Early in the life of this blog, I started a periodic series called “Faded Hoofbeats” to highlight the lives of long-forgotten (or underappreciated) cavalrymen of the Civil War. Well, here’s another – except this one is John H. Calef, a regular horse artilleryman. I’ve long been fascinated with Calef’s career and life since he notably served with John Buford’s troopers to open the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
John Haskell Calef came from a long line of Calefs that settled in the New England area by at least the mid-1700’s. His great-grandfather was Colonel John Calef, of Kingston NH, an officer in the Revolutionary Army.
John was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts on September 24, 1841, and was appointed from that state to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1858. Attending from July 1 of that year, Calef graduated on June 17, 1862, at which time he was ranked a 2nd Lieutenant and appointed to the 5th United States Artillery. While with the 5th, Calef served in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign from July through August, at Harrison’s Landing (in the action at Malvern Hill on August 5, 1862, and in the Northern Virginia Campaign from August to September 1862 (2nd Bull Run) and at the battle of Antietam. On October 6, he transferred to the 2nd US Artillery, and participated in the march to Falmouth from October to November, and in the Rappahannock Campaign from December 1862 to June of 1863, which saw him in the actions of Stoneman’s Raid, the battle of Chancellorsville, and at Upperville.
His service with the 2nd Artillery would bring him deeply into the Gettysburg Campaign in the summer of 1863. Attached to Colonel William Gamble’s First Cavalry Brigade of General John Buford’s Division, Calef’s men, horses, and guns made the hard march with the horsemen on their advance into Pennsylvania, dogging Lee’s Confederate Army. On the morning of July 1, 1863, and throughout the afternoon, Calef and his men would see some of their hardest fighting in the war. Ordered by Buford to spread out his six guns along McPherson Ridge west of Gettysburg, Calef’s battery was an important element in Buford’s delaying plan. The division of his battery would allow Calef to appear to have more guns to play upon the Confederates advancing on the town. Confederate Major General Henry Heth’s artillery soon outnumbered Calef, but the young Lieutenant kept up a dogged fire, keeping his tubes smoking until red-hot. Calef’s gunners were ordered to take up several positions throughout the first day of the battle, defending both the Union Cavalry’s opening fight and the subsequent lines taken by the Union infantry upon their arrival to the field. For his and his cannoneers’ services that day, Buford highly praised the young officer in his official report, saying that Calef “…fought on this occasion as is seldom witnessed” and that he “…held his own gloriously.” Calef was thereafter ever proud of Buford’s laudatory words for his battery’s deadly work that day.
On November 4, 1863, Calef was promoted to First Lieutenant. His service in the Civil War would be extensive, since it had begun with the Peninsula Campaign immediately after his graduation from West Point. His artillery served at 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, the Rappahannock Campaign, Stoneman’s Raid, Chancellorsville, Upperville, Gettysburg, Williamsport, Boonsboro, Funkstown, and the Rapidan Campaign. During a skirmish near Racoon Ford, Calef was wounded on September 15, 1863.
After a leave of absence from February to April 1864, Calef participated with his 2nd US Artillery in the battle of Cold Harbor, the skirmish at Bottom’s Bridge, the battle at Trevilian Station, and St. Mary’s Church. On July 6, 1864, Calef was made a Brevet Captain for “gallantry and good conduct in the Battle of Gettysburg, and in the Campaign from the Rapidan to Petersburg, Va.” During August to September, Calef took a sick leave of absence, then was back in the action during the Siege of Petersburg during the winter of 1864-65, participating at Boydton Plank Road in October, the destruction of Stony Creek Station on December 1, and the skirmish at Bellefield on December 9. Calef officially served as Adjutant of the 2nd Artillery from November 6, 1864, until he was posted at Fort McHenry MD from February 21 to July 26, at which time he was sent to the Presidio in California, serving there from September 19 to October 27.
Effective March 13, 1865, Calef was brevetted Major for “good conduct and gallant services during the War of the Rebellion.” On October 27, Calef was sent to Fort Point in California until January 1 of 1867. On January 12, he was appointed a captain in the 10th US Cavalry, but refused the position. He then returned to the Presidio in February until November 1872, and was posted again at Fort McHenry until May of 1875. On March 16, Calef was made full Captain in the 2nd US Artillery. Also that year, beginning on May 11, Calef served as an instructor in the Art of War at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe VA until April 8, 1888, except while he was called to duty in suppressing “railroad disturbances” in Pennsylvania from July to October, 1877. After his duty at Fort Monroe, Calef was sent to Jackson Barracks LA until September 26, 1888, and then to Fort Wadsworth NY until September 12, 1889, at which time he took a leave of absence.
Following the commemoration of the Gettysburg battle anniversary in 1888, a group of Buford admirers met to form the John Buford Memorial Association. During discussions about a suitable design for a monument of the General to be placed at Gettysburg, Calef suggested that the design incorporate the use of four cannon tubes that served in the 2nd US battery. Calef subsequently, through the Army Ordnance Department, traced down tube #233, the gun that fired the first Federal artillery shot of the battle on McPherson Ridge. That, and three other tubes that served in the battery at Gettysburg, were built into the base of Buford’s statue. The statue was placed upon the spot at which that particular gun had fired its first round, along the Chambersburg Pike. At the dedication ceremony of the statue on July 1, 1895, Calef personally “spiked” the four guns tubes at the base of the statue, rendering them useless in hostile battle, but forever in the service of memorializing General Buford at the place of his finest hour.
Calef retired from the service as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1900 and died in St. Louis MO on January 14, 1912. He is buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.