From the Baltimore Sun, 2/22/1895

Death of Col. George W. Alexander at Laurel, Md.
Sketch of Dashing Exploits on the Water and on Land - The Daring Plan to Capture the Pawnee - Bold Escape from a Military Prison - Other Experiences.

[Special Correspondence of Baltimore Sun.]

LAUREL, MD., Feb. 21. - Among a large circle of friends the news of the death of Col. George W. Alexander, at his residence, in Laurel, Md., yesterday, of paralysis, will be received with deep regret. For some years past his strength had been impaired by successive strokes of paralysis. Each stroke lessened greatly the sum total of his resources for the battle of life, but his spirit was untouched, and to the end he bore his prolonged physical sufferings with resolute cheerfulness. Indomitable vigor, courage and fortitude were his characteristics, and these traits were displayed in the sad drama of the sick-room as forcibly as they had been in the stirring scenes of his early life. He was sixty-six years of age, and was born at Francisville, Pa. Early in June, 1861, he was elected first lieutenant of a company of Confederate soldiers. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of captain and then colonel in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was a member of the Society of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States of Maryland. He will be buried Friday, 1 P. M., from St. Phillip’s Protestant Episcopal Church, Laurel.

An Adventurous Life.

Before the war he was appointed an assistant engineer in the United States Navy Oct. 31, 1848, and remained in he service till April 6[?], 1861, when, after several promotions, he resigned to take command of an expedition fitted out by Baltimore merchants to recapture Sombrero, an island of the West Indies, which had been taken from them by certain New Yorkers. The island is now valueless, but was then of importance on account of the deposits of guano it contained.

The vessel sailed for its destination under Alexander’s command, but was wrecked in a storm near Point Lookout. The crew was hospitably received by the Thomas family at their Mattaponi residence. Here Alexander met Richard Thomas, an adventurous spirit, who had served under Garibaldi in his Sicilian campaign. On the 15th of June they went to Baltimore together to enlist men for the Confederate service. A company of 62 was raised and taken on two steamers of the Patuxent line to Millstone Landing. On reaching the Mattaponi estate they were organized and drilled as a company of Zouaves. Richard Thomas was Captain, George W. Alexander first lieutenant, J. W. Torsch second lieutenant, and Frank Parsons third lieutenant.

The people about Mattaponi were heart and soul with the Maryland Confederates, but the increasing vigilance of the Federal government made it dangerous for them to remain long in Maryland. They must cross the Potomac into Virginia. A large swineboat[?] was the only craft available. It was hauled sixteen miles across the isthmus by ten yoke of oxen. On the way it got stuck in the mud near a church where preaching was in progress. Alexander requested the preacher to “let up” in his sermon so that the congregation might help the boat. The preacher refused, but Alexander insisted, and the people settled the matter by trooping out to the scene of difficulty. Putting their shoulders to the wheel they soon set the team on its way. Arrived at the river, they improvised sails and rigging and started to cross at 11 P. M. A passing federal gunboat patrolling the river frightened them back, and it was 1 A. M. before they finally got off. A landing was made at Machodoc Creek.

Planning the Pawnee’s Capture.

Governor Letcher received the Marylanders cordially and assented readily to a plan conceived by Thomas to capture the warship Pawnee, then lying at anchor in the Potomac off Alexandria. His idea was to seize first one of the steamers plying between Baltimore and Washington and to board the Pawnee while the mail was being delivered from this steamer on board the warship. With money obtained from Governor Letcher, Thomas went to Philadelphia and obtained a supply of Sharp’s rifles and revolvers, which he directed to be shipped to Baltimore. On June 28, with eight men, he took passage at Baltimore on the St. Nicholas, (Captain Kirwin,) for Washington. At Point Lookout Lieutenant Alexander, with eight well-armed men, disguised as passengers, came aboard, according to a pre-arranged plan, having crossed the Potomac at Bly Creek. The Lieutenant found Thomas in a cabin disguised as a French lady, and received from him the keys to the trunks in which the arms were concealed. Retiring then to his stateroom Thomas donned his uniform, and slipping down the stanchion outside to the waterdeck gave the signal, per a chi, to his men. Within five minutes the captain, pilot, and engineer were looking into the muzzles of pistols and submitted. Lights were put out and the St. Nicholas was headed for Coon river, where, at midnight, Captain Hollins, of the Confederate States Navy, came aboard to direct subsequent operations. It was part of the plan that Colonel Bates, with the First Tennessee should come aboard at the same time and take part in the attack on the Pawnee. He did not arrive until noon next day, and this delay caused the expedition to be abandoned. The St. Nicholas had missed her regular trip and was already an object of suspicion. She was accordingly headed for the bay, where she captured three vessels laden with coffee, ice and coal, worth $400,000, which she took up the Rappahannock to Fredericksburg. The prisoners were taken to Richmond, where Thomas was promoted to colonel and Alexander brevetted captain.

Escape from Fort McHenry.

In the July following Colonel Thomas, with Captain Alexander and Lieutenant Blackston, in a second expedition captured the Georgeanna. At Millstone Landing Thomas, assuming a disguise, took passage in the Mary Washington for Baltimore to cash a draft given him by Governor Letcher, but was recognized by Captain Kirwin, who happened to be a passenger, and was arrested. Alexander, hearing of this mishap, tried to escape with his men from the Eastern Shore to Virginia, but was taken. He and Thomas were indicted for treason and piracy and were shut up in Fort McHenry to await trial. A sentinel one day exhibiting undue “impudence” they together set upon him and beat him, for which they had six weeks, with bread and water, in an underground cell. After their removal from the cell Alexander resolved to try to escape. His wife had just arrived from Richmond, having crossed the Potomac at night in a small boat in such weather as would have kept most men ashore. By an order of the Secretary of War she was permitted to visit her husband daily. A plan was formed. She brought him a life-preserver in the form of a waistcoat and clothes-line, both concealed under her hoop-skirt. Standing near the corner of the cell she cut the string that supported the waistcoat and line and kicked them under the cot. She had brought also a letter-head which depicted Fort McHenry and its surroundings. On this, after careful observation, she had dotted in blue ink the positions of the various sentinels about the fort. It was a Saturday. She made Alexander promise he would wait till Monday, so she might see him again before he should make his perilous attempt. And so they parted. But as twilight came on Alexander resolved to escape that very night and be his own messenger to his wife. About dark, Colonel Thomas left the cell ad walked up and down with the guard in front of the door. Meanwhile Alexander arranged his bed so that it would seem to be occupied, and, getting behind the door, put on the life-preserver and over that a Federal uniform his wife had also brought him. Stepping, then, to the door as the guard’s back was turned, he moved briskly forward. Meeting the guard as he returned on his beat, Alexander saluted him and was saluted in turn, the guard not suspecting his identity. The mortar batteries that had been erected to fire on Baltimore in case of need were soon reached. In passing one of them he knocked down a crow-bar. It fell with a clang, so loud that the fugitive thought all the bells of Baltimore had struck. He hurried the faster to the rampart on the Patapsco side. The height was considerable and the clothes-line was provided for this place, but he had forgotten it. There was nothing to do but to jump. Jump he did and landed on hard ground. Attempting to rise he found his right leg and shoulder badly injured. But with some effort he crawled into the water and eluded the guard who was passing. The cold water lessened his pain, but the sky was black and the wind was roughening the Patapsco. When at length he inflated his life-preserver and struck out, weak and faint, his prospect of seeing his wife ____ seemed a gloomy one.

He swam, however, with such speed as he could, and after two and a half hours reached land at a point near Riverside Park and crawled to where he saw a light.

It shone from the window of a cabin, and in the door sat an old man. “Badly hurt” was his reply to inquiries, and he was carried into the house by the old man and his daughters. Presently the girls recognized him, for they had seen him at the fort. The old man at once said Alexander must go. His property would be confiscated if an escaped prisoner were found harbored there. But the girls interceded for him and at length prevailed upon their father to get a buggy and take him elsewhere. They themselves got into the buggy and concealed him with their skirts as he lay in the bottom of the vehicle. He was taken first to the house of W. H. Norris. He was then taken in a carriage by Owen Norris to Hoffman street, where he saw his wife for a moment, and thence to the home of E. Law Rogers, where, at 4 P. M., he had the services of a surgeon. Later he was taken to Carrollton, where Charles Carroll and wife received him with the utmost kindness.

There was an offer of $10,000 for his capture.

When able to move Frank Key drove him in a buggy to a point below Fort Washington, where, in company with Lieutenant Durbott[?], he crossed the Potomac, eluding the gunboat that passed and repassed as they lay above on the bank awaiting their chance.

Appointed Provost Marshal.

Soon after Lieutenant Alexander was appointed provost marshal of the eastern district of Virginia, where he did good service in preserving order in the Confederate capital. Among his various duties was the management of Castle Thunder, which he brought into the best condition the resources of the Confederacy would permit. Colonel Alexander’s talents as an executive were here admirably exhibited, and President Davis on more than one occasion owed his safety to the vigor and foresight the “provost marshal of Richmond” brought to his office.

After the War.

After the civil war Colonel Alexander went to Canada, where he taught French in a college till it was safe to return home. For many years he resided in Baltimore, with great success putting his scientific education and executive ability to use in his business as sanitary engineer. During the last years of his life, after he became physically incapable of business, he resided in Laurel, Md., where he died. He leaves a widow, who shared fully with him his perils, his successes and his sorrows, and is one of the sweetest heroines of the civil war.

Go to top