Friday, April 3, 2009

The Lottery of Death

Very few people who visit the Victorian landmark resort of Cape May and walk by the beautiful Chalfonte Hotel know about the story of the famous Lottery of Death.

First let me say that the hotel is worth a visit. It is only one of two hotels that still exist in Cape May that survived the great fire of 1878 that destroyed 35 acres of the beautiful seaside town.
The hotel was built in 1875 by Civil War veteran Henry W. Sawyer.
During the war Sawyer distinguished himself and rose from private to second lieutenant in only 60 days. He returned to Cape May at the conclusion of his three-month enlistment but stayed only a short while.
Eager to serve his country and unknowingly approaching his date with history, Sawyer contacted the governor and once again offered his services. On February 19, 1862, he was assigned to the First New Jersey Cavalry, Company D, as a second lieutenant. By October of the same year he advanced to the rank of captain of company R.
On June 9, 1863, the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War took place at Brandy Station, Virginia.
Jeb Stuart's famed horseman engaged the Union cavalry in a bloody battle where 21,000 men fought along the Rappahannock River for over 12 hours. Although the Confederates narrowly held the day, the Union cavalry came away with a bolstered ego. They had taken on the infamous rebel cavalry and fought them to a standoff.

Among the wounded was a Union cavalry officer named Henry Sawyer. He was captured by the Confederates and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virgina. The strange events that followed made Sawyer become the topic of conversation from Richmond to Washington, D.C.
On July 6, the rebel prison officials gathered the Union captains imprisoned at Libby. Sawyer and his fellow officers believed the officials were assembling them to discuss a general pardon and release.
The northern officers anticipation turned to dread when they were told the grim purpose of the meeting. They were informed that the rebel war department had decided to execute two captains in retaliation for the executions of the confederate officers captured in the North by Union General Ambrose Burnside.
The victims were to be chosen by lot, a lottery of death as it became known. All of the officer's names were written on small squares of paper and put in a box. the first two men chosen, were to be shot. After being given a choice, the officers requested that Rev. Mr. Brown, of the Sixth Maryland perform the somber task of picking the names.
The first name chosen was Captain Henry W. Sawyer of the First New Jersey Cavalry and the second was Captain Flynn of the Fifty-First Indiana.
The Richmond Dispatch reported:
" Sawyer heard it with no apparent emotion remarking that someone had to be drawn, and he could stand it as well as anyone else. Flynn was very white and depressed."
Sawyer and Flynn were separated from their comrades and told the execution would take place in eight days on July 14.
Sawyer realized that his only chance to live lay in political intervention. His captors allowed him to write his wife at Cape Island ( Cape May ) provided they inspect the letters.
He implored her, " If I must die, a sacrifice to my country, with God's will I must submit; only let me see you once more and I will die becoming a man and an officer, but for God's sake do not disappoint me."
She did not fail him and traveled to the capital and petitioned President Lincoln to intercede. He did and instructed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to place in close confinement two rebel officers not below the rank of captain.
Stanton had two special prisoners in mind. The first was General Winder, son of the Confederate Provost-Marshall and the second was general William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, son of general Robert E. himself. As fate would have it Lee's son was captured in the the battle of Brandy Station, the same day Sawyer was captured.
Word was sent to the Confederacy: Execute Sawyer, Flynn or any other innocent captive and Lee and Winder would be shot in retaliation.
The story was reported by the national papers and the " Lottery of Death" captured the country's imagination. The southern population was outraged at the northern threat but many realized the Confederate's lottery was equally unjust.
Needless to say, the execution did not take place and in March of 1864, Captain Sawyer was exchanged for Lee's son.
Sawyer returned to Cape Island and his wife via a hero's welcome in Trenton, NJ. He returned to his beloved First New Jersey and eventually achieved the rank of colonel, serving the regiment until it was disbanded in 1865.
The "colonel" as he became known, built the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May on the Jersey Shore and operated it for 17 years.
It was said that there existed no man, woman or child in Cape May who did not know by heart the tale of the lottery of death. So when you visit or stay ta the famous old hotel now you know the backstory.

From: The Summer City by the Sea, Cape May, New Jersey - An Illustrated History by Emil R. Salvini ( Rutgers Univerity Press )

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