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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
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.