A simple carpenter stares death in the eye, and lives to build one of Cape May’s living treasures. A story rooted in American history, the tale of Henry Washington Sawyer is one of courage, strength and pride.
It was by drawn lot that the fate of a man, a town and an entire county was sealed.
The date was July 6 in the year 1863.
The place — Libby Prison.
“They had hoped for a release, but here was an order which in a moment clouded the whole prospect. Escape, of course, was impossible. The drawing was inevitable. After being formed in a hollow square, a slip of paper with the name of each man written upon it, and carefully folded up, was deposited into a box, whereupon the captain informed the men that they might select whom they pleased to draw the names, the first two names drawn to indicate the men to be shot.”
The words seen in italics throughout this story are those written by a Richmond Dispatch reporter (unless otherwise noted) during the years of 1863 and 64 – an eyewitness to all that unfolded.
Henry Washington “Saeger” was born May 16, 1829 in Whitehall Township, an area of farm lands in Pennsylvania. Though born of German descent, his family were proud patriots of the United States, giving Henry his middle name in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of George Washington’s death. At age nineteen, Henry decided to leave the family farm. His father was greatly incensed over the decision threatening Henry with disownment. From the moment he left until the day he died, Henry never again laid eyes on his father.
He studied carpentry trade and in 1848 set out for Cape May, New Jersey, a town in the midst of a construction “boon.” Upon arrival, he changed his name from Saeger to Sawyer — a literal translation. The German word “saeger” means carpenter or sawyer. Henry felt Cape May’s deep-routed Anglican heritage would be more receptive to a more Anglicized name. And he was right.
He married a local girl with strong Mayflower ties by the name of Harriett Ware Eldredge and had two children. Henry picked up odd jobs throughout town building a shed here, and an outhouse there — nothing terribly elaborate.
It was April 15, 1861 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for volunteers in the recent War Between the States. And it was the same day, Henry went home early from work, put his tools into a closet, had something to eat, kissed his wife good-bye and rode to Cape May Court House to enlist. He was the first man in the entire county to volunteer.
In fact, so early did he enlist there was no regimental organization or company ready or likely to be for weeks so Sawyer went to Trenton offering the governor his services in the name of the Union cause. The governor accepted and sent Henry to Washington, D.C. with secret dispatches for the Secretary of War. All mail and telegraphic communication had been severed when the Confederacy took possession of Baltimore. He faithfully delivered. Four days later he was chosen as one of the guards to protect the Capitol and made a private. Within sixty days, he attained the rank of second sergeant and then second lieutenant.
During the early days of the war, the enlistment period was only ninety-days. Volunteers were called “thirty-day men” and by August, Henry’s enlistment time was up. He again offered his services to the governor, his previous service record considered “meritorious,” and was commissioned second lieutenant, Company D, First New Jersey cavalry in February of 1862. By October, his military conduct so commendable, he was promoted to captain.
It was June 9 in 1863 at the Battle of Brandy’s Station — combat which pitted more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers against one another — that Henry was severely wounded and left for dead. A bullet passed through his thigh and another through his right cheek exiting out the back of his neck on the left side of his spine.
The Wednesday, March 23, 1864, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper ran the following account, “Captain Sawyer was taken prisoner in the cavalry combat at Brandy Station in June last. This was the closest cavalry fight of the war. Towards the conclusion, Captain Sawyer received two wounds from pistol bullets. Notwithstanding, he still kept the saddle until his horse was shot, when the latter sprang up into the air and fell dead, throwing his rider with such force as to render him insensible. When he recovered consciousness, Captain Sawyer saw Lieutenant-Colonel Broderick lying near, and crawled up to him, but on examination found that he was dead. While by the side of Colonel Broderick, Captain Sawyer was seen by two rebel soldiers who took him prisoner, and, after washing the blood from his face pronounced his wounds very dangerous, if not mortal. But in a few weeks he improved so much he was sent to Richmond and confined in Libby Prison.”
Built between 1845 and 1852 by John Ender’s Sr., Libby Prison was named for a Captain Luther Libby, who leased the building at the outbreak of the Civil War. Legend has it that the Libby was given only 48 hours to vacate the premises after the Confederacy confiscated the building for use as a hospital and prison. So quickly was the building converted, the captain didn’t have time to remove his “L. Libby & Son, Ship Chandlers” sign and thus the name Libby Prison made its infamous way into history.
Second in reputation only to Andersonville, prisoners at Libby Prison were held in the “dungeon,” a vault in the cellar only 6 feet wide with no place for light or air, except for a 6 inches square hole cut into the door.
Sawyer assumed he would be exchanged for a Confederate prisoner of war — a common practice between sides. Unfortunately, two rebel officers had recently been executed by General Ambrose Burnside — and the Confederacy was screaming for retribution.
Less than a month later, Sawyer’s fate seemed sealed.
“It was suggested that one of the chaplains should be appointed. Three were called down from an upper room and the Reverend Mr. Brown, of the Sixth Maryland, accepting the task, amid a silence almost deathlike, the drawing commenced. The first name taken out of the box was that of ‘Captain Henry Washington Sawyer, of the First New Jersey cavalry’ and the second that of ‘Captain John Flinn, of the Fifty-First Indiana.’”
Furthered the reporter witnessing the lottery, “When the names were read out, Sawyer heard it with no apparent emotion, remarking that some one (sic) had to be drawn, and he could stand it as well as any one (sic) else. Flinn was very white and depressed. The drawing over, the prisoners were returned to their quarters and the condemned proceeding under guard to the headquarters of General Winder, Provost-Marshal General. Here they were warned not to delude themselves with any hope of escape, as retaliation must be and would be inflicted, it being added that the execution would positively take place on the 14th, eight days hence.”
It’s interesting to note the human response to imminent death. Flinn became sullen and withdrawn. Hopeless. Sawyer, as the account continues, “as desperate as the situation seemed, did not disrepair, but, reflecting that if by any means his situation could be brought to the knowledge of his government, he might still be rescued, and asked permission to write to his wife, which, being granted on condition that the authorities should read the letter, he immediately did.”
July 6, 1863
My Dear Wife:—I am under the necessity of informing you that my prospects look dark.
This morning all the captains now prisoners at the Libby Military Prison drew lots for two to be executed. It fell to my lot. Myself and Captain Flinn, of the Fifty-first Indiana Infantry, will be executed for two captains executed by Burnside.
The Provost-General J. H. Winder, assures me that the Secretary of War of the Southern Confederacy will permit yourself and my dear children to visit me before I am executed. You will be permitted to bring an attendant, Captain Whilldin, or Uncle W.W. Ware, or Dan, had better come with you. My situation is hard to be borne, and I cannot think of dying without seeing you and the children. You will be allowed to return without molestation to your home. I am resigned to whatever is in store for me, with the consolation that I die without having committed any crime, but it fell to my lot. You will proceed to Washington. My government will give you transportation for Fortress Monroe, and you will get here by a flag of truce, and return the same way. Bring with you a shirt for me.
It will be necessary for you to preserve this letter to bring evidence to Washington of my condition. My pay is due me from the first of March, which you are entitled to. Captain B—— owes me fifty dollars, money lent to him when he went on a furlough. You will write to him at once, and he will send it to you.
Farewell! farewell!! And I hope it is all for the best. I remain yours until death.
First New Jersey Cavalry
The account continues, “After preparing this letter, with a conflict of feeling which we may well imagine, Sawyer and his companion were placed in close confinement in a dungeon under ground (sic). Here they were fed on corn bread and water, the dungeon being so damp that their clothing mildewed.”
In front of the dungeon door stood a 24-hour guard whose purpose was to rouse the prisoners every half hour by calling their names and demanding they answer. This left little time for sleep. But it is known, too, that rats were so numerous inmates were reluctant to close their eyes anyway. It is thought too, that Sawyer and Flinn’s cell was situated next to a room used to store dead bodies. Much like a garbage can, guards would wait for the bodies to fill the room before removing them. Add to this the heat of summer. An insufferable situation.
The Encyclopedia of the Civil War says this about Civil War prison life, “Life in prison brought out unexpected capabilities and unsuspected deficiencies. This was not always the reverse of the traits shown in the world outside. Often the strong and energetic men preserved these characteristics in prison and the weak became helpless. The veneer of convention often peeled away, showing the real man beneath, sometimes attractive, sometimes unpleasant.”
“Men who were confined for any length of time, stood naked, stripped of all disguise before their fellows. Where conditions were particularly hard, the stories of the attitude of some of the prisoners toward their companions are revolting. In Andersonville, organized bands preyed upon the weak and upon those who managed to retain or obtain some desired necessity or luxury. The possession of a little money, a camp kettle, a blanket or an overcoat was sometimes the occasion for jealousy and covetousness which led to a display of primeval characteristics. The trial and execution of a number of prisoners by their companions in Andersonville is well known. In these prisons where the prisoners cooked their own food, the possession of a skillet or tin pail raised a man much above the level of his fellows. He might gain greater riches by charging rent, such as a share of everything cooked, or a button, a pin, a sheet of paper, or tobacco. Life in the prisons was a day-to-day affair with nothing to do but pass the time. Games were created from whatever material one was able to find. Many a rural checker champion owed his skill to the practice gained in prison. Cards were used until the spots were worn off. The chess players at Libby Prison would get so excited over a game that men would pass out, caused in part by their extremely weakened condition. For a time this game was forbidden for this reason.”
Sawyer and Flinn’s “eight day, hence” turned into nine months.
Cape May County was initially reluctant to choose sides in the War Between the States. The county was a fragile “border region,” lying precariously close between the feuding areas and subject to pressure from both the North and South. Relying on tourism from both regions as its foremost industry — a South Carolina secessionist flag flew on a Cape May City hotel — city father’s were hesitant to aggravate either. Visitors from the southern states made up a large proportion of the summer population. And slave owning itself was an inherent part of Cape May County life. Some county businessmen were vehemently opposed to abolition.
A local newspaper editor suggested the break between the North and South might be avoided, calling the secessionist “rumblings” during Lincoln’s 1860 election “more smoke than fire.”
Henry Sawyer’s tragic letter home finally forced county officials make a decision. Cape May County joined the Union cause. In fact, many historians today believe the county was part of Harriett Tubman’s Underground Railroad system.
“The 14th came at last, but still Captains Sawyer and Flinn remained unmolested. Sawyer had estimated right; his letter saved him from the rebel clutch. Immediately upon receiving it, his true-hearted wife hastened to lay the matter before influential friends, and these at once proceeded to Washington, presented the case to the President and the Secretary of War, who without delay, directed that General Lee, son of Robert E. Lee, and General Winder, son of rebel Provost-Marshal General J.H. Winder, then prisoners in our hands, should be placed in close confinement as hostages, General Butler being at the same time ordered to notify the Confederate Government that immediately upon receiving information, authentic or otherwise, of the execution of Sawyer and Flinn, he should proceed to execute Winder and Lee. This action, prompt and unmistakable, and more significant, perhaps, to the enemy, because of General Butler’s known resolution of purpose, produced the desired effect. Sawyer and Flinn were not executed.”
But still nine months went by, Sawyer and Flinn oblivious to the deal. Richmond newspapers still vehemently insisted the execution must and would take place, the public view still a matter of speculation. But it must be told, Richmond newspapers also spoke of Sawyer’s “unfaltering courage, steady and calm.”
Said the Richmond Dispatch, “There was no bravado, no affectation or calm recklessness, but there was no faltering: only the steady, calm courage of a brave man: to use the captain’s own words (if we may do so without impropriety), he was determined that New Jersey should have no cause to be ashamed of his conduct.”
The March 23, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer’s chronicle of his homecoming reads, “Captain Sawyer, of the First New Jersey cavalry, who has been a prisoner in Libby Prison for nine months, arrived in this city Monday. Captain Sawyer, from long and close confinement (being entirely without meat for the last forty days of his imprisonment) is, of course, somewhat weak; but he is in good spirits and hopes to rejoin his regiment at an early date.”
Sawyer remained in active service until August of 1865 when he was discharged with the brevet of lieutenant colonel. At the close of the war, he was offered the rank of lieutenant in the regular army. Sawyer declined.
Flinn never recovered from the ordeal at Libby Prison. He died just six months after he returned home of alcoholism.
Sawyer received a hero’s welcome in Cape May City. He was given a medal of honor from the Pennsylvania Legislature and served on Cape May City Council for nine years. He was at one time superintendent of the United States Life Saving
Service for the coast of New Jersey and a member of the New Jersey State Sinking Fund Commission. Sawyer eventually became proprietor of the Ocean House, one of Cape May’s largest hotels and in 1875, built Sawyer’s Boarding House on Howard Street. In 1876 Sawyer changed its name to the Chalfonte Hotel.
After the Civil War, wealthy southern visitors returned to Cape May during the summer months. Ironically, under the ownership of Colonel Henry Sawyer, the Chalfonte Hotel became one of the foremost resorts in Cape May which catered to southern culture and gentry.
His was not a grudge to bear. Said Sawyer, “After the war, where once blood flowed, flowers now grow. We are one people again and the greatest country of the world. All is forgiven.”