From the Richmond Dispatch, 3/3/1895

Death of Colonel Alexander, Who Was Superintendent of This Prison
History of This Noble Specimen of a Lordly Canine Race – Alexander as a Dramatist and Actor – How He Managed Those Under Him.

Colonel George W. Alexander died in Laurel, Md., last week of paralysis. He was one of the most conspicuous, notable men in Richmond during the war. A sketch of his life will doubtless be interesting to all, but especially to the comparatively few of our citizens who were here during that time and knew him.

He was born at Francesville, Penn., and was 66 years of age. On October 31, 1848, he was appointed assistant engineer in the United States navy, and remained in the service until April 5, 1861, when he resigned. During that time he was stationed for a long time at the Portsmouth navy-yard, and in that city he married a Virginia lady, Miss Susie Ashby, who survives him. On the 15th of June, 1861, he became a lieutenant of Marylanders, who, with great difficulty, made their way to Richmond and offered their services to Governor Letcher for the Confederacy.


Captain Alexander became a conspicuous man in Richmond the day he put his feet in the city. The knowledge which the people had of the recent exploit in which he had taken part made him so. Everybody had heard of the capture of the St. Nicholas, which, as it was on its way from Washington to Norfolk, laden with valuable commodities, was entered by Colonel Zarvona Thomas, Captain Alexander, and a picked set of men, all in disguise, as passengers, some of them in women’s apparel, and at a concerted moment the party threw off their disguise, captured the officers and crew, and brought the vessel to Fredericksburg, where its contents were sold, and realized some time afterwards $10,000 in gold. Everybody recollects, too, that a short time afterwards Captain Alexander was captured by the Federal forces in Maryland and incarcerated in Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, and how, after some months’ suffering, in that Federal fort, he made his escape in a manner which greatly attracted public attention and aroused public sympathy. He happened to have that greatest blessing that God ever vouchsafes to man – a true, noble, courageous little wife – who determined to release her husband from captivity. In furtherance of her design she got permission to visit him at Fort McHenry, whither she went, carrying with her a suit of Federal uniform, concealed under her dress. She prevailed upon him to don this suit and make his escape. Near night the Captain, thus equipped, left his cell, passed some of the sentinels, but, being discovered by one of them, who fired at him, he leaped over the wall into the river, and although he had badly sprained his ankle in the fall, swam to Baltimore, where he was concealed for some time by his friends, until, finally, after much difficulty, he escaped to Richmond. Here he was received with great cordiality by Governor Letcher, who at once gave him a commission of captain n the Virginia forces, and General Winder, the military commandant of Richmond soon afterwards appointed him assistant provost-marshal of Richmond and gave him the command of the Confederate prisons.


Well do the people of Richmond of that day remember him in his tight-fitting suit of black trousers, buckled at the knees; his black stockings and black loose shirt, relieved only by a white collar, with his long, black whiskers flowing in the wind, riding at full gallop on his black horse along our streets, with his large, magnificent black dog Nero following at his heels.

A short history of this dog will not be out of place or uninteresting. Since the war I have seen many accounts published in our papers about him, all of which, in some particulars, were incorrect. I heard during the war from the Hon. James Lyons and Mayor Joseph Mayo the history of Nero, and I will give it as it was related to me by them.

Some time in 1859 or 1860 he was brought to Richmond, a puppy, by the captain of a Bavarian vessel which landed at Rocketts. The captain gave the puppy to Mr. John Allen, of the firm of Ginter & Allen. Mr. Allen gave him to Mr. James Lyons. Mr. Lyons allowed Joe Mayo, the Mayor of the city, to take him and keep him in the city jail, as a sort of guard, because he was too large and ferocious-looking to be permitted to go at large. When Captain Alexander came to Richmond, he saw Nero in the city jail and was greatly struck at his size and beauty. He persuaded Mr. Mayo, with Mr. Lyon’s consent, to allow him to take Nero to Castle Thunder, and there he remained until the close of the war. He was of the breed known as the Bavarian boar hound – dogs used for hunting the wild boar in Bavaria and in the interminable forests of Germany. The wild boar is one of the strongest and most courageous of animals, and does not fear even the terrible tiger. In India sportsmen have come across boars and tigers dead, the latter bearing the marks of the boar’s terrible tusks. When aroused and brought to bay the eyes of the wild boar look savage and glow like red-hot charcoal. Their strength is sufficient to rush beneath a horse’s belly and bear him and the rider on his back sheer off his legs, and sometimes their tusks are seven inches long.


It was to hunt such game as this that Nero’s noble progenitors were used, and truly he was a noble specimen of his lordly race. He weigh 182 pounds, and was well able to enter the combat with such a foe. Visitors at the Castle were amazed at him, and their spontaneous exclamations at sight of him would be: “Goodness! What a splendid dog!” He was permitted to run about the Castle as he pleased, and was a great favorite with the prisoners. Ordinarily he was good natured, playful, and docile, but when angered or provoked he was terrible looking, and dangerous. I have seen Captain Alexander whip him with a horsewhip, at the same time have a cocked revolver in his other hand, which occasionally he would fire over his head, and then he appeared the very impersonation of ferocity subdued by the will of man. After the city fell into the hands of the Federal troops and Castle Thunder was vacated, Nero took up his abode with Mr. Stephen Childrey, who had been commissary of the prison, and while there had generally had him fed. Some time in the summer of 1865 some Yankees took the dog and carried him through the Northern States and exhibited him as a show to the people. Flaming advertisements were posted about him. He was said to be the dog which was kept at Libby Prison to eat Yankee prisoners, and his qualities, disposition, and immense size were set forth in grandiloquent style. This, of course, attracted public attention, and much money was realized from his exhibition. Mr. Childrey, who accompanied him on this northern tour, returned home six months thereafter and he told me that his share of the profits was $3,000.


Captain Alexander, when in Richmond, was very fond of theatrical performances. He wrote several plays, which were acted at the Richmond Theatre. One of these, “The Virginia Cavalier,” was a great favorite with the people during the war, and it ran for the unprecedented time of 100 nights, consecutively, at the Theatre. In one of the scenes Captain Alexander appeared for a short time, mounted on his black horse, with Nero barking at his side, and rode across the stage at a rapid gait, and this spectacle always aroused among the spectators the most vociferous applause.

In the earlier years of the war Castle Godwin (Lumpkin’s old jail) was the Confederate military prison, but in August, 1863, this prison was closed and some 250 prisoners therein confined were removed to Castle Thunder.


This prison was so named by Captain Alexander because, as he said, he desired its very name to be a terror to evil-doers. Castle Thunder became notorious throughout the whole country. The building was an old tobacco-factory, in which the late John Enders had manufactured many thousand dollars’ worth of tobacco before the war. It occupied one half of the square between Eighteenth and Nineteenth streets, with its front on Cary street, facing the dock and the river, running back to an alley in the rear, dividing the square. The building was of brick, and in the shape of a parallelogram, three sides being occupied by connecting houses and the whole enclosed by a high wall, the interior space forming a large yard, in which the prisoners were allowed to take daily exercise. It had the capacity to hold about 1,500 prisoners, and for the balance of the war it averaged daily from 1,000 to that number. The books of the prison will show that the whole number of prisoners incarcerated therein during the war was about 40,000 or more. Castle Thunder was divided into compartments, in which Confederate soldiers who had committed any grade of military offences were confined, and also into rooms in which were placed disloyal persons and civilians who were captured as attaches of the Federal army, and all others not prisoners of war, these latter being always confined in Libby Prison, two squares off, down Cary street.


It is my purpose to speak mainly of Captain Alexander in his official capacity as the superintendent of Castle Thunder, and I do not hesitate to affirm, from an intimate knowledge, which a cognizance f the facts will arrant, that General Winder’s discernment put the “right man in the right place.” Captain Alexander was eminently qualified to discharge the responsible, arduous duties of the superintendent of the prison, and he did discharge them to the entire satisfaction of the commander-in-chief. I know that he made many enemies in Richmond, but he also ha many warm friends, too. I apprehend that my sketch of him will be obnoxious to the criticisms of many who knew him through the representations of his enemies, but still I think that what I shall say is the truth, and will be received as a correct judgement by all who will weigh the facts which I shall present. Captain Alexander was called upon to manage a congregation of many of the worst men in the Southern Confederacy. Perhaps there never was brought together in such close contact a more ungovernable, desperate class of men, They were, for the most part, the refuse of the southern army - men who would fight like tigers when the contest was on hand, but who would brook no control during the intervals of inaction in camp; men capable of committing any crime within the decalogue without the slightest compunctions of conscience. A few examples of what they actually did will exhibit these characters more plainly than any mere statements of mine.


On one occasion a prisoner was brought into the Castle upon the charge of being absent from his company without leave, and, as usual, he was put into a room where there were some 400 prisoners. When he entered he was dressed in a suit of black cloth, with a beaver hat, and a pair of new boots, and at once the cry of “Fresh fish! fresh fish!” greeted him from the throats of the whole crowd. Immediately after the officers of the prison ha left him, the poor fellow was found with his eyes bunged up and blood trickling down his face, with his suit of clothes, hat, boots, and watch gone, and he clad in his undergarments and stockings. It was impossible to find out the guilty parties, as none of the prisoners would tell. On another occasion I have known them to knock out the eye of an old prisoner without provocation. Then, again, a party of the prisoners cut a hole through a floor, which let them into the room below, where muskets were kept, and, arming themselves, at night they approached one sentinel, whose post was near the entrance within the prison, knocked him senseless with the butt end of a musket, then advanced and killed the sentinel on the outside of the building, and made their escape before the necessary measures to prevent it could be carried out. Again, upon two occasions, they endeavored to blow it up by the explosion of gunpowder, which they had secreted and intended to use for that purpose. These are some of the instances of rascality and crime which this ever-changing, ever-renewed mass of desperate mankind indulged in while they were in prison. Such were the men whom Captain Alexander had to manage and keep in order as best he might. Educated in the United States navy, he was trained to the necessity of obedience to orders and exact discipline in military affairs; and, therefore, he prescribed certain rules and regulations for the management of the prison, which, if violated by his subalterns or the prisoners, subjected them to prompt and certain punishment.


He seemed to look upon the prison as a man-of-war ship. From top to bottom its floors were every morning washed by the prisoners, and scrubbed dry, so that all the departments were kept perfectly clean. Once every week the whole prison, inside and outside, was whitewashed, and it all the time presented a neat appearance, and this cleanliness tended to promote the health and comfort of the prisoners. But his prison discipline was immediate and certain, and in the cases of the graver offences it was severe but necessary. Whenever a prisoner was found guilty of having committed one of these offences the guilty party was at once taken down into one of the large rooms and stripped to his waist, and then his hands were tied around a post. The guard of the prison was placed around him to preserve order, and all of the other prisoners were assembled in the room to behold the infliction of the punishment. Captain Alexander would then address them and tell them of the crime which the condemned man had committed, after which he would order a detective to give him thirty-nine lashes on his bare back, which were well laid on.


At other times I have known him to have prisoner tied up by the thumbs to a cross-piece overhead for a short time, so that their toes would barely touch the ground, and sometimes he would put them on bread and water for a week or so; sometimes keep them in solitary cells, chained by one leg, and punish hem in divers[e] other ways, always suiting the severity of the punishment to the magnitude of the offence committed. This course of punishment had the desired effect, as all the prisoners saw it inflicted and were informed at the time why it was done. As a prison discipline it was salutary to prevent the commission of crimes by the prisoners upon one another, as well as their escape from the prison.

But it aroused a spirit of indignation among many people against the commandant, an the report was spread through the city that he was cruel, until at last it was brought to the cognizance of the Confederate Congress. The House of Representatives, then in session, appointed a special committee, of which the Hon. Daniel C. Dejarnette, of Virginia, was chairman, to examine into the management of Castle Thunder and report whether or not the prisoners were cruelly treated by the superintendent. I appeared with Captain Alexander before the committee, as his counsel, and we put in for his defence, as the lawyers say, a plea of confession and avoidance - that is to say, he admitted that he had punished certain prisoners as I have already stated, and he justified his acts as being necessary for proper prison discipline, and as being the best, if not the only, method of managing such prisoners. The committee, after a most thorough investigation, during which many witnesses were examined and many days consumed, came to the conclusion, and reported to the House, that Captain Alexander’s methods of punishment, although unusual, were not cruel under the circumstances, but were allowable and necessary for the preservation f good order and obedience in the prison.


An incident occurred during one of the sessions of this committee, in the Senate chamber of the Capitol, which came near ending in bloodshed. While one of the witnesses was narrating his account of the whipping of the soldiers in the castle, it seemed greatly to excite the indignation of one of the members of the committee - the Hon. Mr. Herbert, of Texas, who, in an excited tone, exclaimed: “By God, if a man was to whip one of my sons I would kill him on sight!” and while he thus spoke he was looking angrily at Captain Alexander, who was sitting in front of him. The Captain remarked that all he had to say was that if his son, or anybody else’s son, had been in the prison, and had there acted as these prisoners had done whom he had whipped, he would have inflicted the same punishment upon them. The reply greatly excited the member, and he arose and approached towards the Captain in an angry, menacing manner, and said: “Captain Alexander, you must take that back,” repeating it several times. Captain Alexander replied: “Sir, I have only stated what I should have done, and I will not take it back” and at the same time he quietly put his hand under his coat-tail, and grasped the handle of his revolver, expecting, no doubt, an immediate assault. But immediately, Mr. Dejarnette, seeing the situation, reminded the member that this was not the place for an altercation, and requested him to take his seat, which he did, with suitable expressions of regret that he had permitted his indignation to overcome his judgement, and so the matter ended.


The Captain’s enemies, discontented with this triumph on his part, then brought charges against him, alleging that he had received greenbacks from prisoners in consideration that he would endeavor to have them discharged. Upon these charges he was suspended from the duties of his position. He demanded a court of inquiry, which was at once ordered. Colonel Wyatt M. Elliott was the presiding officer of the court, and that court, after a patient investigation, reported that there was no evidence to sustain the charges and acquitted him. But they suggested in their report that they had ascertained that Captain Alexander had become unpopular with many people in Richmond, and for that reason it would be well for the public service if the commanding general would assign him to some other sphere of duty. Therefore General Winder ordered him to the command of the military prison at Salisbury, N. C., and his career in Richmond was closed. To the prisoners who obeyed his orders he was kind; to those who disobeyed them he as severe and quick to punish. He was genial and generous to his friends, and always ready to repel with vigor the blows aimed at him by his enemies. He was paroled at Appomattox. He obtained transportation by sea to New Orleans, thence he went up the Mississippi to Canada, where for some time he taught the French language to French children. When the war feeling had subsided and it was safe to return to the United States Captain Alexander came back and settled in Baltimore, where he was occupied in the business of sanitary engineer, in which he acquired a competency. The last time he was in Richmond was at the unveiling of General Lee’s monument. He was a true Confederate soldier, and all who knew him in the days of war will revere his memory and mourn his death.

R. D. W.

GW Alexander small

Go to top