A General Without His Due: John Curtis Caldwell, Brevet Major General USV
By Patricia Caldwell


All too often Civil War history is known only by the Grants, the Lees, the Jacksons and the Shermans. The real history is instead a composite of the division and brigade commanders, the regimental colonels and the private soldiers. These can arguably be called the real heroes of the Civil War.

One such of these was an educator from Maine who went on to become a general and, by virtue of his actions at Gettysburg, did as much, or more, to contribute to the Union victory as any one else on the field. No, I don’t mean Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The officer in question is General John Curtis Caldwell, commander of the First Division of the heroic II Corps of the Army of the Potomac, whose men helped save the army from defeat in the Wheatfield and on the Stony Hill.

John Curtis Caldwell was born on April 17, 1833 in Lowell, Vermont, the son of George M. and Elizabeth Curtis Caldwell. After attending Lowell High School, John entered the prestigious Amherst College from which he graduated in the class of 1855, steeped in classics and philosophy. He was a member of Delta Upsilon and the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. After graduation young Caldwell obtained a position as principal of Washington Academy in East Machias, Maine. He continued in this position for about five years until war broke out in 1861. While at Washington Academy he married Martha H. Foster of East Machias on May 15, 1857. Eventually they went on to become the parents of eight children.

In the early days of the war, 28-year-old John Curtis Caldwell was mustered into federal service as Colonel of the newly formed 11th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Given the fact that Colonel Caldwell had no prior military experience his mustering in as colonel would appear to indicate that the principal from Maine exhibited something special. The 11th Maine was mustered in on November 12, 1861 and departed for Washington the next day, after a hearty send-off by Governor Washburn. After stopping in Portland and Boston the regiment took a steamer to New York City; from there they took the cars to Philadelphia and points south. The regiment arrived at Washington on the evening of November 15. The 11th Maine then set up camp at Camp Knox on Meridian Hill overlooking the capital city, where they spent the winter perfecting drill and discipline and otherwise learning the art of war.

On March 30, 1862 Colonel Caldwell and his regiment, now part of the 3rd Brigade of Casey’s Division of the IV Corps departed with McClellan’s army for the Peninsula. Apparently Caldwell was well liked by his regiment, who appreciated his down-to-earth qualities. During the campaigning as the army was on the move, one of the members of the regiment recorded the following incident:



As the different commands of our army moved forward, they converged on the road leading from Yorktown to Williamsburg, with the result that this road was soon packed with horses, foot, and artillery, all pushing eagerly forward, and without overmuch regard for rights of way. Company D held the right of the regiment, so that its members were pleased auditors to a conversation between Colonel Caldwell and the irate commander of a regiment the Eleventh had unceremoniously displaced. The commander of the displaced regiment was evidently, by his manner and seat in the saddle, a regular officer, which then meant, among other things, an officer with large ideas of his own importance as a trained military man, and small ones of all volunteer officers. “Sir,” roared he, riding up to Colonel Caldwell, “how dare you march across the head of my command?” Without answering him, the colonel looked at him in his large, placid way, much as a mastiff looks at a snarling terrier. “Do you know who I am, sir?” yelled the angry commander, now doubly enraged at the elaborate indifference and the apparent studied silence of our colonel. “I am Major So and So of such and such a regiment.” “And I, “ answered Colonel Caldwell, smiling blandly, touching his cap with military courtesy as he spoke – “ and I am Colonel John C. Caldwell, commanding the Eleventh Regiment of Maine Infantry Volunteers, and am quite at your service, sir.” Speechless with rage, and fairly gasping at the approving haw-haw we country bumpkins gave at the Colonel’s answer, Major So and So backed his horse a little, turned him, and galloped away in as furious a state of mind as any gallant major ever rode in.”



But Colonel Caldwell’s tenure with the 11th Maine was not to last very long. On May 13, 1862 Caldwell left the regiment, having been promoted to Brigadier General to rank from April 28. From this point onward General Caldwell participated in every battle of the Army of the Potomac until the reorganization of the army in the spring of 1864 – always as part of the elite II Corps. Along the way he commanded the 1st Brigade of the First Division of the II Corps, then was promoted to command the First Division, and on occasion, was elevated as ranking officer to the temporary command of II Corps.

Brief biographical sketches of General Caldwell are curious. They say things like “there was something lacking in Caldwell’s ability, or so thought his superiors” , and “war record adequate, not spectacular” , and “competent but not outstanding division commander”

Caldwell apparently led with distinction during the Peninsula Campaign, in particular, during the Seven Days Battles. He was personally thanked for his “personal gallantry” in supporting Kearney’s Division at Glendale. General Israel Richardson, First Division commander, in a postscript to his official report on July 6, 1862, stated

“…I cannot too much commend the admirable manner in which my three brigadier-generals – French, Meagher, and Caldwell – have done their duty with their brigades… If anything can try the patience and bravery of troops it must be their fighting all day for five consecutive days and then falling back every night.”

At Antietam, however, there occurs what apparently may be the only blemish on his record. While commanding his brigade, Caldwell is accused of being slow to come to the support of Meagher and his Irish Brigade. One allegation relates that Caldwell’s brigade was waiting for orders to go into battle while their brigadier disappeared and the men would not advance without him. According to the legend when General Richardson came looking for his brigadier a member of the 5th New Hampshire, Thomas Livermore, shouted in response to the general’s question, “Behind the haystack”, to which Richardson supposedly answered “God damn the field officers.” Colonel Edward Cross, leading one of Caldwell’s regiments was heard to have referred to his commanding officer as a “damned coward” . However, Cross also referred to General Meagher as a drunkard, and apparently had a history of disputes with his co-officers and company commanders. In a comment on Colonel Cross, historian Harry Pfanz compliments General Caldwell – “perhaps it is something of a tribute to Caldwell that he could command a person like Cross.”

Unfortunately, General Richardson was subsequently mortally wounded, and while he didn’t succumb to his wounds until weeks after the battle, he was unable to leave an account of the battle. Ironically, with his division commander down, Caldwell succeeded to temporary command of the division. No mention of these charges against the general were made at any time after the battle.

In his official report, General Caldwell makes no mention of the charges of cowardice. He does however state that he was with the 7th New York Infantry, personally leading them in their charge. Is this account of cowardice and disappearance accurate? Subsequent accounts of the battle of Antietam seem to point back to one primary account, that of Thomas Livermore. On the other side of the ledger, modern historians seem to be taking another look at these charges.

Author James V. Murfin sees Caldwell’s arrival on the field as “one of the smoothest exhibitions of troop movements in the entire battle”. Historian Robert K. Krick in discussing the action of Richardson’s Division at the Bloody Lane writes “When Gen. John C. Caldwell arrived with his brigade, he responded to the eminently sound impulse to extend the Federal left. This was the first attempt to envelop the highly vulnerable Confederate right. Richardson foolishly canceled Caldwell’s initiative, ordering him instead simply to bolster Meagher’s position.” Obviously Krick expressed some admiration for Caldwell’s generalship, an asset that would be remarked on again at Gettysburg.

With the disablement of Richardson, Winfield Scott Hancock was tapped to assume command of the division from General Caldwell. Later that fall, Caldwell’s brigade, along with the rest of the division and corps were engaged in the battle of Fredericksburg. Couch’s II Corps was thrown, division by division, at the Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights against the entrenched Confederates. Caldwell’s division was among the commands with the highest number of casualties, the general himself receiving two wounds. While preparing his brigades to attack Marye’s Heights, General Caldwell received a wound to his left side, but refused to leave the field, until he was again struck, this time in the left shoulder, at which time he turned over command to one of his colonels and sought medical attention. Caldwell’s action here disputes the earlier allegation of cowardice.

By May of 1863, the division under Hancock had already earned an unenviable reputation for their combat record. However, as new army commander Joe Hooker began his spring campaign, his II Corps shock troops were not in his initial plans. But pressure mounted on General Sykes’ division of General George Meade’s V Corps and the call went out for support. Hancock answered, with Caldwell’s brigade taking the lead. After digging in around the Chancellor House, Caldwell’s men endured several days of fighting, finally fighting back-to-back on two fronts, in opposite directions. As Hooker made the decision that his army would retreat, Hancock’s Division was ordered to cover the army’s retreat. Here’s Caldwell’s brigade and the rest of the division played a major role in saving the Union army, serving as a reserve, plugging gaps in the line, changing fronts as necessary, and supporting artillery. It was a role of savior that they would play on a larger scale just two months later.

Thirty-year-old John Curtis Caldwell was given command of his division on May 22, 1863 when Winfield Scott Hancock was promoted to command of II Corps, succeeding Darius Couch. This division command would last until the Army of the Potomac was reorganized in March 1864. As the II Corps was put on the road to Gettysburg, Caldwell was one of the more experienced general officers. On July 2, the federal army was strung out along Cemetery Ridge as the various components came on the scene. As the II Corps arrived on the field about 7:00 am they were put in a reserve position on Cemetery Hill and allowed to rest. At about 3:00 pm General Sickles, in a well-documented forward movement, advanced his line, and created a salient with his III Corps. Hancock, along with several other officers, Caldwell among them, saw the movement and wondered on its significance, while recognizing that they would “soon come tumbling back”. As Sickles put out the call for assistance, Hancock turned to his First Division commander and instructed him to get his division ready.

Knowing that time was of the essence Caldwell had his four brigades in motion within minutes, with orders to report to General Sykes of the V Corps for instructions on where to place his troops. Because of the reserve position of the II Corps the men of the First Division were not in a correct marching position, but to accomplish this would have required a complete countermarch for each regiment in the division. Aware that this would waste precious time, Caldwell ignored this familiar marching structure and moved his troops out in a “backwards order”, trusting to the skill and professionalism of his officers and men. To General Caldwell it was a risk worth taking. Battlefield guide D. Scott Hartwig has studied in detail Caldwell’s movements to and in the Wheatfield and he states that “the wisdom of Caldwell’s movement in mass became more apparent as the division neared the battle zone.” By his quick and decisive thinking Caldwell had placed three of his four brigades into action in less than ten minutes and “would keep his finger on the pulse of action” throughout the fighting in the Wheatfield. As the fighting became more frenetic and heated Caldwell responded to his brigades’ call for support by dispatching his aides to other officers for assistance, until he was forced by circumstances to act as his own staff officer, personally appealing to other general officers as the fighting became more and more desperate.

As the day ended Caldwell and his division had rescued the line and held against numerous Confederate onslaughts. It was noted that Caldwell had led the only division-sized assault in an otherwise defensive battle at Gettysburg. Hartwig has also come to the conclusion that Caldwell’s actions are all the more noteworthy because no higher authority, either at corps level or especially army level, had attempted to take control of the situation, given the fact that elements of three different corps were hotly involved in the Wheatfield fighting. Caldwell and his First Division had done as much as any other unit to save the Union Army that day.

However, after the battle, V Corps commander, General Sykes complained to General Hancock that Caldwell’s division had “done badly”, but investigation shortly after and the record ever since have proven that the reverse was true. Caldwell indeed had contributed a “nearly flawless performance” in stabilizing the Union line and buying time for additional forces to arrive on the field, albeit at the expense of devastating casualties to his men.

Despite Caldwell’s performance and a remark from Hancock’s own staff officer Lt. Colonel C. H. Morgan that “no troops on the field had done better”, General Caldwell was overlooked for promotion.

On the death of General Reynolds on July 1, General Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac, had given Winfield Hancock left wing command of the I, III and V Corps, while ordering Hancock to turn over command of his II Corps to General John Gibbon, outranked by General Caldwell who technically should have received corps command. Later on the evening of July 1, Hancock turned over field command to General Slocum of the XII Corps when he arrived on the field, himself resuming command of II Corps. Then, on July 2 when Meade was informed of Sickles’ wounding, he gave additional command of III Corps to Hancock, who again transferred field command of II Corps to Gibbon. This situation remained until both Gibbon and Hancock were wounded in the action of July 3, at which time Hancock turned corps command over to John Caldwell. Hancock’s decision was overturned and corps command was given short-term to General William Hays (also outranked by Caldwell) and eventually to General Gouverneur Warren for the duration of Hancock’s recovery period.

In retrospect it might appear that General Caldwell’s failure to be given higher command somehow reflects on his actions or abilities. However, given Meade’s predilection for West Pointers and his carte blanche from the War Department, it would rather appear that Meade preferred to surround himself with West Pointers in command and would do what he needed to ensure that.

Gettysburg was the high point for many careers and quite possibly was also for General John Curtis Caldwell. Caldwell served with continued distinction during Meade’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia from Pennsylvania, and also in the actions of the fall of 1863 and early 1864, receiving high praise from General Warren in the process. All the while Caldwell continued to praise his subordinates and recommend after-action promotion for them.

With the attrition suffered by the Army of the Potomac in its many campaigns, in the spring of 1864 the Army was reorganized. The number of corps was reduced from five to three, with consolidation of several corps and divisions into one corps. In the reorganization, General John C. Caldwell lost his command, in my opinion, because of his lack of West Point training rather than due to any flaw or failure on his part, despite the fact that historians have tended to blame the loss of command on a lack of confidence that his superiors had in him.

General Caldwell continued the war in Washington DC, serving as President of a Military Commission. As a tribute to General Caldwell, he was chosen to represent the United States Volunteers on the guard of honor for the assassinated President Lincoln, escorting his body on the long journey from Washington back home to Springfield, Illinois. Not a bad honor for a non-West Point-educated principal from Maine! On January 15, 1866 General Caldwell was mustered out of federal service, holding a brevet rank of Major General which had been conferred on him on August 19, 1865 for war service.

Nor was General Caldwell’s service to his country completed. After the war John C. Caldwell was admitted to the bar in Maine and served as Maine’s Adjutant General from 1867 to 1869. General Caldwell re-entered federal service with several consecutive diplomatic posts. He was Consul to Valparaiso, Chile from 1869 to 1874, and Minister to Uruguay from 1874 to 1882.

Returning to the States, he practiced law in Topeka, Kansas during the period of 1882 to 1885. While there he also served as Chairman of the Kansas Board of Pardons from 1885 to 1893 and again from 1895 to 1897. He also was appointed during this period as Commissioner to report to the Kansas Legislature on settlement of all claims against the federal government growing out of the Price Raid of 1864. With the election of President McKinley, John Curtis Caldwell again received a State Department appointment, this time U.S. Consul to Costa Rica, a position he held from 1897 to 1909.

In 1909 Caldwell returned to Topeka and spent the remaining three years of his life living with one or another of his children. He died on August 31, 1912 at his daughter’s home in Calais, Maine. He is buried with his wife and other family members in St. Stephen Rural Cemetery in New Brunswick, Canada. General Caldwell may be the only Civil War general buried in Canada. Reenactors of Company H, Fifth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, based in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces are dedicated to caring for General Caldwell’s final resting place, and each year conduct a graveside service to honor him.

General Caldwell was loved by his men, and this is the truest test of honesty, integrity and bravery on the battlefield. A soldier who served with him prior to Gettysburg wrote, “Caldwell is an agreeable man and well liked. There is none of the assumed dignity and importance so common among officers … He is much more familiar with his officers than General Meagher [of the Irish Brigade] and is much better liked by them than M[eagher] by his.”

He was also appreciated by his fellow officers. General Alexander Webb, who served with Caldwell as a division commander at Gettysburg and afterwards, wrote on March 26, 1864, as Caldwell lost his command: “Caldwell leaves in [?]. He feels very badly. I am very fond of him, and am sorry to see him owsted.”

General John Curtis Caldwell’s life and career need additional study, and his reputation as an “adequate” soldier should be reassessed. His contributions to his country as a general officer of the Army of the Potomac and as a post-war diplomat deserve to be recognized.


Amherst College Biographical Record: Class of 1855
The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion
Ibid. p.29
Campbell, Eric. “Caldwell Clears the Wheatfield”. Gettysburg Magazine, July 1990, Issue #3 p. 27
Warner, Ezra. Generals in Blue. p. 64
Sifakis, Stewart. Who Was Who in the Union. p. 62
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Peninsular campaign, Seven Days’ Battles, Series I, Volume XI/2 [S#13]
Priest, John Michael. Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle p. 172
Ibid, p.182
Pride, Mike and Mark Travis. My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth. p. 143
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg, The Second Day. p. 74
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Maryland Campaign, Series I, Volume XIX/1 {S#27]
Murfin, James V. The Gleam of Bayonets, p. 256
Krick, Robert K. “It Appeared As Though Mutual Extermination Would Put a Stop to the Awful Carnage: Confederates in Sharpsburg’s Bloody Lane” in The Antietam Campaign, Gary Gallagher (ed.) p. 245.
Reardon, Carol. “The Valiant Rearguard: Hancock’s Division at Chancellorsville” in Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath, Gary Gallagher (ed.) p. 170-171.
Hartwig, D. Scott. “ ‘No Troops on the Field Had Done Better’: John C. Caldwell’s Division in the Wheatfield, July 2, 1863. in The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership, Gary Gallagher (ed.) p. 147
Ibid., p. 156
Ibid., pp. 166, 169
Ibid., p. 169
Website of Company H, Fifth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, Reenactors. New Brunswick, Canada
Hartwig, D. Scott. Op cit. p. 138; Tagg, Larry. op cit. p. 36
Alexander Webb to his wife, cited in Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign, p.751 n.41, and Hartwig, op cit. p. 170.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Amherst College Biographical Record: Class of 1855. http://www.amherst.edu

Campbell, Eric. “Caldwell Clears the Wheatfield”. Gettysburg Magazine. July 1990. Issue #3 Morningside Press. Dayton, Ohio, 1990.

Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1968.

Committee of the Regimental Association. The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion. New York, 1896. Reprinted Higginson Book Company, Salem, Massachusetts, 1997.

Company H, Fifth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, Reenactors, New Brunswick, Canada. http://personal.nbnet.nb.ca/lmtitus/Intro.html

Hartwig, D. Scott. “ ‘No Troops on the Field Had Done Better’: John C. Caldwell’s Division in the Wheatfield, July 2, 1863 in Gallagher, Gary W. (Ed.) The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership. Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio & London, UK, 1993.

Jorgensen, Jay. Gettysburg’s Bloody Wheatfield. White Mane Books, Shippensburg, PA, 2002.

Krick, Robert K. “It Appeared as Though Mutual Extermination Would Put a Stop to the Awful Carnage: Confederates in Sharpsburg’s Bloody Lane” in Gallagher, Gary W. (Ed.)

The Antietam Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1999.

Mulholland, St. Clair A. (Lawrence Frederick Kohl, Ed.). The Story of the 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion. Fordham University Press, New York, 1996

Murfin, James V. The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Bonanza Books, New York, 1965.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: The Second Day. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1987.

Pride, Mike and Mark Travis. My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth. University Press of New England, Hanover & London, 2001.

Priest, John Michael. Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle. Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1989.

Reardon, Carol. “The Valiant Rearguard: Hancock’s Division at Chancellorsville”. in Gallagher, Gary W. (Ed.) Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1996.

Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. Popular Library, New York, 1983.

Sifakis, Stewart. Who Was Who in the Union. Facts on File, New York & Oxford, 1988.

Tagg, Larry. The Generals of Gettysburg. Savas Publishing Company, Campbell, California, 1998.

Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge & London, 1964.

 

 

 

 

 



 

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