Calvin D. Mehaffey papers  1862-1863
full text File Size: 29 K bytes


Mehaffey, Calvin D., d. 1871

Rank : 2nd Lieutenant; 1st Lieutenant (1861 November 23); Captain (1864 November 26)

Regiment : United States. Army--Infantry Regiment, 1st (1815- )

Service : 1861 August 5-1870 December 31

Less than a month after the federal debacle at Bull Run, Calvin D. Mehaffey entered the regular army as 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Infantry. The well-educated son of a prominent and politically progressive family from Lancaster, Pa., Mehaffey was valued by his superiors for his organizational skills, and only two weeks after enlisting, was called upon to serve on the staff of the new Provost Marshal of Washington, D.C., Andrew Porter. Mehaffey carried out the task of issuing military passes for the District, until March, 1862, when he was finally able to get out into the field.

Accompanying Porter's lean staff to the Peninsula, Mehaffey sensed victory in the air and a quick end to the war around every bend. Like many men in the Army of the Potomac, he was a stout McClellan man, convinced that the general's clever strategy and the near invincibility of the Army would result shortly in the fall of Richmond. With every event confirming him in his beliefs, Mehaffey -- a perceptive and intelligent man -- was blind to the logic behind the Confederate delaying action at Yorktown, and to the implications of their withdrawal from the city in April. He was even shocked by the litter of landmines ("torpedoes") left in the Confederate wake, expressing outrage at the ethical lapse, rather than admiration for the clever delaying tactic. Raised in a military culture that prized (but often overlooked) a concept of "honor," Mehaffey expressed his outrage:

"Where they are designed to kill a Division or Regt in their charge upon fortifications it is proper [to leave torpedoes], but when an army retreats, thereby acknowledging that they are afraid to fight and hides a few shells to kill the individual who treads on them, it is down right murder for the killing of one or a dozen of men in that manner does not in the least determine their victory or our defeat. If in so doing they could kill fifty thousand men it would be perfectly fair and not inconsistent with warfare, but to blow up a telegraph boy in the pursuit of his calling is both murderous & barbarous" (1862 May 11).

During the campaign, Mehaffey took on a wide range of duties within the purview of the Provost Marshal. As harbor master in May, he cruised the James River to secure traffic and confiscate any boats that might be used to convey Confederate spies. Later in the month and periodically thereafter, he oversaw the transport of prisoners of war, and frequently dealt on the fly with the organization of field hospitals and the transport of wounded. As busy as he was, his attitude gradually soured as the campaign wore on and casualties mounted, and turned against McClellan as his spirits settled into a slough of despond. After conducting a party of prisoners from Malvern Hill to New York in July, it is unclear what exactly became of Mehaffey, and what effect the replacement of both McClellan and Porter had on his status in the army. It appears, however, that he remained in a staff position with the Army of the Potomac where, in April, 1863, he was assigned as inspector of purveyors of supplies.

Mehaffey returns to view in August, 1863, when he was ordered to rejoin the 1st Infantry in Vicksburg, only to find that his regiment was preparing to move on. Within a few weeks of arriving in Vicksburg, the regiment was assigned to XIII Corps in Louisiana. Taking part in the relatively uneventful Teche Country operations in October, they reported with the Corps at New Orleans in November. Ironically, the city presented Mehaffey with one of his most personal confrontations with the war: the grave of his brother, Frank. Visiting Frank's grave filled Mehaffey with emotion, causing him to reflect not only on the costs of war, but the obligations of family to one another and to the dead, but interestingly, Frank was a victim of the Mexican War, not the Civil War, and his never-visited grave was thirteen years old. This experience may not have made Mehaffey more sensitive to the losses suffered by the citizens of New Orleans, but his sympathies were clearly aroused by the plight of a hotel owner in the city who had been plunged into a hand to mouth struggle following the death of nearly all of the men in the family at the hands of the federal army -- the same army to whom he was now renting rooms. Fascinated with the dynamic of conqueror and conquered, Mehaffey could not refrain from commenting upon the stridency of women in the city:

"The ladies have an eye single to dressing themselves in red, white & red. The ribbons & flowers of their bonnets all harmonize with those colors. The other night at the theatre a lady sitting near me was severely spending her fury on Yankee shoulders straps. It is a fine field for women who happen to be secesh to show their perverseness of character -- many of them are so poor as to be almost wretched and yet they flaunt their senseless spite as boldly as women fit for the mad-house.." (1863 November 24).

Mehaffey continued in the regular army for the remainder of the war and after, retiring on December 31, 1870. He died four weeks later on January 27, 1871.