American Civil War: Brigadier General John C. Caldwell

Brigadier General John C. Caldwell. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life

Born on April 17, 1833 in Lowell, VT, John Curtis Caldwell received his early schooling locally.  Interested in pursuing education as a career, he later attended Amherst College.  Graduating in 1855 with high honors, Caldwell moved to East Machias, ME where he assumed the position of principal at Washington Academy.  He continued to hold this position for the next five years and became a respected member of the community.  With the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and beginning of the Civil War, Caldwell left his post and sought a military commission.  Though he lacked any type of military experience, his connections within the state and ties to the Republican Party saw him obtain command of the 11th Maine Volunteer Infantry on November 12, 1861.

Early Engagements

Assigned to Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, Caldwell's regiment traveled south in the spring of 1862 to take part in the Peninsula Campaign.  Despite his inexperience, he made a positive impression on his superiors and was chosen to command Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard's brigade when that officer was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1.  With this assignment came a promotion to brigadier general which was back-dated to April 28.  Leading his men in Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson's division of Major General Edwin V. Sumner's II Corps, Caldwell earned high praise for his leadership in reinforcing Brigadier General Philip Kearny's division at the Battle of Glendale on June 30.  With the defeat of Union forces on the Peninsula, Caldwell and II Corps returned to Northern Virginia.

Antietam, Fredericksburg, & Chancellorsville

Arriving too late to take part in the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas, Caldwell and his men were quickly engaged in the Maryland Campaign in early September.  Held in reserve during the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, Caldwell's brigade saw intense fighting at the Battle of Antietam three days later.  Arriving on the field, Richardson's division began assaulting the Confederate position along the Sunken Road.  Reinforcing Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher's Irish Brigade, whose advance had stalled in the face of heavy resistance, Caldwell's men renewed the attack.  As the fighting progressed, troops under Colonel Francis C. Barlow succeeded in turning the Confederate flank.  Pushing forward, Richardson and Caldwell's men were ultimately halted by Confederate reinforcements under Major General James Longstreet.  Withdrawing, Richardson fell mortally wounded and command of the division briefly passed to Caldwell who was soon replaced by Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock.

Though slightly wounded in the fighting, Caldwell remained in command of his brigade and led it three months later at the Battle of Fredericksburg.  In the course of the battle, his troops took part in the disastrous assault on Marye's Heights which saw the brigade suffer over 50% casualties and Caldwell wounded twice.   Though he performed well, one of his regiments broke and ran during the attack.  This, along with false rumors that he had hid during the fighting at Antietam, tarnished his reputation.  Despite these circumstances, Caldwell retained his role and took part in the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863.  During the engagement, his troops helped stabilize the Union right after the defeat of Howard's XI Corps and covered the withdrawal from the area around the Chancellor House.

The Battle of Gettysburg

In the wake of the defeat at Chancellorsville, Hancock ascended to lead II Corps and on May 22 Caldwell assumed command of the division.  In this new role, Caldwell moved north with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  Arriving at the Battle of Gettysburg on the morning of July 2, Caldwell's division initially moved into a reserve role behind Cemetery Ridge.  That afternoon, as a large assault by Longstreet threatened to overwhelm Major General Daniel Sickles' III Corps, he received orders to move south and reinforce the Union line in the Wheatfield.  Arriving, Caldwell deployed his division and swept Confederate forces from the field as well as occupied the woods to the west. 

Though triumphant, Caldwell's men were compelled to retreat when the collapse of the Union position at the Peach Orchard to the northwest led to them being flanked by the advancing enemy.  In the course of the fighting around the Wheatfield, Caldwell's division sustained over 40% casualties.  The next day, Hancock sought to temporarily place Caldwell in command of II Corps but was overruled by Meade who preferred a West Pointer hold the post.  Later on July 3, after Hancock was wounded repulsing Pickett's Charge, command of the corps devolved to Caldwell.  Meade moved swiftly and inserted Brigadier General William Hayes, a West Pointer, in the post that evening despite Caldwell being senior in rank.

Later Career

Following Gettysburg, Major General George Sykes, commander of V Corps, criticized Caldwell's performance in the Wheatfield.  Investigated by Hancock, who had faith in subordinate, he was quickly cleared by a court of inquiry.  Despite this, Caldwell's reputation was permanently damaged.  Though he led his division during the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns that fall, when the Army of the Potomac was reorganized in the spring of 1864, he was removed from his post.  Ordered to Washington, DC, Caldwell spent the remainder of the war serving on various boards.  Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he was selected to serve in the honor guard which bore the body back to Springfield, IL.  Later that year, Caldwell received a brevet promotion to major general in recognition of his service.

Departing the army on January 15, 1866, Caldwell, still only thirty-three years old, returned to Maine and commenced practicing law.  After briefly serving in the state legislature, he held the post of adjutant general of the Maine Militia between 1867 and 1869.  Departing this position, Caldwell received an appointment as US Consul in Valparaiso.  Remaining in Chile for five years, he later obtained similar assignments in Uruguay and Paraguay.  Returning home in 1882, Caldwell accepted a final diplomatic post in 1897 when he became US Consul in San Jose, Costa Rica.  Serving under both Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, he retired in 1909.  Caldwell died on August 31, 1912, at Calais, ME while visiting one of his daughters.  His remains were interred at St. Stephen Rural Cemetery across the river in St. Stephen, New Brunswick.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Brigadier General John C. Caldwell." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 29). American Civil War: Brigadier General John C. Caldwell. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Brigadier General John C. Caldwell." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).