Monday, July 13, 2009

Brigadier General John Curtis Caldwell

At twenty-nine years of age, John Curtis Caldwell was the youngest general officer in the Army of the Potomac at the battle of Antietam. John Brooke, Alfred Torbert, and Joseph Bartlett were the only commanders in the army who were younger than Caldwell, but these men were colonels at the time of the battle and, with the exception of Brooke, were not heavily engaged in the fighting. Caldwell, on the other hand, was—leading his brigade against the Confederate position along the Sunken Road, and ultimately successful in driving them away. Entering the war in 1861 as a colonel in command of a regiment, Caldwell was promoted to brigadier general less than one year later, commanding a brigade in the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. By the middle of Spring 1863, Caldwell, at age thirty, was leading a division; a quick advancement considering that Caldwell lacked any kind of formal military training and had absolutely no experience in even a state militia unit. He was, instead, a school teacher and principal from New England who proved to be a brave and wholly competent officer. The men whom he commanded, as well as those who commanded him, liked and trusted the educator-turned-warrior, but his lack of a West Point education, as well as doubts about his aggressiveness in battle, contributed to his loss of command in the March 1864 reorganization of the Army of the Potomac.
John Curtis Caldwell was born on April 17, 1833, in the small town of Lowell, some fifteen miles south of the Canadian border in northern Vermont. Wishing to pursue a career in education, Caldwell attended Amherst College, graduating with high honors in 1855. He then settled in East Machias, along Maine’s Atlantic coastline, where he was offered the position of principal at the Washington Academy. With the firing on Fort Sumter and the inauguration of civil war, Caldwell left his academic career behind and volunteered his services to the United States. Despite having no military background, the eager twenty-eight-year-old was appointed colonel of the 11th Maine Volunteer Infantry on November 12, 1861. His appointment may have been partly due to his position as principal of the Washington Academy, but it is more likely attributed to his connections with and support of the Republican Party in Maine. Regardless of the reasons behind his commission, Colonel Caldwell led his regiment to Washington, where they would serve in the capital’s defenses until the launching of George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the early spring of 1862.
Caldwell must have made quite a good impression on his superior officers during the advance up the Peninsula, for when General Oliver Otis Howard fell wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862, Caldwell was selected to take command of Howard’s Brigade and was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers to date from April 28. He soon proved his worth as brigade commander during the subsequent Seven Days’ Battles on the outskirts of Richmond, turning in a number of creditable performances particularly at Glendale on June 30. Earning praise for his conduct and skill on the field of battle, Caldwell retained command of his brigade throughout the summer of 1862, and as the Army of the Potomac set out after Robert E. Lee’s invading army in western Maryland in early September 1862.
At the Battle of Antietam, John Caldwell’s brigade—the First of General Israel Richardson’s Second Corps Division—was composed of some of the hardest fighting regiments in the Army of the Potomac, led by some of the army’s best officers. Colonel Edward Cross, for example, the hard-fighting New Englander who would lose his life at Gettysburg, commanded the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, while Francis Barlow, destined to become one of the army’s best division commanders, held command of the 61st and 64th New York. Second in command of the 61st was Lieutenant-Colonel Nelson Miles who commanded the United States Army during the Spanish-American War thirty-six years later. The 7th New York and 81st Pennsylvania comprised the rest of Caldwell’s Brigade at Antietam.
Caldwell’s men, along with the other brigades in Israel Richardson’s Division, crossed the Antietam at Pry’s Ford around 9:30 on the morning of September 17, just as John Sedgwick’s Division was being attacked in the West Woods, and William French’s leading brigade under Max Weber came under fire from D.H. Hill’s Confederate troops posted along the Sunken Road. Marching south to link up with French’s men, Richardson pushed his men forward with Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade leading the way. Connecting to the left of French’s First Brigade under Nathan Kimball, Meagher’s men advanced handsomely against the Confederate line, now bolstered with reinforcements from Richard Anderson’s Division. Within thirty to fifty yards of the road, Meagher’s attack ran out of steam, his men now hugging the ground and exchanging round after deadly round with the gray and butternut clad troops. Meagher himself was led from the field, wounded. Caldwell’s Brigade was ordered forward, to relieve the battered Irish Brigade.
Swinging further to the south, Caldwell’s men advanced toward the Sunken Road with Barlow’s consolidated New Yorkers on the right, the 7th New York and 81st Pennsylvania in the center, and Cross’s New Hampshire men on the his left flank. Reaching the crest of the ridgeline that paralleled the Sunken Road, Caldwell’s troops relieved the Irish Brigade and then took their turn engaging Hill’s and Anderson’s men. Seeing that the brigade’s left extended beyond the right of the Confederate line in the road, the daring Barlow led his New Yorkers forward and delivered a devastating flanking fire that eventually drove George B. Anderson’s North Carolinians from their position. Robert Rodes’s Alabamians soon followed and with their front cleared of Confederates, Caldwell’s men pushed forward. In doing so, Barlow rounded up 300 prisoners and captured two Confederate battle flags.
With the Confederate battle line punctured in its center, General Israel Richardson appealed fervently for reinforcements to exploit the breach. His men were worn out but still full of fight. Their advance was halted open reaching the Piper Orchard to the west of the Sunken Road, and here they had to repulse a number of counterattacks launched by the desperate Confederates. During one of these attacks, Cross’s men captured the flag of the 4th North Carolina, marking the third Confederate battle flag taken by Caldwell’s Brigade that day. Meanwhile, to their rear, General Israel Richardson fell with a mortal wound while personally placing a battery of artillery. Command of the regiment devolved upon John Caldwell. His tenure as division commander was short-lived, however. Riding toward the Union center with direct orders from General McClellan was Winfield Scott Hancock of the Sixth Corps. Hancock was to take command of the division, put a stop to any more offensive action, and strengthen the ground already taken. With this, an opportunity to inflict a devastating, if not terminal, blow to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fell by the wayside.
John Caldwell’s Brigade lost more than 300 men killed, wounded, and missing at Antietam, with the heaviest losses occurring in Cross’s 5th New Hampshire. Colonel Barlow was among the wounded, felled by a shot to the groin, and General Caldwell himself received a slight wound. Sometime after the battle, it seems, questions and criticisms about Caldwell’s leadership came to the fore. A soldier in the 5th New Hampshire, Thomas Livermore, wrote in his post-war memoirs that Caldwell hid behind a haystack while his brigade went forward and although nothing in the contemporary accounts of the battle mention this, Livermore’s story has been widely accepted and republished. Caldwell has also been criticized for being too slow in his movements to reinforce Meagher, but whatever his actions, Caldwell continued to lead his brigade following the battle of Antietam and seven months later, following the battle of Chancellorsville, he was advanced to division command.
Any doubts as to Caldwell’s bravery were erased in December 1862 at the battle of Fredericksburg. Here, Caldwell’s Brigade attacked the impregnable Confederate position at the base of Marye’s Heights. Early in the attack, Caldwell was struck down by a musket ball to his left side. He refused to leave the field, however, and continued to urge his men forward. Soon another shot struck Caldwell in the left shoulder, and we was forced from the field. During its fruitless assault, Caldwell’s Brigade lost nearly 1,000 of the 1,800 men it carried into battle that day. As for Caldwell, it was two months before his wounds healed sufficiently to return to duty.
General Caldwell turned in another praiseworthy performance at Chancellorsville where his men helped stabilize the Union right and center following the collapse of the 11th Corps. Three weeks after the battle, on May 22, 1863, Caldwell was given divisional command following the advancement of Winfield Scott Hancock to command of the Second Corps. Just six weeks later, Caldwell’s first test in division command came at Gettysburg.
Arriving on the field around 7:00 a.m. on July 2, 1863, Caldwell’s four-brigade division was held in reserve behind Cemetery Hill. Sometime after four o’clock that afternoon, however, he and his men were rushed to the Union left, which was being severely pushed in by General James Longstreet’s Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. Acting on his own good judgment, Caldwell deployed his men upon nearing the Wheatfield and steadily pushed back the Confederate line. Caldwell’s men remained here, steadying and strengthening the army’s flank, until they were forced back in the face of overwhelming numbers. For their efforts at restoring the left flank, Caldwell’s Division lost forty percent of its number. The next day, Hancock placed Caldwell in temporary command of the Second Corps, but Army Commander George Meade, who favored West Pointers, ordered that John Gibbon, although inferior in rank to Caldwell be given the command. After both Gibbon and Hancock fell wounded while helping repulse Pickett’s famed charge later that afternoon, Caldwell was once again elevated to corps command. Less than a week later, however, Meade once again relieved Caldwell and appointed William Hays as commander of the Second Corps. Hays, an 1840 graduate of West Point, was also inferior in rank to Caldwell.
For Caldwell, Gettysburg was the pinnacle of his career, and his actions here have been increasingly praised by students of the war. Following the battle, however, George Sykes, commanding the army’s Fifth Corps, reported that Caldwell had done poorly in the placement of his division. Hancock investigated the claim and although a court of inquiry quickly cleared Caldwell of any wrongdoing or blame, the reputation of the division commander was permanently damaged. Thus it was that when the Army of the Potomac underwent a major reorganization the following spring, Caldwell was relieved of his command and replaced by none other than Francis Barlow.
Caldwell spent the final year of the war behind a desk, serving on a number of military boards in Washington, D.C. He received an honor of sorts in April 1865 when he, along with seven others, was selected as an Honorary Guard to escort the body of slain President Abraham Lincoln as it made its way from the nation’s capital to Springfield, Illinois. On August 19, 1865, he was brevetted a major general of volunteers. Five months later, on January 15, 1866, Caldwell was mustered out of service.
Returning to his home and family in Maine, Caldwell went on to enjoy much success in a number of post-war careers. Upon his return, the thirty-two-year-old entered the legal profession, passing the bar examination and opening his own practice. He served for a brief stint in the Maine legislature, and from 1867 until 1869 was the Adjutant General of the state militia. Caldwell next entered upon a career in diplomacy, being named as the United States Consul in Valparaiso, Chile, a post he held for the next five years. His next appointment, coming in 1874, was as Minister to the South American nations of Uruguay and Paraguay. Retaining this position under Presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur, Caldwell took a break from his diplomatic career in 1882 and settled in Topeka, Kansas, where he resumed his practice of law. In 1885, he was named Chairman of the Kansas Board of Commissioners. With the inauguration of President William McKinley in 1897, Caldwell was once again tapped for a position in the State Department, becoming U.S. Consul to San Jose, Costa Rica. Here he remained for the next dozen years serving under both McKinley and his successor Theodore Roosevelt, and retiring in 1909 at the age of seventy-six.
Sadly, Caldwell’s retirement from public service was relatively short-lived. On August 31, 1912, while visiting one of his daughters in Calais, Maine, John C. Caldwell died. His remains were taken to the St. Stephen Rural Cemetery in New Brunswick, Canada, for burial.

2 comments:

Jim Rosebrock said...

Nice to see another one of your great biographies John!

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, Jim.

Looking forward to your post on the ANV commanders at both Antietam and Gettysburg.