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History > Cape May has entertained many war heroes

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Having survived the wounds of war, Henry Sawyer, now a free man from southern imprisonment, returned to the Cape Island he had left some four years earlier and found it in the process of change.

For one thing it was to change its name from Cape Island, which it had adopted as a borough in 1848 and as a city in 1851, to Cape May in 1869.

He, of course, was changing too from military to civilian life and like many veterans then and now, he was pondering what to do in the new episodes of his life. Finally he decided to enter the hospitality business, first in 1867 as the proprietor of the Ocean House in the still Cape Island, until April of 1873 when, in one of the few times of his life, he moved out of the county and its renamed Cape May to became proprietor of another hotel called the Clayton House in Wilmington, Delaware.

But sand apparently returned to his shoes and two years later in 1875 Sawyer moved back to Cape May and began construction of “Sawyer’s Chalfonte,” the title meaning “cool fountain,” the reason for that title inexplicable with the passage of time. Sawyer got a head start on the project when in 1872 he bought the parcel of land on which it now stands at the corner of Howard Street and Sewell Avenue. Then in 1876 on the 100th anniversary of the nation, the one-time Civil War colonel augmented his property by acquiring more land in the area of Columbia, Franklin, Sewell and Howard Avenues except for a lot at the corner of Columbia and Howard.

His initial building now firmly entrenched, Sawyer pursued bigger plans. In 1878, a fiery year for Cape May when many hotel rooms were wiped out in uncontrolled blazes, Sawyer went the opposite direction and, unscathed by the fire, added 19 rooms to the 18 that were already there.

Sawyer had a knack for usually being somewhere at a crucial time.

He was there when they sent him to Washington to guard the capital as the rebels were advancing on it during the early stages of the war. He was there during the bloodiest cavalry battle of the war at an obscure place called Brandy Station in Virginia. He was there when the Confederate Army shot him and captured him as a prisoner of war and he was there when he was the one of two “winners” in an unlucky death lottery and was designated to be executed as reprisals against the North.

And in civilian life he was there on the veranda of his Chalfonte Hotel. It was a Saturday morning, Nov. 9, 1878, and Sawyer was concluding his first of three terms as councilman of Cape May. On that morning he saw a woman, fear on her face, looking toward the sky and he did too. When he saw smoke clouding the sky, he became the first to sound the alarm for the most devastating fire in the history of the city.

Sawyer went on to serve as councilman for two more terms from 1880 to 1882 and 1885 to 1887 He was superintendent of New Jersey’s Life Saving Stations and also served the city as something of a public relations representative, once introducing John Philip Sousa prior to his band concert audience at Congress Hall

Sawyer sold the hotel in 1888 after 13 years of ownership. Its sale is something of an irony because the Civil War hero of the Union sold it to a daughter of the Confederacy and a southern atmosphere still prevails today under the ownership of Robert Mullock.

Although Sawyer deserved the tributes he received as a local war hero, there were others who came to Cape Island/Cape May who gained bigger national fame for their accomplishments on the battlefields and in the waters of the nation’s wars. It appears that this resort at the end of New Jersey was the place to visit to escape from the actualities or memories of the tragedies of bloody confrontations.

The list reads like a Who’s Who of American war heroes. Among the more famous ones, all with local connections, are Captain Stephen Decatur, Generals George Meade, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant.

Decatur, after whom a street is named in Cape May, perhaps was the first of the military celebrities to have come here in 1806, some 42 years before Cape Island was officially incorporated as a borough. Decatur was a man of the sea and was cited for his gallantry in the confrontation with Tripoli in 1803 and 1804, two years before he came to Cape Island for respite. He later retuned to action in the War of 1812 and was taken prisoner by the British and kept in custody until the war’s end.

Then a Navy commissioner, Decatur was to meet his death on March 22, 1820 in a gun duel with Commander James Barron who had been convicted in a court martial of not preparing his ship properly for action. One of the court martial members was Decatur and when the guilty verdict was announced and with it a five-year suspension without pay, an unhappy Barron challenged Decatur to a duel with pistols. If he couldn’t win in the courtroom, he’d do it on the pistol range as his second option, he figured.

Barron won. He was shot in the leg, but proved to be a better marksman, fatally wounding his opponent.

General George Meade, who has been described by some of his fans as “the Rodney Dangerfield of Civil War generals,” came to Cape May in August of 1869 and was honored with a testimonial at the Columbia House for his gallantry in winning the Battle of Gettysburg. Not everyone was so positive about Meade, however, especially President Lincoln who criticized the general for not being aggressive after his big victory at Gettysburg.

One newspaper, however, called Meade during his stay here, “one of the nation’s heroes—the gentleman, scholar and soldier.”

“The Philadelphian who would not honor him has a soul dead to all patriotism,” the article said.

General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Cape May four years later in August of 1873 and was hailed by the Cape May Ocean Wave as “the greatest living general of the age.” He was the general whose 60,000 troops wrought destruction through Atlanta during the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) march to the sea. Later, Sherman was to coin the words, “war is hell,” something he learned from leading his troops through the destruction of the deep South.

Ulysses Seymour Grant, the Union general credited with leading his soldiers to Civil War victory, visited Cape May twice during his two terms of office as President from 1869 to 1877. One time he came with his family, another time it was an all-male visit with cabinet members and other government officials. (See details in earlier story.)

So it is that in the broad painting of Cape May’s history the faces of some of the nation’s leading warriors stand out. But larger than all of them, perhaps, is that of a man whose life almost perished in a bizarre death lottery.


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