History > County was not immune to crisis of Civil War, Reconstruction

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While much of the nation was agonizing over the issue of slavery in the 1850s, the newly incorporated municipality of Cape Island was trying to keep tourism together, its leaders hoping optimistically if not accurately that the national dissension would work itself out in some way and the island’s successes would continue.

These were happy times for Cape Island as southerners, among them some national leaders, wined and dined with northerners here, not far removed from the halls of government where discussions between the North and the South often grew less than civil. Those from the South were here to enjoy the virtues of seashore vacationing. Their hosts wanted to ensure that their visitors put on happy faces and would come back in the summers ahead.

This was all to change, of course, as the uncivil talk turned into uncivil war in 1861 and Cape Island’s happy times came to an end for at least three years. Indicative of the economic changes between the two decades was the report that in the 1850s those from the South spent $50,000 a season at the resort. That number fell to $10,000 during the war.

The first grim news of war’s reality came to the island when it was learned in July of 1861 that the war’s first local fatality was Sgt. Richard T. Tindall, the son of the Rev. Napoleon Tindall, a Baptist minister and school teacher. The youth succumbed to typhoid fever while guarding the nation’s capital against the approaching rebel forces.

His death was the first of 32 among more than 360 volunteers from the county who served during the war. Four others were killed in battle. Seven more died later from injuries suffered in battle and 21 succumbed in army camps and hospitals to typhoid, measles and other diseases.

Stories of heroism supplemented the most famous one of prisoner Henry Sawyer, who escaped execution by the South in a death lottery when his wife approached President Abraham Lincoln and asked him to intervene.

J. Granville Leach, son of Ocean Wave editor Joseph Leach, led his unit at Fredericksburg. Marine Andrew J. Tomlin was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading an attack during the Battle of Gettysburg. Dr. John Wiley, founder of Cape May County’s Republican party, attended to the wounded of the South and the North.

As the war moved on and casualties mounted, Cape May’s available quota of men diminished. At one point in July of 1864, about 80 percent of the county’s men were rejected because of age, health or commutation, a fancy word for paid deferment.

One draftee, Gideon Holmes, was rejected also on the grounds he was not able to serve. That was because he was dead.

During that same summer as the number of eligible men dwindled, the county enlisted African-American residents, among them Charles S. Boze, Isaac Pepper, David M. Trusty, Henry Turner and Israel Cox. They joined the 25th Regiment, U.S. Colored Volunteers.

When the war ended in 1864, the slaves were freed and everything was well again in the reunited United States. Well, not exactly. The slaves were free, but free for what?

It grew messy again during the post-war period as those of the North fought about how to reconstruct the South. Nobody, except maybe the defeated, talked about how to reconstruct the North.

President Andrew Johnson was the president who succeeded the assassinated Lincoln and he was accused by some in the county, led by Cape Island’s William E. Ware, of “harmonizing with traitors.”

Such attacks were not uncommon back then.

Local Democratic leader Christopher S. Magrath, owner of the Ocean Wave, attacked the Republican Board of Freeholders for appointing William Seigman as its clerk, a job that Magrath had wanted. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Seigman, a Republican supporter, was the editor of a rival newspaper, the Star of the Cape, the county’s second newspaper.

It got real nasty. A newspaper war was developing, a trend that has continued among other newspapers in the United States deep into the 20th century.

Seigman fought back calling his contemporary “a miserable creature” for his “mean and contemptible attack on the Board of Freeholders of Cape May County.”

The economy was not doing well in the last decade of the 19th century. Some African-Americans, then indelicately referred to as “coloreds,” managed summer employment at the hotels of the newly named Cape May, but there were concerns that the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. A soup kitchen was started and food was distributed to the city’s poor.

Dr. Emlen Physick, after whom the current estate of the Mid-Atlantic Center for The Arts and Humanities is named, donated property for a clothing factory to stimulate employment, but the project went bare when a developer lost his money in a bank failure.

Such was the background in Cape May for many African-Americans after the Civil War. It didn’t improve much, either, as the century turned. In June of 1901, Councilman R.J. Cresswell denied African Americans transportation with whites on a city-sponsored trip to Delaware to watch the launching of a ferry boat named Cape May. African American students were denied education at a new city high school and were assigned to a rundown Franklin School while construction was being completed for what was called “The Apartment For The Colored Annex.”

In that same year of 1901, Marcus Scull, editor of the Cape May Herald and owner of property along a Lafayette Street section housing African Americans, ran accounts of what he said were ”colored population” loitering on Lafayette Street, drinking heavily and insulting white tourists as they rode by in their carriages. The paper campaigned to remove them from the city so it could return to “the glories of pre-Civil War days.”

One letter writer wanted to make Lafayette Street “an attractive avenue for settlement by white families” and “free from mixture with the colored population which now chiefly occupy the avenue for some distance north of Franklin Street, with gas works and all things else objectionable removed them, farther back to the creek or to another location.”

To the rescue of the freed but still oppressed African Americans was a new organization called the Colored Equitable Industrial Association. Its catalysts were Joseph G. Vance, a successful merchant whose last name was to be preserved in Cape May history; hotel porter William Selvy and the Rev. James W. Fishburn, pastor of the Cape May City African Methodist Episcopal Church. Upset by what they said was discrimination against the “colored,” their goals were to establish institutions for the care and welfare of African Americans and to purchase land for an African American town somewhere in Cape May County

They succeeded after much planning and perseverance with the help of prominent African Americans in the arts, government and religion. Among them were Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a turn-of-the-century American poet and novelist, and a Republican congressman from North Carolina named George Henry White who was the last post-Reconstruction Era African-American to hold a seat in the House of Representatives from 1896 to1901.

Ironically, some of the acquired land on which they hoped to build an agricultural and industrial town was once owned by Aaron Leaming Jr. and Thomas Leaming Jr., the largest slave owners in the county’s history.

What has emerged from all their initiative is a now thriving section of Middle Township which is called, in also something of an irony, Whitesboro. It is a testimony to the past and those who were inspired to overcome adversity in a troubled part of American history.


(Some of the information in this article was researched in the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey, The Making of An American Resort,” by Jeffery M.Dorwart.)


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