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John Benton Callis

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John Benton Callis

Born: January 3, 1828, Fayetteville NC

Died September 24, 1898, Lancaster, WI

Son of Henry Callis of Wilmington NC and Christina Benton, daughter of Jno. M. Benton of Fayetteville NC. The Callis family was originally from Calais and were Huguenots. When Mr. Benton was appointed agent for the Cherokee Indians in Tennessee in 1834, Callis and family accompanied him to Carroll County. Financially ruined in a business failure, Callis moved his family to Wisconsin, settling in Lancaster in 1840.

John Callis attended common schools there and studied medicine locally for several years, but his lack of background handicapped him. He went to Minnesota in 1849 and was a contractor in the building of Fort Gaines (later Fort Ripley), located 300 miles north of St. Paul. He crossed the Plains to California in 1852, where he engaged in mining and the mercantile business. He returned via Central America, where he worked for a time. He returned to Lancaster in 1853 and resumed the mercantile trade.

When the Civil War broke out, Callis was First Lieutenant of the Grant County militia. He was instrumental in raising a company that was assigned as Company F of the 7th Wisconsin.  This company was originally named the "Lancaster Union Guards". Callis was elected Captain of that company, which position he retained. The 7th Wis. was part of the Iron Brigade, which won fame on battlefields from Bull Run to Gettysburg, seeing action in nearly all of the major actions of the Army of the Potomac. The unit took severe casualties. At Gainesville, all officers ranking Callis were killed or wounded and he ended up commanding the regiment. Promoted to Major (January 3, 1863) he lead the regiment at South Mountain, Antietam and Fredicksburg. As acting commander, he often wrote to the Lancaster newspaper with news and casualty reports and filled out the official reports.

At Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade was instrumental in holding the high ground that would prove crucial to the battle. Vastly outnumbered, the brigade was over run. Callis was shot in the chest, with the ball lodging in his lung. He lay on the battlefield for 43 hours as the battle progressed around him. A Confederate soldier attempted to take his boots, but a nearby officer, hearing his North Carolina accent, protected him. Many years later, Callis and this officer met and corresponded. Gen. Early provided the wounded Callis with a guard as a prisoner or war. He survived to be nursed at a local house, where his wife came to assist.

Since most soldiers with chest wounds did not survive, he was mustered out and returned to Lancaster and then Boscobel, where he recovered at the house of his sister, Eliza Callis Barnett. It is worth noting that his young nephew, the future Major General George Barnett U.S.M.C. was a five year old in that house. Against all odds, Callis survived his wounds, though they would trouble him for the rest of his life. Regaining most of his health he re-enlisted in the veterans Corps with the rank of Major and an assignment as Military Superintendent of the War Department at Washington. He and the 7th Vet Reserves were on Provost duty the night Lincoln was assassinated and provided the guard for the Vice-President and other cabinet members. He was promoted to Lt. Colonel on Feb. 11, 1865 and later brevetted to Colonel and Brigadier General.

After the war ended, he was appointed Captain in the 45 Regiment and brevetted Major and then Lt. Colonel "for gallant and meritorious service in the battle of Gettysburg". Serving in Huntsville Alabama, he championed the rights of the newly freed Blacks as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1868, he resigned his commission and was shortly afterwards elected to the 40th Congress from the 5th District of Alabama.

While in Congress, Callis served on the Committee on Enrolled Bills and was the father of the original "Ku-Klux Bill", which was killed by the Senate, but later passed. At the end of the 40th Congress, he resigned his seat and returned to Lancaster, where he established a real estate and insurance business. He served as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly in 1874.

Personally, Callis was an impetuous man, but with good discretion. He suffered most of his life from the bullet in his lungs, spending many years with crutches and his last year bedridden. He was active in veterans affairs, the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows.


Biographical Dictionary of Congress.

Soldiers and citizens’ album of biographical record containing personal sketches of army men and citizens prominent in loyalty to the union, 1890.

Obituary in the Lancaster newspaper of John Callis

Obituary in Lancaster newspaper of Henry Callis (died September 8, 1875)