James Cutbush wasn’t even a U.S. citizen when he signed up for the Union Army. But after what the young Englishman experienced during the Civil War, he more than earned the right to call himself an American.
He arrived in rural Saratoga County in 1858, at age 18. After the South seceded and war broke out, Cutbush enlisted in 1862 in the New York 125th Infantry Regiment.
Cutbush would go on to fight at Gettysburg and in a brutal subsequent Virginia campaign, be taken prisoner twice and spend time in two of the Confederacy’s most notorious prisoner of war camps, according to military records, family and research by Milton town Historian Royann Blodgett.
Cutbush, who was a private, left no letters that survive, but enough of the West Milton man’s military career can be pieced together that he was honored last Tuesday by Saratoga County officials as their Deceased Veteran of the Month.
“He survived Andersonville, which was essentially a concentration camp,” said Adam Kramer, chief of staff for Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville.
The 125th Infantry, which was mustered in on Aug. 29, 1862, was mostly made up of young men from Troy and surrounding communities, though some, like Cutbush, came from Saratoga County.
The regiment was initially sent to the strategic depot at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., where within a matter of days it came under attack and surrendered, along with more than 12,000 other federal troops. It was the Union’s biggest prisoner surrender.
There wasn’t much shame in surrender, though. Harper’s Ferry is at the bottom of a steep ravine that pinches the Shenendoah River as it flows into the Potomac. It was indefensible when the enemy held the heights. The town changed hands eight times during the war.
The unit was immediately paroled — released, in other words, on condition it not fight — but returned to action in December, when the paroled men were swapped for Confederate prisoners of war.
At Gettysburg, the 125th Infantry was at Cemetery Ridge, the center of the Union line on the second and third days and the target point for Pickett’s infamous and ill-fated charge on the afternoon of July 4, 1863.
During the Battle of Mine Run, Va., in early December, Cutbush was again taken prisoner, while holding the line as the regiment crossed a river. This time, there was to be no parole.
Cutbush was taken first to Libby, in Richmond, which might have earned the distinction of being the South’s worst prison camp, if Andersonville hadn’t been built to replace it.
Both were hellholes of disease and starvation, as by late 1863 the Confederacy no longer had the resources to adequately feed its own army, let alone its military prisoners.
Records show Cutbush was in Libby from Dec. 3 until Feb. 15, 1864, when he was moved to
Andersonville, in southwestern Georgia. He would spend a year there, becoming one of the “lucky” ones who survived.
More than 45,000 Union prisoners were held at the overcrowded, open-air camp, and 13,000 died of exposure, disease or malnutrition or were shot for crossing the “dead line” close to the fences, according to historical records maintained by the National Park Service, which operates Andersonville as a National Historic Site.
Cutbush somehow survived there until February 1865, when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
He returned to West Milton, where he married and became a U.S. citizen on June 19, 1866. He and his wife, the former Mary Faulkner, bought a farm on Paisley Road in 1869, and they had three sons and a daughter.
But Cutbush had acquired a case of tuberculosis as a prisoner and died from the disease on Aug. 29, 1874, at age 34. He is buried in the West Milton Cemetery. A number of descendents still live in the Milton area.
Remarkable as it is, the Cutbush tale is just one of hundreds of thousands of stories that could be told from the Civil War.
“The 1860s were a tough time for this country, probably the toughest times this country has ever seen,” Milton town Supervisor Dan Lewza said in memorializing Cutbush.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.