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Bizarre History of Cape May > Civil War generation also has a claim on ‘greatest’

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How really great was “The Greatest Generation,” as described by Tom Brokaw, former TV anchorman turned author, in his best selling book of the same title?

Is it possible he might have the wrong generation? Perhaps the tribute belongs instead to those who lived through the Civil War.

Brokaw refers to “The Greatest Generation” as those who grew up in the United States during the Great Depression and then fought in the biggest war in the history of mankind while others contributed to the war effort on the home front.

“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” Brokaw wrote, adding that the men and women fought then not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.

“Great” can be defined differently, sometimes as being large, which those times certainly were, or as in “Have a great day,” which implies one should have at least a good day, something that seldom occurred in those worrisome and troubled times.

True, the Great Depression lived up to its name in its immensity, but there was no joy when the stock market crashed in 1929 and once wealthy men, their money having disappeared forever, were forced to sell apples on street corners or, worse still, to end their despondencies by jumping from rooftops.

And when World War II arrived, there was nothing great about young men being conscripted so they could be taught to kill in foreign lands, nothing great about 16,000 of them being imprisoned as so-called draft dodgers during the war, nothing great about still others being shot by fellow Americans as deserters when during the terrors of the battlefields they dropped their weapons and fled for safety.

Did they fight because it was the right thing to do, as was said by Brokaw? No figures are available to sustain or deny that, but given the circumstances one wonders how many volunteers there would have been if there had not been a draft and if there had not been the threat of imprisonment for deliberate failure to serve.

The story falls back to 1861 or so when the nation was torn apart by the issue of slavery, North against the South. When the war broke out on April 12, the North called it the Civil War, which could be considered a misnomer because war is never civil. The South preferred to call it the War Between The States, which may have well been the proper terminology.

The North referred to the South as “Rebels.” The South called the North “Yankees.” At some southern venues after the war the statue of Robert E. Lee appears with the acronym of YMCA attached to it. That does not only stand for Young Men’s Christian Association in the southlands. It also means Yankees May Come Again.

The draft for the Civil War started in the South on April 16, 1862 and a year later the North began conscription, touching off violent protests in New York City. There were options, however, if you wanted to escape service in the Union Army. You could hire someone to take your place or you could pay $300 to escape service.

Then named Cape Island was a microcosm of the tormented and divided nation.

As was to be the case before World War II on a different issue, there were mixed feelings among the pre-Civil War generation about the wisdom of becoming involved with the issue of slavery. Some of the feelings in Cape May County, where sentiments were divided, were that slavery was a southern problem. Let the South solve it.

Similarly, during the months before the United States joined World War II, an isolationist group called America First, led by famed flyer Charles Lindbergh, campaigned to keep America out of the war.

But once both wars started the generations of those times supported them, at least outwardly in a show of patriotism.

The draft machinery was already in place when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and eligible men had no choice, short of imprisonment, but to serve in the military.

However, when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, triggering the start of the War Between The States, there was no draft and was not to be one for the Union until two years later.

So it was during that span between the start of the war and the initiation of the draft that the (greatest?) generation of the Civil War responded by volunteering in numbers to fight for the survival of their nation whose heart and soul were on the verge of being torn asunder.

Patriotic flag waving ceremonies were held throughout Cape May County and in the first month of the war, as southern troops were closing in on Washington only 100 miles away, the Cape Island Home Guard was formed and enlisted 70 volunteers who drilled twice a day on the grounds of a Cape Island hotel.

Without fear of conscription, enlistments ensued, the most famous in Cape Island’s history being that of Henry Sawyer, who was captured by the South and was almost executed in a death lottery until his life was spared in a prisoner exchange with the son of Robert E. Lee. Sawyer was said to have joined the cavalry not because of a position on slavery but because he was opposed to the South’s secession.

Another symbolizing the spirit of the times and its generation was Dr. John Wiley, a middle-aged physician who was a county activist in peace and who strongly opposed slavery. Soon after the first shots were fired, Wile helped organize and became chairman of a Cape May County citizens meeting which pledged support to the national government and which organized as a home guard.

At first reluctant to serve because of his age and an ailing wife who needed attention, Wiley eventually volunteered as surgeon in the Army of Potomac.

While he was at the second Battle of Bull Run, in a rare quiet moment Wiley suddenly heard the sounds of battle and he mounted his horse to ride to what he thought was the scene of combat. Instead he rode into a camp of Confederate officers who he thought were members of the Union Army. He asked which way to the battle and they told him he was their prisoner and the South needed him more at its hospital than the North did at its own.

After two months attending to the patients at the enemy hospital, Wiley was released and sent back to the Union Army where he administered to patients there. His wife still ailing, he left the military on Sept. 7, 1864, eight months before the war ended on April 9, 1865.

He continued an active civilian life, including that of serving as the first president of the Cape May County Medical Society. He died on Christmas Eve of 1891 of pneumonia at the age of 76 and is buried at the Baptist cemetery in Cape May Court House.

The stories of Sawyer and Wiley are typical of others that emerged from the Civil War, giving credence to the contention that the title of “The Greatest Generation” may not belong exclusively to those who lived during World War II.


(Some of the information for this article was researched in the Cape May County Magazine of History and Genealogy in a 1955 article written by Horace E. Wood II.)


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