Civil War: Castle Thunder’s Captain Alexander
Castle Thunder’s larger-than-life commandant is removed from duty after charges of prisoner abuse and bribery.
We’ve already talked a bit about Castle Thunder prison in Richmond and even made mention of its larger-than-life commandant, Captain George W. Alexander. In November of 1863, however, Castle Thunder’s commandant was at the center of a controversy involving prisoner abuse and bribery that ended with his discharge and the end of his duties as commandant. Alexander was no stranger to controversy–in fact, it could be said that he thrived on it. He took great care to ensure that his image and reputation matched that of the prison he ran:
The “dark” aspects of Castle Thunder were enhanced by the appearance of its first commandant…a medium-sized man, Alexander stood only 5 feet, 8 inches, but his body was well-toned and muscular. As a provost marshal, Alexander presented a frightening sight in his tight-fitting black trousers, black stockings, and black shirt. With his black eyes shining, his black hair and black beard flowing in the wind, Alexander galloped through the streets of Richmond on his huge black horse, followed by his massive black Bavarian boar hound. The trio struck terror in the hearts of all that saw them. Casstevens, Frances Harding. _George W. Alexander and Castle Thunder: A Confederate Prison and Its Commandant_
If you’re envisioning a mix between a WWE wrestler and a pirate, you’d probably be right. In fact, Alexander had some legit pirate credentials during the war. In 1861, he resigned from the U.S. Navy and joined a group of Confederate pirates who captured Union ships and sailed them south to Richmond. Once he arrived in Richmond, he used the stage as an outlet for his dramatic flair, writing a musical called The Virginia Cavalier into which he wrote himself a cameo. His appearance during the play (on horseback along with his huge black dog Nero) would regularly draw huge cheers from the audience.
As a prisoner of Castle Thunder, your opinion of Alexander varied largely, depending on a) his opinion of you and b) your ability to spend money while in the prison. Prisoners with means to pay could get virtually any civilian luxury while imprisoned at Castle Thunder, and Alexander took very good care of those who could help finance his lifestyle. He established a “citizens’ room” where prisoners hand picked by Alexander enjoyed an abundance of food, alcohol, reading material, and other benefits. The rest of the prison population didn’t have it so easy. In fact, Castle Thunder maintained a reputation as the worst of Richmond’s prisons with overcrowding, dangerous inmates, and overall terrible conditions. To make matters worse, Alexander’s guards freely engaged in methods of punishment like stringing up prisoners by their thumbs, confining them to boxes, and other cruelties.
After rumors of Alexander’s mistreatment of prisoners reached the Confederate government, an inquiry was held by the Confederate Congress. During the trial, Alexander’s defense was that the prisoners of Castle Thunder were so violent and hardened that they required unusual methods of punishment. Surprisingly, and likely in part due to his popularity in Richmond, he was exonerated.
However, in December of 1863, more of Alexander’s misbehavior with regard to widespread bribery and preferential treatment of prisoners came to light, and he was charged with malpractice in office. He was removed from his post as commandant of Castle Thunder and replaced. He left Richmond, leaving his dog Nero behind.
When the war ended in 1865, there was a lot of public outcry at the treatment of Union prisoners. In order to escape potential imprisonment, Alexander fled to Canada and then later returned in the 1870s.
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