results for ‘cavalry’

As I have mentioned here previously, my book manuscript on the Battle of Brandy Station is complete and is in the hands of the publisher. A couple of days ago, the publisher advised me that the book will released right around Memorial Day 2010, in time for the anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9. Stay tuned. More details to follow.

Continue reading

Just to show that I’m not just committed to the preservation of cavalry battlefields, here’s an opportunity to do some real good for the preservation of the battlefield at Franklin AND a way to gain a $10,000 corporate donation, too.

The Franklin’s Charge organization of Franklin TN is currently conducting a fundraising campaign to purchase the famous Carter Cotton Gin property, epicenter of the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin and site of the death of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne. A large payment on the property is due in early September and Franklin’s Charge is in the midst of a special urgent appeal.

Christie’s Cookies will donate $10,000 to whichever charity receives the most votes in an online “election.” You can help Franklin’s Charge win the $10,000 by taking 2 minutes of your time and voting.

Please go to in the charity name field type “Franklin’s Charge”, in the city field type “Franklin” and in the state field type “Tennessee.”

Do some good. Take a minute and vote, and help to preserve one of the most important parcels of the battlefield at Franklin.

Continue reading

Time for another in my infrequent posts on forgotten Union cavalrymen. Today, we’re focusing on a little-known officer who commanded an even more obscure unit. Erastus Blakeslee was born to Joel and Sarah Marie Mansfield Blakeslee in Plymouth, Connecticut on September 2, 1838. He attended the Williston Seminary at Easthampton, Massachusetts for his college preparatory studies, and entered the freshman class at Yale University in the fall of 1859. He was on his spring vacation in 1861 when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, and he was one of the first from Plymouth to enlist in response to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers.

He enlisted in Company A of the 1st Battalion Connecticut Cavalry Volunteers on October 9, 1861. Nine days later, he was commissioned second lieutenant in the same company. On November 26, just over a month later, he was promoted to first lieutenant and was appointed regimental adjutant. On February 28, 1862, he was promoted to captain of Company A, which he commanded in the field.

On July 14, 1863, he was promoted to major, and assumed command of the regiment. On May 21, 1864, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and six days later, was promoted to colonel in a remarkably rapid rise. He went from private to colonel in two-and-a-half years. He was wounded in battle at the Battle of Ashland, Virginia on June 1, 1864, and returned to duty in time for the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. He mustered out on October 26, 1864 upon expiration of his term of service. Blakeslee was brevetted to brigadier general of volunteers on March 13, 1865 for gallant conduct at Ashland, Va. on June 1, 1864. “He was a brilliant fighter,” observed one writer. “The General is the idol of his old regiment.”

Although the 1st Connecticut is a not a well-known regiment, it was engaged in a great deal of fighting during the Civil War. The State’s first cavalry regiment was organized as a battalion under Maj. J. W. Lyon in September 1861, and became a full regiment under Col. William S. Fish in November. It was sent to western Virginia to fight bushwhackers in March, 1862.

In the winter of 1862-1863 the regiment moved to Baltimore, Maryland for reorganization, and was serving there during the Gettysburg Campaign as part of the forces assigned to the Middle Military District. It moved to Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., July 5, 1863, and skirmished with southern cavalry in that vicinity until January, 1864.

After Blakeslee was promoted to colonel, the regiment became part of the Third Cavalry Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, fighting throughout the Overland Campaign, including at the Wilderness, Todd’s Tavern, Yellow Tavern, Meadow Bridges, throughout the Wilson-Kautz Raid, and then served in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign from August to December 1864, fighting at Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek. It then participated in Lee’s retreat from Petersburg, including fighting at Sailor’s Creek. The 1st Connecticut escorted Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to receive Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The 1st Connecticut suffered 772 casualties during the war, representing 56% of its strength.

Blakeslee was also an inventor. With the advent of the Spencer repeating carbine, Blakeslee realized that his troopers would run out of ammunition quickly unless they had a way to carry large quantities of ammunition available to them. Blakeslee addressed this problem by designing the “Blakeslee Box”, which held ten ammunition tubes for the Spencer, meaning that each trooper could carry 70 rounds in tubes, ready to be loaded. More than 10,000 Blakeslee Cartridge Boxes were manufactured and distributed to the Federal cavalry during the course of the Civil War.

After the war, Blakeslee engaged in business in New Haven, Connecticut and then in Boston. In 1876, he resumed his studies, attending and graduating from Andover Theological Seminary. After graduating from there in 1879, he held Congregational Church pastorates in New Haven, Connecticut and Spencer, Massachusetts. While in Spencer, he became interested in an effort to improve the methods and result of Bible study in Sunday schools and among young people, and set about developing a system of study. In the summer of 1892, he resigned from his pastorate and moved to Boston, where he devoted his efforts to developing further improvements in the methods of Bible study.

He published numerous works on the Bible, including a nine-part study titled The Gospel History of Jesus Christ, that were translated into ten different languages, and were used in nearly all of the evangelical denominations in North America.

General Blakeslee lived the rest of his life in the Boston area, where he was active in veterans’ affairs, and regularly attended reunions of his old regiment. “At such times the Custer tie is the dominant color in the old cavalry organization,” noted a reporter in 1895.

He died July 12, 1908, and was buried in Walnut Hills Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is one of the few officers to rise from private to colonel and regimental command. His genius led to the development of his cartridge box, and he then devoted his life to preaching the gospel. Here’s to Erastus Blakeslee, forgotten cavalryman.

Continue reading

In response to yesterday’s post, my friend Bud Hall has weighed in on the loss of the southern end of Fleetwood Hill. This was originally a comment to the post, but it is important enough that I decided to feature it as a main post here.

Back in 1984, I was transferred to FBI Headquarters in Washington, and soon bought a home in Virginia. Growing up in Mississippi on a cotton farm–and descended from a 13th Mississippi infantryman–I of course retained in my genes a compelling interest in the Civil War.

My very first weekend trips took me (and my maps) to Brandy Station. Map and primary source analysis, as well as discussions with land owners, convinced me that the entirety of this immense battlefield was nearly as untouched and as pristine as it was when fought over so savagely on June 9,1863.

Now fast forward to 1987 when a California developer arrived at Brandy Station with intent to insert a mammoth, corporate office park directly upon the battlefield… I do not herein purport to convey a history of the long, hard-fought preservation struggle at Brandy Station, but those who are interested in revisiting that sad–but largely successful–chapter of Brandy Station’s “modern” history can “Google” the names, “Clark B. Hall, and Brandy Station.”

By far, the most prominent, fought-over and militarily-vital topographical feature on the entire battlefield is Fleetwood Hill, a two-mile long ridge, that fronts the Rappahannock River, to the north. And on Fleetwood itself, the southern terminus is the ground upon which most of the truly-significant fighting took place.

Demonstrating incredible sensitivity to Brandy Station’s most significant battlefield feature, The Civil War Preservation Trust and the Brandy Station Foundation have purchased (for huge sums) highly significant, invaluable battlefield acreage on the northern and southern slopes of Fleetwood–for which both organizations are to be highly commended. It is a fact that major portions of Fleetwood are now protected, in perpetuity.

But it is also a fact that the most important part of Fleetwood is now “commanded” by an offensive, monolithic structure purported to be a family home, but which is in fact a startling monument to gross, historical insensitivity, and in-your-face, “architectural” extravagance, writ blasphemously obscene.

Now, better than anybody–except the “home’s” owner, and one other person–I know exactly what happened, the consequence of which resulted in the tragic construction of this home smack dab on top of Fleetwood Hill. Suffice it to say: There were private discussions between the landowner, another party and myself, and these discussions broke down hard and bitterly–to my utter dismay…

The outcome of this preservation disaster is there today for anybody to see, and I blame myself as much as the home’s owner, simply because I could not re-start the negotiations that could have saved all of Fleetwood. In the end, it is a fact that good intentions do not trump the reality that spiteful arrogance does often carry the day.

So one day–after my Battle of Brandy Station book manuscript is finally published–I will write a long, truthful account of what we achieved at Brandy Station–and that which we lost.

In the end, thanks to CWPT and BSF, we have saved much of the battlefield for future generations, and I am here today informing you that more acreage will soon be secured at Brandy Station. The preservation of this momentous battlefield is my life’s work, and this labor will not cease until I am finally placed in the ground next to my dear, darling wife, Deborah Whittier Fitts–also a devoted champion of America’s greatest cavalry battlefield.

But also in the end, we should utter the harsh truth, as much as it hurts to admit it: The southern terminus of Fleetwood–the most important geographical icon at Brandy Station–is now forevermore “lost to history.”

And don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise.


There are lessons to be learned, particularly when ego gets in the way of accomplishing an overarching objective. Here, the overarching objective was the preservation of the southern–and most visible–portion of Fleetwood Hill, and its loss is a real tragedy. Let us hope that by bringing these issues to the forefront, we can have a dialogue about them, learn those lessons, and hope that we can prevent something like this from happening again in the future.

Continue reading

My friend Clark “Bud” Hall wrote the following piece for his former column that appeared in the Culpeper Star-Exponent newspaper:

Fleetwood Hill: The Famous Plateau

“The Most Marched Upon, Camped Upon, Fought Upon, Fought Over Piece of Real Estate in American History.”

As one enters Culpeper County on U.S. Highway 29 from the northeast, your vehicle proceeds about four miles and soon passes a little knoll on the right. Scooped from the flood plain of the Rappahannock River, this grassy, gentle hillock marks the southern terminus of a two and a half mile ridge that witnessed more fighting, more often, than any other piece of ground in this country—in any war.

Fleetwood Hill—geologically the beach of a primeval sea—overlooks a broad, flat, Triassic plateau that sweeps all the way to the river. “This hill commands the finest country for cavalry fighting I ever saw or fought upon,” avowed an experienced colonel.

A military commander bent on advancing his troops for attack toward Culpeper Court House from Fauquier must first ford the Rappahannock and then deploy his command on a broad front as he moves for attack. Unfortunately for the would-be attacker, this is the precise point where a serious obstacle presents itself because the aggressor soon learns (the hard way) his advance is threatened by artillery, infantry and flanking cavalry on Fleetwood Hill to his front.

A Confederate staff officer described the attacker’s dilemma: “This hill commanded the level country toward the Rappahannock and a force…must either carry the position or turn it.” A Southern horseman—he a son of Culpeper—also observed, “There was no movement of troops across the borders of Culpeper that artillery did not blaze from its summits and charging squadrons, on its slopes and around its base, did not contend for supremacy.”

Immortally characterizing Fleetwood Hill as “the famous plateau,” Jeb Stuart’s Chief of Staff penned colorful accounts of the Battle of Brandy Station. This huge cavalry action was highlighted by massive, decisive charges, concluding finally when Federal attackers were driven off Fleetwood on June 9, 1863. In fact, there were 21 separate military actions on Fleetwood Hill during the Civil War—far more than any other battle venue in this country.

Increasing its strategic import for military commanders, Fleetwood hovers above the village of Brandy Station, just a half mile away. Significantly, the ridge—and artillery thereupon—overlooks five converging road junctions in the hamlet. (An early name for the village was in fact “Crossroads.”) Of further consequence, the vital Orange & Alexandria Railroad sliced past the southern base of the hill and the village was a transport station.

The famous Carolina Road (Rt. 685), the major north-south thoroughfare of the Colonial and Civil War eras, bisects the southern terminus of the ridge—a roadway utilized dozens of times by both marching armies to shift artillery and wagons. For the convenience of passing or camping troops, “a remarkable spring,” Herring’s Spring, flowed strong and clear from the base of the hill on the north side (still does) and Flat Run marks the bottom of the southern slope.

During the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac in 1863-1864, the entirety of the length of Fleetwood was used as a well-drained camping platform by thousands of troops. Gen. George Meade selected a spur of Fleetwood as his headquarters site and it is on Fleetwood that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Meade planned the Overland Campaign.

So the next time you are headed out on Highway 29 past Brandy Station, kindly glance up at the little knoll just west of the road and note that this unpretentious little ridge has seen more military action than any other piece of ground in American history. And you will also then smugly conclude that “Fleetwood Hill: The Famous Plateau,” provides yet another momentous historical distinction for our own Culpeper County.

Bud’s point is well-taken. There is probably no other piece of ground anywhere in North America that saw more determined fighting than did Fleetwood Hill, which was the site of FOUR different major cavalry battles between August 1862 and October 1863, and which also served as a major portion of the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac during the winter of 1863-64.

Troilo House
Bud will be contributing more regarding the failure to preserve Fleetwood Hill and the McMansion that blights that historic ground today. Stay tuned. Thanks to Craig Swain for the picture of that hideous McMansion, which ruins the sight lines on the hill.

Continue reading

Kevin Levin has a post on his blog today about a new book that looks like a finalist for 2009 Neo-Confederate grand champion. Thanks to Kevin for bringing this prize to my attention.

The reasons why this is both preposterous and shockingly offensive ought to be obvious. Then again, Pelican is known for publishing garbage (as this little gem proves), so it doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

So far, this is my leading candidate for 2009′s grand champion.

Continue reading

Dan Hoisington of Edinborough Publishing, the publisher of my Ulric Dahlgren bio, informed me today that the books have arrived at the distributor’s warehouse and will ship to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. this week, so for those of you who have been awaiting its release as impatiently as I have, your patience is about to be rewarded. They should have books to sell by the end of the week.

I am also advised that I should have my copies by the end of the week, too. This, much like my history of Rush’s Lancers, was a real labor of love for me, and I have a lot of my heart and soul invested in it, just as I did with the Lancers. Consequently, I really can’t wait to see what the final product looks like.

Thank you for being patient, waiting for this book to be released.

Continue reading

After the favorable response that my post on Henry Washington Sawyer of last week, I realized that this story was so compelling that I had to tell in full detail. Consequently, I have proposed to Dana Shoaf, the editor of both America’s Civil War and Civil War Times, an article that tells the story in detail. I spent most of the afternoon working on it today, and think that the full version is a very compelling story.

I will keep you posted as to progress. Hopefully, Dana will like it and will want to run it in one of the two magazines.

Continue reading

13 Jul 2009, by

Dr. Clark Donlin

Clark DonlinI first met Dr. Clark Donlin at a Civil War cavalry conference convened in Winchester, VA in 1996. Pretty much anybody who was a cav guy was there, and Clark was no exception. At the time, I had no idea who Henry Sawyer was, but Clark knew everything there was to know about Henry Sawyer. He told me that he portrayed Sawyer, and also told me that he was hoping to write a book on Sawyer.

Clark and I were in infrequent contact. He would call me once or twice a year to ask me a question, or run something by me, or look for advice, and we would e-mail. He was always very pleasant to talk to, and I always enjoyed our conversations. I continued to look forward to the end result of his research on Henry Sawyer.

When I decided to profile Sawyer on this blog, I figured I would get in touch with Clark to get some information and to run my write-up by him. As my regular readers know, I had a catastrophic hard drive failure in early June, and lost my address book, which was one of the two things not backed up on this computer. Without his contact information, I Googled Clark and was unpleasantly surprised to learn that Clark had passed away last October, after finally losing a long battle with heart disease and diabetes. The illness had forced him to give up portraying Henry Sawyer, and had forced him into an assisted living facility.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the passing of a dedicated student of Civil War cavalry operations. Born in Pennsylvania, Dr. Donlin moved to New Jersey in 1953. He taught U.S. history, civics before becoming first a principal and later a school superintendent. His career in education spanned 31 years. He and his wife Mary Ann were married for 52 years.

Clark was a member of the Cape May County Civil War Roundtable, The Lincoln Forum, the U.S. Cavalry Association, and the Brandy Station Foundation. He often portrayed Henry Sawyer and was devoted to telling Sawyer’s life story. As an obituary in the Cape May Star and Wave newspaper put it, “He was passionately devoted to preserving Sawyer’s legacy here. In doing so Donlin also established his own. He was devoted to Cape May, in his words, ‘getting the Sawyer story right.’ His research modified the mixture of historical truth and urban legend about Sawyer into a fact-based story.”

I don’t know what the status of Clark’s research on Henry Sawyer was, or whether he ever finished his book manuscript. I am going to reach out to his widow and see if there is anything I can do to help fulfill Clark’s dream and try to help her to get Henry Sawyer’s story published in book-length form.

Rest in peace, Clark. I will miss our chats about cavalry.

Continue reading

Here is another installment in my infrequent profiles of Civil War cavalrymen. This particular soldier has a fascinating tale.

Henry Washington SawyerHenry Washington Sawyer was born in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania on May 16, 1829. He received a common school education in Lehigh County and then learned the carpenter’s trade. In 1848, he moved to Cape May, New Jersey, where he worked as a carpenter until the outbreak of the Civil War. He married and had three children.

When President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, Sawyer was among the first to offer his services to New Jersey Gov. Charles S. Olden at Trenton. However, there was no organization for troops ready for muster-in yet, and because secessionists had interrupted mail and telegraphic communication with Washington, Governor Olden sent Sawyer to Washington to deliver important dispatches to Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

On April 18, 1861, he enlisted as a private in a three-month regiment, the 25th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, the first volunteer troops to arrive in the national capitol. The 25th Pennsylvania was engaged in barricading and guarding the Capitol until the arrival of the 6th Massachusetts and 7th New York regiments. At midnight on April 19, he was chosen to be one of the guards to protect the Capitol, there being but one company of regular cavalry in Washington. On the 20th, five companies of Pennsylvania three-months’ men arrived, to one of which Sawyer was attached as private. In recognition of this service, Sawyer received a special medal from the Pennsylvania legislature. He was promoted to sergeant on May 14, 1861, and was then discharged on July 23, 1861 at the end of his three-month term of enlistment.

With the assistance of Governor Olden, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in Company D of Halsted’s Cavalry Regiment, an independent organization raised under the provisions of an Act of Congress approved on July 22, 1861. By order of the War Department of February 19, 1862, this unit was re-designated the 1st Regiment, Cavalry, New Jersey Volunteers, which proved to be one of the finest fighting units of the American Civil War. It was involved in 97 different engagements during the Civil War. On August 20, 1861, Sawyer was mustered in at Trenton, and shortly after proceeded to Washington, D.C. with his regiment. When his company’s first lieutenant resigned his commission, Sawyer was promoted to first lieutenant on Aril 7, 1862, and was promoted again, this time to captain of Company K, on September 8, 1862, when Capt. Virgil Brodrick was promoted to major.

Sawyer was wounded in 1862 at Woodstock, Va. when his horse was shot out from under him. The dying beast fell on Sawyer’ right leg. He later developed “extosis of the bone” in his thigh as the femur had sharp edges protruding from it. Sawyer was in constant pain and limped for the rest of his life.

On October 31, 1862, at Aldie, Va., Sawyer was wounded again. He led a small group on a reconnaissance mission. About 1,500 Southern cavalrymen attacked them. Sawyer stayed behind to cover his men’s escape, but was shot in the stomach. Sawyer somehow survived. The bullet had lodged near his spine, and the Army surgeons were afraid to remove it. He was sent home to recover, where civilian surgeons successfully removed the bullet.

Sawyer’s regiment, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, was heavily engaged at the Battle of Brandy Station. Sawyer received two serious wounds in the fighting for Fleetwood Hill, one of which passed clear through his thigh, and the other struck his right cheek and then passed out the back of his neck on the left side of his spine. Despite these two serious wounds, Sawyer remained in the saddle until his horse was shot. The mortally wounded beast sprang into the air and fell dead, throwing Sawyer with so much force that it knocked him senseless. 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. A short distance further on he saw Major Shellmire, while all around him were men of his own or other companies, either killed or wounded. 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 with water from a neighboring ditch, conveyed him to the rear.

He was treated at a home in Culpeper, and his two combat wounds from Brandy Station were declared “very dangerous, if not mortal.” However, he recovered enough to be transported from Culpeper to Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison, “only to face the horrible fate which this heroic captain wished he had escaped by death through the bullet he had previously received through his head in battle.”

On April 9 1863, Federal soldiers arrested Confederate Capts. William F. Corbin and T. G. McGraw near Rouse’s Mills, Kentucky. They were tried before a military commission convened by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, and were convicted of being spies and recruiting within Federal lines. On May 15, Corbin and McGraw were executed at the prisoner of war camp at Johnson’s Island, near Sandusky, Ohio.

When Col. Robert Ould, the Confederate agent for the exchange of prisoners of war, learned of these executions through the press, he informed his Union counterpart, Lt. Col. William H. Ludlow, that the Confederate authorities had ordered two Union captains in their custody to be selected for execution in retaliation for this perceived barbarity. On May 25, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Ludlow informed Ould that Captains Corbin and McGraw were being executed as being spies, and “that if he proposed to select brave and honorable officers who had been captured in fair open fight on the battlefield and barbarously put to death in just retribution for the punishment of spies, he gave him formal notice that the United States Government would exercise their discretion in selecting such persons as they thought best for the purpose of count retaliation.” Ludlow had already received notice that the Confederates had condemned Capt. Samuel McKee of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry and a Lieutenant Shepherd, as the two officers to be executed. However, some influential politicians intervened with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the two men were spared.

Brig. Gen. John H. Winder, who commanded the Department of Henrico, Virginia, issued Special Orders No. 160 on July 6, 1863, ordering Capt. Thomas P. Turner, the commandant of Libby Prison, to select by lot two captains from among the prisoners to be shot in retaliation for the deaths of Corbin and McGraw. Turner summoned all of the seventy-five Union captains being held in Libby Prison, and announced, “Gentlemen, it is my painful duty to communicate to you an order I have received from General Winder, which I will read.”

After reading the order, Turner had them men formed into a hollow square, in the center of which was placed a table. The names of all of the Union captains were written on slips of paper, carefully folded up, and then placed in a box. The first two names drawn would be the two men shot. He gave the officers the choice of who would draw the names, but nobody came forward. Instead, Sawyer suggested a chaplain of the U.S. Army. Three chaplains were called down, and Rev. Joseph T. Brown, of the 6th Maryland Infantry drew the first name, which was Sawyer’s. The second name drawn as that of Capt. John M. Flinn of the 51st Indiana Infantry. “When the names were read out,” reported the Richmond Dispatch, “Sawyer heard it with no apparent emotion, remarking that some one had to be drawn, and he could stand it as well as any one else. Flynn was very white and depressed.” The two men were placed in solitary confinement to await their execution. No date for the execution was set.

Sawyer realized that if he could bring his plight to the attention of the Federal government, something might be done to save his life. He asked for, and received, permission to write to his wife. Sawyer penned a lengthy letter to his wife explaining the fate that awaited him:

Richmond, Va., July 6th, 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 Flynn, 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 Whillidin, 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. I have no trial, no jury, nor am I charged with 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 at Washington of my condition. My pay is due me from the 1st 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.

My dear wife, the fortune of war has put me in this position. 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. Write to me as soon as you get this, and go to Captain Whilldin; he will advise you what to do.

I have done nothing to deserve this penalty. But you must submit to your fate. It will be no disgrace to myself, you or the children; but you may point with pride and say: “I give my husband;” my children will have the consolation to say: “I was made an orphan for my country.”

God will provide for you; never fear. Oh! it is hard to leave you thus. I wish the ball that passed through my head in the last battle would have done its work; but it was not to be so. My mind is somewhat influenced, for it has come so suddenly on me. Write to me as soon as you get this; leave your letter open, and I will get it. Direct my name and rank, by way of Fortress Monroe.

Farewell! farewell!! and I hope it is all for the best. I remain yours until death,

H. W. Sawyer, Captain First New Jersey Cavalry.

Upon completing his letter, Sawyer burst into tears at the thought of leaving his wife and children behind.

Sawyer and Flinn were placed in close confinement in an underground dungeon and fed only corn bread and water, their clothing molding in the dank, damp dungeon. The vault was only about six feet wide, and had no place for light or air, except a hole about six inches-square cut in the door. A sentry constantly stood duty in front of this door, whose duty it was to challenge the inmates once in each half hour and receive a reply. This, of course, rendered it impossible for both the inmates to sleep at one time. Sleep would have been impossible anyway. One of the two had remain awake to keep away the rats, which swarmed in the cell, off his comrade. The two men understandably grew deeply depressed as they awaited their cold fate, unaware of the efforts being undertaken to save their lives.

On July 11, the two officers penned a letter to Winder, pleading for their lives. “You are aware in obedience to your order we were by lot selected from among the Federal captains for execution,” they wrote. “No crime is charged against us, nor have we been guilty of any. It seems our lives are demanded as a measure of retaliation on our Government for the execution of two persons in Burnside’s department of our army. Of these persons we know nothing, nor of the circumstances attending them. We never had any connection with that part of the army.” They suggested that they should only be held for events that occurred in their theater of the war and suggested that Winder instead consider several officers from the Western Theater. They concluded by pleading, “Innocent as we are of any offense against the rules of war, in the name of humanity we ask you if our lives are to be exacted for the alleged offense of other men in other departments of the army than that in which we served?”

In the interim, Colonel Ludlum, who was an astute observer, wrote to recommend a course of action to save the lives of Sawyer and Flinn. “I respectfully and earnestly recommend that two Confederate officers in our hands be immediately selected for execution in retaliation for the threatened one of Sawyer and Flinn, and that I be authorized to communicate their names to the Confederate authorities, with the proper notice.” This wise suggestion provided the basis for a strategy that saved the lives of the two unfortunate captains.

Upon learning her husband’s fate, a horrified Mrs. Sawyer hastened to Washington, D.C. to present the case to President Abraham Lincoln. She traveled with a friend, Capt. W. Whelden, and Representative J. T. Nixons of New Jersey, and met with the President on July 14. Lincoln immediately ordered Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the commanding general of the U.S. Army, to send the following communication to Lieutenant Colonel Ludlow at Fortress Monroe, Virginia:

Washington, July 15, 1863

Colonel Ludlow, Agent for Exchange of Prisoners of War:

The President directs that you immediately place General W. H. F. Lee and another officer selected by you not below the rank of captain, prisoners of war, in close confinement and under strong guard, and that you notify Mr. R. Ould, Confederate agent for exchange and prisoners of war, that if Capt. H. W. Sawyer, First New Jersey Volunteer Cavalry, and Capt. John M. Flinn, 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, the aforementioned prisoners will be immediately hung in retaliation. 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 the other rebel officer 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.

H. W. Halleck,

Like Henry Sawyer, Brig. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, the second son of Gen. Robert E. Lee, received two serious combat wounds at Brandy Station. One was a saber cut, and the other, more serious, was a gunshot wound to the leg that narrowly missed the tibia and the main artery. He was taken to Hickory Hill, the Wickham family home, in Hanover County, Virginia, to recuperate. A task force of more than 1,000 Federal cavalrymen, stationed near Yorktown, Virginia, raided deep into Hanover County and seized Rooney Lee from his father-in-law’s house on June 26, 1863. Col. Samuel P. Spear of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, commander of the task force, whom Lee knew from the pre-war Regular Army, refused Lee’s request to be paroled, and the Confederate general became a prisoner of war. He was taken to Fortress Monroe and held there, and soon became a pawn in the great game of human chess that also involved Henry Sawyer.

Immediately after receiving this telegram, Ludlow had Rooney Lee placed in close confinement in a dungeon at Fortress Monroe, where Capt. Robert H. Tyler of the 8th Virginia Infantry, a prisoner of war being held in Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D. C., drawn by lot, joined him the next day. This action saved the lives of Sawyer and Flinn. Ludlow then informed Ould what had occurred, and what the new policy of the United States Government would be. As one Union officer commented that the Union high command had rightly surmised “that the influential connection of these two officers in the Confederacy would prevent the threatened execution of the Union captains who had drawn their death warrants in the dreadful lottery in which they had been compelled to take tickets.”

After remaining in the dungeon until August 16, 1863, they were relieved and placed back in with the general prisoner population on the same footing as the other prisoners, even though the Richmond newspapers continued to claim that the two Yankee captains would be executed.

On November 13, Lee was transferred to Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor. Captain Tyler joined him there a month later. Finally, in February 1864, the Confederate authorities proposed an exchange that was acceptable. Lee and Tyler were to be exchanged for Brig. Gen. Neal Dow of Maine, who was the highest-ranking Union officer in captivity, Sawyer, and Flinn. Lee and Tyler were transferred back to Fortress Monroe in anticipation of their exchange. Finally, on March 14, the exchange was completed, and the prisoners returned to their respective commands.

“The satisfaction with which Captain Sawyer once more walked forth a free man, and found shelter under the Old Flag, was such as only a man coming from death unto life–from dismal bondage into joyous and perfect liberty–can ever experience, and none other, certainly, can appreciate,” noted Dr. C. E. Godfrey, an early biographer of Sawyer.

Upon the recommendation of Col. Sir Percy Wyndham, Sawyer was commissioned major of his regiment on March 22, 1864, to date to October 12, 1863, and received his commission from Gov. Joel Parker that day in the State House at Trenton. He then proceeded to his home in Cape May on furlough. He was mustered in as major at Washington, D.C. on August 31, 1864, and immediately re-joined his command, with which he continued until the regiment was mustered-out and honorably discharged at the close of the war at Vienna, Virginia, on May 24, 1865. He suffered two more minor combat wounds at the Second Battle of Kernstown, Va. After his recovery he was stationed at U. S. Cavalry Headquarters in Washington, D. C. as an inspector of horses.

After the close of the war he was breveted lieutenant-colonel by United States Commission, and remained in that position until September, 1865, when the regiment was discharged. At the close of the Civil War, the ranks of the Regular Army being recruited up, he was offered by Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, having been recommended by a division officer, a lieutenantcy in the regular army, which position he declined. During the time that he was in the field he received six combat wounds, two of which were of a serious character. One ball he carried in his body until he died.

Major Sawyer immediately returned to his home in Cape May, and in 1867, became proprietor of the Ocean House in that lovely summer resort town. He operated the Ocean House until April 1873, when he moved to Wilmington, Delaware and became proprietor of the Clayton House. In 1876, he returned to Cape May and built the Chalfonte Hotel, which he owned and operated for many years. He was for a number of years a member of the Cape May city council, and was at one time Superintendent of the United States Life Saving Service for the coast of New Jersey. He was also a member of the New Jersey State Sinking Fund Commission from 1888 to 1891. He died suddenly of heart failure at Cape May on October 16, 1893, and was buried in Cold Spring Presbyterian Cemetery in Cape May.

Here’s to forgotten cavalryman Henry Washington Sawyer, a pawn in the great game of politics that underlay the American Civil War.

Continue reading

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress