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History > Union played dangerous game of poker with life of Cape May’s Sawyer at stake

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The story of Henry Washington Sawyer, the carpenter turned soldier from Cape Island, and Brigadier General William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, the second son of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, has unusual parallels in the history of the Civil War.

Sawyer was shot and captured by the South in a key battle at a small way stop for stage coaches and later the railroad in a place called Brandy Station in Virginia, so named because brandy was served for passengers there on chilly days and night.

The younger Lee, also in the cavalry, was shot in the leg by a bullet from a pistol and toward the end of the battle his father rode to Brandy Station from Culpepper and watched as his injured son was carried away.

“Rooney” Lee was taken to a friend’s house in Hanover County and was nursed by his mother and sisters for 17 days. On the Friday of June 26, however, a federal raiding party, learning in a Richmond newspaper about his whereabouts, captured Lee while he was recuperating in his friend’s home. Now a prisoner of war, Lee was transported to Fortress Monroe while Sawyer was in the custody of the South at Libby Prison in Richmond, Va.

The stage was now set for Abe Lincoln to save the lives of two men in a big poker game of the war where the stakes were very high and so was the bluffing.

After hearing the plea of Henry Sawyer’s wife, the President issued a directive to Major General Henry W. Halleck to send an urgent dispatch to Colonel William H. Ludlow, the Union agent for the exchange of prisoners of war.

The wordy letter, dated July 15 of 1863, reads:

“The president directs that you immediately place General W.H.F. Lee and another officer selected by you, not below the rank of captain, prisoner of war, in close confinement and under strong guard and that you notify Mr. R. (Robert) Ould, Confederate agent for exchange of prisoners of war, that if Captain W.H. Sawyer, First New Jersey Cavalry, and Captain John M. Flinn (Flynn), Fifty-first Indiana Volunteers, or any other officers or men in the service of the United States not guilty of crimes punishable with death by the laws of war, shall be executed by the enemy, and aforementioned prisoners will be immediately hung.

“It is also directed that immediately on receiving official or other authentic information of the execution of Captain Sawyer and Captain Flinn, you will proceed to hang General Lee and other rebel officers designated as hereinabove directed, and that you notify Robert Ould, Esq. of said proceeding and assure him that the government of the United States will proceed to retaliate for every similar barbarous violation of the laws of civilized war.”

To add further emphasis to his intent, Lincoln sent a formal note to Richmond in which he threatened to hang officers “two or three times higher in rank” if Sawyer and Flinn are executed.

By this time the story was heating up in the newspapers as a battle of the media was developing between publications in the North and South. On July 14, two days before the scheduled executions, the New Brunswick Daily Fredonia of New Jersey predicted the hangings would not take place because of Lincoln’s promise of retaliation. It also revealed that the man selected to be executed with Lee by the North was the son of Brigadier General John H. Winder, head of the Richmond prison who had ordered the death lottery in which Sawyer’s and Flinn’s names had been drawn.

The Richmond Examiner took the most militant position. It wanted no mercy shown.

“It is hoped that the executive (Jefferson Davis) will see fit to give the order for the execution (of Sawyer and Flinn) immediately; and as we now have over 500 federal officers in our hands, besides 5,000 and 6,000 privates, it is in the power of the government to carry retaliation to a very bitter extreme,” the newspaper editorialized. “The people call for the death of these two Yankees, and it is useless to delay their deaths any longer.”

But another newspaper, the American Standard of Jersey City, called the Examiner’s position “evidence of atrocious vindictiveness on the part of the rebel leaders.” It complained too of the denial by the South of a visit by Mrs. Sawyer to see her husband. To which the Examiner responded, “When the Yankees conduct themselves like Christians in their intercourse with us, they may expect a like return.”

The months dragged on through the rest of the year and into the early part of 1864. Sawyer and Flinn were removed from their death dungeon and relocated within the regular prison population, but there were no signs that their sentences had been commuted. Every night they wondered if this was to be their last on earth.

“Day after day passes, and with them our hopes,” Sawyer wrote to the Ocean Wave of Cape May. “The morning light, as it breaks upon us, does not bring with it gladness or happiness, but only to usher us into a day of uncertainty and misery. The tidings so much looked for have not come as yet, but in their stead the last flag of truce brought us the awful news of no exchange.”

Sawyer explained how the prisoners passed what they called the “monster time,” the boring hours of confinement. They learned among themselves a smattering of French and Spanish; they tried to outwit each others with moves in the game of chess; they lectured and debated among themselves on the subjects of Cuba, the Negroes and politics. And over and over again they read letters from home, sometimes sharing their mail with each other in search of news that their own letters did not provide.

“I am well and in good spirits and shall endeavor to remain so,” Sawyer assured his wife. “Exchange has been considerably on my mind, but I have cast it off for it has deceived me so often. All rumors have proven false, and still Madame Rumor has something new every day. I have given up all hopes and shall try to spend my time to the best advantage. This does not mean that I can be indifferent to what seems at present to be our fate, not to evade thinking of home. Alas, no. I wish I could banish those thoughts, but such an undertaking is beyond our strength.”

“Rooney” Lee, meanwhile, was transferred on Nov. 13, 1863 to Fort Lafayette in the New York harbor. The fort was torn down a century later and part of the land was used as the foundation for one of the towers of the Verrazano Bridge, named after one of the early visitors to Cape Island. While Lee was imprisoned at the fort, his wife, Charlotte, died on December 26, 1863.

Finally, tensions were eased on February 25, 1864, when the order was signed for the exchange of the prisoners. In March, Lee retuned to Richmond where he was promoted to the rank of major general. Flinn, ironically, died just a few months after he was released from his death cell.

Sawyer returned to his farm on Cape Island in March for a reunion with his devoted wife. He was appointed a major and returned to action where he was wounded again but escaped recapture.

 

(Next A Civilian Again.)


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