You are hereJames Parks Caldwell

James Parks Caldwell


March 27, 1841 to April 5, 1912

Written by Benjamin Piatt Runkle
The Sigma Chi Quarterly, Vol. XVI, July, 1896, No. 4, pp. 323-325
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James Parks Caldwell
Painted from Life by
Paul Trebilcock, 1927

When the terrible civil war broke upon the country, Sigma Chi numbered three hundred and thirty-one members, counting the alumni and classes of ‘61, ‘62, ‘63 and ‘64. Of these two hundred and seventeen were alumni, and graduates of Northern colleges, and one hundred and fourteen belonged to Southern institutions. Of the two hundred and seventeen Northern Sigma Chis, seventy-two entered the Union army, and of the one hundred and fourteen Southern members eighty joined the Confederate service. Of the seven original enumerated founders of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, five entered the military service, four in the Union and one in the Confederate army. The latter was James Parks Caldwell, and among the eighty Sigma Chis who fought under the stars and bars, not one was a more gallant soldier, or has a more brilliant and honorable record, and those who fought against him, though differing with him in judgment, are proud of that record and of his manly course throughout.

The generation that fought that fierce struggle to the end was not responsible for its beginning, for the cause of the war lay far back in the past. It was unavoidable; sooner or later it had to come. The good God ground the American people in his mighty mill in expiation of a terrible national sin, and the Confederate army was the nether mill stone. The Southern people believed in their cause. Had they not been conscientious in their belief, and clear in their convictions, they never could have made the magnificent struggle that marked them the peers of the proudest soldiers that ever stood in line.

James Parks Caldwell was of Northern birth, as detailed hereafter, but going South and finding congenial and loving friends, his heart became knit to their hearts, and his environment had much influence on his course. Some may believe that course to have been a mistaken one, but the writer hereof knows better than any other living man that Caldwell’s action was conscientious and manly from beginning to end. On one occasion, detailing the facts of Brother Caldwell’s career before a large assembly of Northerners, I asked the question, How many of you under like circumstances would have acted differently? the answer came, probably not one. I am not here to apologize for Brother Caldwell—apologies for him and on his part are not called for; he did his part as many thousand others, towards moulding our people into a mighty Nation, cementing them together with blood. It had to be—it has been—and let us all, as we clasp hands over the graves of our fallen comrades, thank God that we were permitted to bear our part and to stand together to-day one for our united country. James Parks Caldwell was born in Butler County, Ohio, in 1841 and he came, like St. Patrick in the song, Of honest people. He was of Scotch-Irish descent, sturdy stock, and as he says himself, pig headed to a degree. His father was a native of Pennsylvania, a physician by profession, and his mother was born in Ohio. His family was among the early· pioneers of the Miami Valley.

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Brother Caldwell came to Miami University in 1854, and was then about fourteen years of age, and entered the sophomore class with Bell, Jordan, Cooper and the writer hereof. He was a frail, delicate little fellow, with fair complexion, and light hair; of loving and kindly disposition, a favorite with all the students among whom were men from both North and South. Caldwell was remarkable for the grasp of his mind, and the quickness of his apprehension, was a humorist, and the fires of poetic genius burned within him. A comedy, in which he took off his comrades in fine style attracted the attention of Whitelaw Ried, when it was read in the college chapel, and that made him a Delta Kappa Epsilon. After his initiation he naturally clung to the faction that founded the Sigma Chi, and was one of the most ardent and earnest of our little band. He was my room-mate for a long time, and many an evening and Saturday have we passed in the groves and along the stream that flows near the university, Caldwell generally having a copy of Poe or of some poet to which he devoted himself, while the writer looked after the gun or the fishing rod. Turning back to those days, and remembering the ardent enthusiasm of that gifted boy, I wonder that he did not develop into a poet. The rude hand of war, however, changed his course. He was a favorite with the professors, a pet of the fair sex, and whenever one meets a college mate of those old days, he invariably asks, Where is Jimmy Caldwell?

For about a year we roomed at a house kept by an Irish lady, warm and impulsive, after the manner of her race. The other day I met her at Oxford, old and feeble, and her very first words after greeting me, were, “Where is dear little Jimmie Caldwell, God bless his soul,” and then she launched out on the memories of those by-gone days in a way that made one feel young again.

Receiving his sheep skin in 1857 James Parks Caldwell began the study of law in the city of Hamilton, Ohio, and of course made rapid progress. One day Col. Minor Millikin, the gentleman who figured so conspicuously in the disruption of the Delta Kappa Epsilon at Oxford, made an assault on Caldwell’s law preceptor. Doubtless remembering Millikin’s famous speech at the Chapter meeting, and having for him no good will, Caldwell sailed into the assailant and contributed no little to his discomfiture. This was an indication of the character of the boy for he was true at heart, firm in purpose, and unflinchingly faithful to his friends. When he had made up his mind he never counted the cost.

From Hamilton, Brother Caldwell went South to become a tutor in a private family in Panola, Mississippi. This was a most pleasant and profitable position, giving him much time for reading and study. Finally he opened a school of his own, and had good promise of a successful career as a teacher, but the breaking out of the war put an end to his pursuits in that direction, and in February, 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate army. He was in no manner forced to take this step, but acted of his own free will and accord. His line of study, thought and his environment was such that he could not have possibly been forced. He believed in legal soundness of the position assumed by the South; his personal sympathies were with her people, all his surroundings strengthened those feelings, and he had no hesitancy about his duty.

Lieutenant CaldwellAt that early date he saw very clearly the nature of the struggle about to ensue, and frankly told the people among whom he lived that they underestimated the strength and determination of the Northern people; that the struggle would be a long and terrible one, and that their only hope of success lay in immediate emancipation of the slaves and universal conscription. In this many of the great men of the Confederacy came to agree with him. Mr. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, said to the writer hereof after the war, that such course might have secured success for the Confederacy had it been possible to adopt it. With some difficulty I have been able to secure a few incidents of Brother Caldwell’s military service. He was a member of the Confederate artillery, and reached the grade of lieutenant, in which position he was acting when captured at Port Hudson. After capture he was taken to Johnson’s Island, Ohio, with all hope of promotion and distinction cut off. Among other actions in which he participated were the fierce battles of Corinth and Iuka. He was engaged in the assault on Battery Robinette, in which the Confederates were repulsed with terrific slaughter, after advancing to the parapet, and many of them falling dead in the ditch. No action in the war was more gallantly contested, and none where the Confederate loss was greater in proportion to the number engaged. At the siege of Port Hudson Caldwell commanded a redan and distinguished himself by his firmness and good judgment in action.

Brother Caldwell had some knowledge of an endeavor on the part of his friends to secure his release from prison, but he did not know that his old class and room-mate had a hand in that meritorious undertaking. The writer was at that time suffering from wounds received in battle and serving on the staff of David Todd, Governor of Ohio, having been ordered on that duty by the Secretary of War. Brother Caldwell’s father and certain other gentlemen came to me and requested that I should intercede with the Governor to procure from the Secretary of War an order for Lieut. Caldwell’s release from prison. I went to the Governor, and our conversation was about as follows:

Governor, my old class and room-mate at Oxford, is a prisoner on Johnson’s Island; he is an Ohio boy, and will take it as a great favor if you will secure his release on parole.

Governor: An Ohio boy in the Confederate army. What is he doing in the Confederate army? Was he forced in?

I think not, Governor, he is not that sort of a man.

Governor: Then he ought to be hung. I will not give my influence towards releasing him.

I argued the case with that great, good and generous man for sometime. Finally he said—

Well. Ben, I will do almost anything for you; your services may go to cover up your room-mate’s sins. If he will take the oath of allegiance, I will ask Mr. Stanton to release him.

I reported the result of my intercession to his father and friends, and Lieut. Caldwell refused to take the oath. In my judgment, feeling as he did, and having entered that service under the circumstances that existed, it was the more manly thing to refuse. Some one came to me afterwards and averred that Caldwell said when the proposition was made to him, that “Col. Runkle might go to the devil.” This evidently was a false report for Brother Caldwell was not aware that I had anything to do with the effort towards securing his release.

Lieut. Caldwell remained in prison until the conclusion of hostilities and on his release went to California, where he engaged in literary work and the practice of the profession of law, living at San Bernardino, in Southern California, for some years.

Brother Caldwell is naturally a literary man, and the thing to be regretted about his military service is that the labor and trials of war changed the course of his career. His articles written for magazines and other periodicals are marked with the stamp of ability. He is now engaged in writing the recollections of a Confederate soldier, and as such recollections are the better part of the history of the war on either side, we may expect something truthful and highly entertaining.

Brother Caldwell is an old-fashioned democrat, but he is not a politician; is a supporter of the present administration, and an inveterate enemy of the spoils system. In all this he is governed by principle, being made of the sort of stuff of which all the governing element of our people ought to be made, but is not. He is a member of the John R. Dickens Camp No. 341 United Confederate Veterans, and is held by every member of that body, some of whom are very distinguished men, in the highest honor and esteem. He holds that Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. George Henry Thomas were the great soldiers of the war, and in this he will find many veterans, both North and South, to agree with him.

I must not forget to say that among Brother Caldwell’s fugitive literary efforts, I find a Latin translation of “Shoo fly, don’t bodder me,” which was published by Bret Harte in the Overland Monthly. He managed the refrain thus:

Abi, musca, ne inquietes me
Sum enim miles de maniple G.

Brother Caldwell’s motto to precede his Reminiscences was taken from Ovid. Doubtless all Sigma Chis can translate it with ease, and I accordingly give it in the original:

Quis enim sua pruelia victus
Commemorare velit? Refram tamen ordine; nee tam Turpe
fuit vinci, quam contendisse decorum est:
Magnaque dat nobis tantus solacia victor.
-Metam IX, 4-7

At present Brother Caldwell is living in Mississippi City, Miss., following the practice of his profession. He is the same brave, loving, kindly gentleman as of old, and when he comes to the Sigma Chi Grand Chapter, as we trust he will, we will give him a welcome that will gladden his heart, and the dear old yell shall be heard from the pine woods of Minnesota to where the waves roll up on the shores of Mississippi Sound. However we may have differed in the past, our hands and our hearts are yours, Brother James, and we will greet you as the dear boy we loved so well at Miami, and as a worthy founder of the White Cross Order.


From Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book IX, II, 4-7: Sad is the task you set. For who would wish / To chronicle the battles that he lost? Yet the whole tale I'll tell. It was less shame / To lose than glory to have fought the fight: / Much comfort comes from such a conquerer.