John Calkins was born 1836 in New York, probably the son of William (b. 1800).
His parents were reportedly born in Canada, although according to the 1850 census his father William was born in New York. In any case, John left New York with his family and moved west, eventually settling Leoni, Jackson County by 1850, where his father worked as a wagon-maker (as did his older brother Clinton). By 1860 John was working as a wagon-maker and living at the Day boarding house in Allegan, Allegan County.
John was 25 years old and probably still living in Allegan when he walked to Grand Rapids and enlisted in Company F sometime in the first week of June of 1861.
According to the Allegan Journal, the “Allegan boys” were “spiling [sic] for a fight”, and on the evening of June 5, “two of our boys, George W. Bailey (son of our wealthy fellow townsman Leonard Bailey), and John Calkins started from here afoot, bound for Grand Rapids, where they intended to join the Third Regiment. We have no doubt but that if there is any fighting to be done, the boys named above will have a hand in it.” The paper added, “we learn that the boys have been mustered into the Third Regiment.” In fact, according to George Bailey’s lengthy account of that walk to Grand Rapids, John Champion also accompanied Bailey and Calkins. At a little before 7:00 p.m. on June 4,
John B. Champion, John Calkins, and G. W. Bailey, after bidding farewell to relatives and friends, were seen wending their way eastward, via Martin Corners to Grand Rapids, taking the old and reliable line of foot and walker, as the surest way to “get there”. None of the trio had ever been to the Rapids, and all were confident they could not get off the right road after striking the plank. The early evening was very dark and the atmosphere torrid. On our journey through Watson we came to ‘a little red school-house’ where a meeting of some kind was being held. Here an inquiry was made as to the direct route and distance to Martin. We had not proceeded many miles when the road seemed to come to an abrupt termination, and all felt sure that Lake Michigan nor the ocean was on the east boundary of Allegan County, and it was our most solemn opinion that “Saint Patrick” had in his travels through Ireland found himself in our plight, and he did then and there banish all snakes and frogs from the land, and the whole outfit -- in our imagination -- had dropped right here in a large swamp. After skirmishing around a short time, we found the right turn of the road, and some came to a corduroy bridge leading across a large swamp, whose inhabitants were as disloyal as any ranting traitors in the south. This is the manner in which they encouraged our patriotism and self-sacrifice. First the little frogs squeaked, “going-t'enlist, going-t'enlist, going-t'enlist”, then the guttural voice of Mr. Bull would bellow “Dam-phool, dam-phool, dam-phool”.
At 11 o'clock we arrived at Martin, ate a lunch, then proceeded on our journey, being well pleased with the “plank road”. At 2 a.m. we were well on our way, but mighty sore on the feet. At 3 o'clock we were spread out, Calkins taking the advance, Champion holding the center, and Bailey the rear guard. At about this hour we came to a hotel and after consultation it was agreed to awake the proprietor and hire him to drive us the balance of the way. After vigorous pounding assisted by the loud bark of a dog within, we finally aroused a small boy, who informed us that “it was about 9 miles to Grand Rapids.” We then informed this boy -- and he the proprietor of our wish, and were informed that $6 would be the price. To this we readily agreed. I was then conducted to the bedroom door, to talk with the proprietor (who would not arise), informed him of our great haste (we were going to enlist in the third Regiment of Michigan infantry, and understood the Regiment left Grand Rapids for the front that day, June 25.) This did not seem to impress him favorably, for he and his wife had a talk in an undertone, after which he said, “I don't care to go for less than $9”’ This attempt at extortion was rejected and we again took up the old line of march (foot and walker), consoling ourselves in the belief that “mine host” was a rebel sympathizer, and a fit companion to those frogs who inhabit the pond near Martin, for all seem to think or call us “dam-phools”, if we were going to enlist. Calkins again took the lead, Champion the center and I way back.
It was now getting to be daybreak. “Walking the plank” had become tedious on account of blistered feet, which made me doubly tired, and necessitated a long rest for a short distance traveled. While taking one of these rests, and meditating on the “croaking of frogs”, my ear caught the sound of a wagon approaching from the rear. This welcome sound revived me, and I at once prepared for a ride. In a short time it drove into sight and proved to be a men [sic?] moving a load of household goods “up north”. On his approach I hailed him, and requested a ride, informed him of my two companions, on the road ahead, and of our willingness to pay him well. But he refused on the plea “of a large load, and a tired team”. I then explained to him our situation, also our experience with the landlord a short distance back. That story (it was no fable, either), fired his loyal heart and he exclaimed, . . . “You climb up here, and we will arrange this furniture so you can all ride.” this done we soon overtook Champion and Calkins, who were taken on the load. At 8 o'clock we arrived at the fairgrounds where the Regiment was quartered, and as ‘our loyal friend’ could not be induced to take money consideration, large or small, for our ride, on parting with him he accepted one dollar, with our express wish that his horses should be well groomed and have a substantial breakfast. As we approached the gate we passed a soldier who informed us that we were “all right, and one time”, and for us to request the guard at the gate to call for Captain J. J. Dennis of Company F, who wanted a few more men to fill his company. On arrival at the gate, we were confronted by a soldier marching back and forth carrying a gun, with a sharp and ugly prodding rod on its muzzle end. Being green hands at this business, we attempted to pass him. That act brought forth the challenge, “Halt!”, at the same time the point of his gun was brought to bear on us in such a savage manner that our hair “riz” (we were not bald-headed then). We now followed instructions, called for Captain Dennis, who soon appeared, ordered the guard to ‘let the boys pass’. The captain was very glad to assign us in his command, conducted us to his company quarter in the barracks, where we enjoyed a rest and sleep until noon. After dinner we were conducted to the surgeon's office, where we were ‘sized up’ in length, breadth, and thickness, were accepted and sworn into state service -- to date from May 10. Champion, who was a musician, joined the Regiment band (which was at that time regularly enlisted musicians). We then returned to the barracks, where we found several of our Allegan County friends, some of whom were late members of Captain Bassett's home company [from Allegan]. We were now real soldiers and genuine “tenderfoots”, and our first business was to inspect “mudsills”, so off came the boots, when lo! what a sight! Each foot had one blister, in size the full width of foot, and extending from the end of toes to heel, and as to thickness, will say, I was one half inch taller when measured that day, than I have been able to stretch up to since; and they were not vanity puffs, either. After foot inspection we took to our bunk, being reminded of “Pilgrim's Progress”, and the welfare of our soles, although we were not as yet, “bowed down with a hump on our back”, neither had we wallowed in Virginia mud. Still, the argument was forcibly brought to mind that “it is better to travel in the straight and narrow path,” than follow the broad highway, which, if not leading directly to Sheol, did (with us) in after years, pass so near that we saw fire and smoke, heard its roar, and witnessed all the devilish accompaniments of four years in “hell let loose.”
John was reported as missing in action on May 31, 1862, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, and was probably taken prisoner (although the record is unclear on this). He was reportedly exchanged and returned to the Regiment on either September 27 at Upton’s Hill, Virginia or September 28 at Camp Pitcher, Virginia. He may have been among the parolees who were mentioned in the Richmond Dispatch of September 15, 1862,
Three thousand three hundred of the Yankee prisoners left Richmond on Saturday for Varina to be exchanged. – Such as could not walk were conveyed away in wagons. The officers, of which there were 61, went in carriages, provided for the purpose. As the long line filed past the C. S. Prison, on Cary Street, they greeted their less lucky compeers with a feeble cheer. A small cavalry escort accompanied them down. Another large gang were started for Aiken’s landing, on James River, yesterday morning. During Saturday and Sunday five thousand two hundred and twenty-eight were sent away. This leaves on hand only about seven hundred, a good many of whom are in the hospital under treatment for wounds or disease, who were unable to bear removal. Three Yankee women and eight Yankee deserters, or rather men who came over to us and professed to be such, were sent from Castle Thunder. Though these deserters professed to have left their brethren in great disgust, they were very willing to be sent back to the North. The departure of the prisoners will save the Confederate Government an expense of about $4,000 per day, which was the average that their food as soldiers cost.
John was working as a clerk for the Brigade commissary from January of 1863 through May, and in June was wagon-master, probably in the Brigade Commissary, a position he held through July. By August he was reported AWOL, and in November was serving in the ambulance corps, probably as a wagoner. He was a teamster with the Third Brigade from December of 1863 through May of 1864, and was mustered out of service on June 20, 1864.
John eventually returned to Michigan.
He married Ohio native Emily Jane Odell (1847-1914) and they had at least one child: a daughter Hetta Belle (b. 1868).
They were living in Michigan in 1869 and by 1870 John was working as a wagon-maker and living with his wife and child in Allegan village, Allegan.
It appears that at some point between 1870 and 1880 John and Emily were divorced (she eventually remarried to a man named Odell). By 1880 John was listed as divorced and working as a farmer and living with his older brother Clinton and his family in Mason, Murray County, Minnesota. He was still living in Murray County, Minnesota in 1882, the year he became a member of the Old 3rd Michigan Infantry Association. At some point he eventually settled in Claremont, Surry County, Virginia where he was living by 1890, when he was drawing pension no. 728,604.
For unknown reasons, sometime in the mid-1890s his pension rate was reduced from $12 per month to $8.
John probably died in Virginia, on February 19, 1897, and was buried in St. Anne’s Cemetery, Claremont, Virginia (there is a monument in the center of the cemetery dedicated to the Union soldiers buried therein).