskey and hundreds of other prisoners into boxcars and closed and locked the doors.

A battered locomotive hauled the POWs south and west. Five days after McCluskey’s capture, the train rumbled onto a rail siding in a rural southwestern Georgia town named after John Anderson, a South Western Railroad director.

The SWRR had arrived at Andersonville in 1853 during an expansion to nearby Americus.

Trains delivering Union prisoners to Anderson, Ga. in 1864 would have pulled onto the siding (right) after chugging into town from the north (direction of overpass). (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Trains delivering Union prisoners to Andersonville, Ga. in 1864 would have pulled onto the siding (right) after chugging into town from the north (upper right, from direction of overpass). (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Unlocking the boxcar doors and rolling them aside, Confederate guards shouted at the hungry (and too often sick) prisoners to jump down onto the ground. Shielding their eyes against the sunlight, men who had spent two or three days inside shadowy boxcars plopped onto Georgia soil. They likely would have assisted their comrades too sick or wounded to climb down from the cars themselves.

Then the guards formed their prisoners into a ragged column and started it shuffling east. Moving through fields and woods along a well-worn road, the Union prisoners soon spotted the stockade walls of Camp Sumter, a prison opened in early 1864 to house Yankees captured in the fourth year of the war.

If the wind had blown from the east as McCluskey approached the North Gate of Camp Sumter on that Wednesday, June 29, 1864, he would have smelled an evil stench blending death, dirt, and terror.

After climbing down from a POW train at Anderson, Ga. on June 29, 1864, George Alexander McCluskey would have walked east with other prisoners to enter the nearby prison camp via its North Gate. A replica stands at Andersonville National Historic Site. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

After climbing down from a POW train at Andersonville, Ga. on June 29, 1864, George Alexander McCluskey would have walked east with other prisoners to enter the nearby prison camp via its North Gate. This replica stands at Andersonville National Historic Site. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Known in American lore as Andersonville, Camp Sumter became the most infamous prison in the country during and after the Civil War. Originally crammed into a 16½-acre enclosure surrounded by a 15-foot stockade, the prison was enlarged to 26½ acres in June. The combination of the Atlanta and Overland campaigns fed incredible numbers of captive Yankees into Southern prisons.

Andersonville got more than its share; more than 32,000 starving, sick, and dying Union soldiers struggled to exist the prison by August 1864. Often contaminated by the “sinks” (latrines), water was scarce and polluted for months; prisoners lacked no better shelter than the shanties they constructed from tent flies and sticks.

Set 19 feet from the inside wall of the stockade, the clearly marked “deadline” established a fatal no-go zone for the prisoners. Looking down from their sentry boxes (or “pigeon roosts”) atop the stockade, the guards had orders to shoot any prisoner venturing inside the deadline.

Into this hell walked George Alexander McCluskey. He later suffered from scurvy, a diet-related medical condition that killed many prisoners; admitted to the prison hospital on Oct. 24, 1864, the fortunate McCluskey was loaded onto an outgoing train on Nov. 11 and shipped to Millen, Ga.

Some 45,000 Union prisoners were confined at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. during the last year of the Civil War. Packed into a 26-1/2-acre enclosure, men erected shanties from sticks and tent halves to find shelter from the brutal sun and the cold rains. About 13,000 prisoners died there.  (Brian F. Swartz)

Some 45,000 Union prisoners were confined at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. during the last year of the Civil War. Packed into a 26-1/2-acre enclosure, men erected shanties from sticks and tent halves to find shelter from the brutal sun and the cold rains. About 13,000 prisoners died there. (Brian F. Swartz)

The passage of William Tecumseh Sherman’s army through Georgia led to the evacuation of Camp Sumter and the scattering of its inhabitants to other prisons. Andersonville briefly reopened later in the war.

Of the some 45,000 Union soldiers (including some black soldiers) imprisoned at Andersonville during its brief existence, almost 13,000 were killed by disease and starvation, the latter a serious contributor to the former. Wagons carrying dead prisoners — many resembling skin-clad skeletons — passed out North Gate daily. The dead went into shoulder-to-shoulder graves in a new cemetery established northwest of the prison.

As for McCluskey, April 15, 1865 found him escaping from a Confederate hospital in Columbus, Ga., on the Chattahoochee River. The subject of Queen Victoria had survived the war.

However, he “contracted malaria as well as chronic diarrhea and piles,” Rod Fraser told Maine at War. “The illnesses would have a negative effect on his health for the rest of his life, resulting in fever, chills and also spleen and liver disease.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia, the location of the prison stockade is marked by low brick monuments (left). The location of the "deadline" is marked by white-painted stakes (right). Prisoners crossing the deadline could be shot on sight — and a few were. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

At Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia, the location of the prison stockade is marked by low brick monuments (left). The location of the “deadline” is marked by white-painted stakes (right). Prisoners crossing the deadline could be shot on sight — and a few were. The replica North Gate is in the upper center of this view of the west side of the prison camp. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Returning to Maine, McCluskey married Caroline Amelia “Carrie” Barrett on Sept. 23, 1866 in Bridgewater. They would have eight children.

Employed as a shoemaker, McCluskey filed in May 1887 “for an Invalid (or disability) pension based on the illnesses he contracted at the Andersonville prison,” Fraser said. The initial pension awarded McCluskey was for $8 a month; that sum rose to $12 per month in 1889.

McCluskey officially became an American in Bangor on Aug. 23, 1892. Only 50 years old, he died at Brookton in northern Washington County on Aug. 4, 1896; his family buried him in Brookton with his daughter, Caroline, “who had died earlier that year,” Fraser said.

McCluskey’s widow, Caroline, moved to Stafford Springs, Conn. in 1922 with daughters Nellie and Pearl to live with recently widowed daughter Grace McCluskey Dennis. After Caroline died in 1928, “Grace sent for the bodies of her father, George A. McCluskey, and her older sister, Caroline May McCluskey, to be reinterred at Stafford Springs Cemetery,” Fraser said.

George Alexander McCluskey, the young British subject determined to fight for Maine and the United States, had found a final resting place.

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.