The Curious Story of Confederate Major Orestes Parmeno Chaffee

Our upcoming Official Auction of the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Winter Expo will feature a wide selection of Military and Civil Agent issued Confederate Train and Hoer notes. These T-39, T-40 and T-41 $100s issued in 1862 and 1863 are popular not only for their aesthetic appeal but for the background of those who issued the notes as agents of the Confederate States military and treasury department. Much can be learned about these individuals, where they came from, where they served and with whom, and what became of them after their service ended.

One issuer featured in our upcoming auction is Orestes Parmeno Chaffee whose story is equally entertaining and outlandish. Chaffee told his story to the New Orleans Times-Democrat sometime around 1904. The journalist turned biographer who authored Chaffee’s abbreviated life story described it as having elements of both a "fairy tale and the dime novel."

By his own account Chaffee was born in Bloomfield, Ohio in 1832. As a boy he set out on his own for St. Louis to find work. In the late 1850s he became an express rider working with future Confederate general Joseph Johnston. Eventually he moved to Wilcox County, Alabama, intending to settle down as a planter. It was there that he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, becoming part of Jenkins’ Company, Mounted Rifles of the Alabama Volunteers. Later he was made a Major for "Gallant Conduct" on the battlefield at Shiloh. By 1863 he was in the Quartermaster’s Department where he issued the T-41 $100 note illustrated here on March 28. In all, Chaffee served on the staffs of generals Braxton Bragg, J.K. Duncan, John Bell Hood, Joseph Johnston and Joseph Wheeler, with whom he surrendered at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 26, 1865.

At the conclusion of the war Chaffee was said to be one of six men not granted general amnesty from the United States government. He soon departed for Brazil, arriving in Rio de Janeiro in August, 1866. Chaffee claimed to have gained an audience with Emperor Dom Pedro and later to have served as a major and cavalry inspector in the Brazilian Army during the Paraguayan War. Once the war had ended he was given 1,000 acres of land in the Amazon Valley by the Brazilian government to farm.

He farmed tobacco, coffee and corn but no matter what, he could not prosper with those crops. He turned to harvesting rubber then to brokering rubber and within a few years had built a small fortune. Chaffee’s luck changed suddenly one day when a flood wiped out his home and farm. He went to work on a neighboring farm and in a few years had built back his small fortune raising sugar cane and trading machinery. Bad luck would befall him once again when a mysterious illness left him immobile and bedridden for the next three years.

Finally in 1883, with his health restored enough to travel, Chaffee returned to the United States. He traveled to Arizona where he became a quartermaster’s agent and postmaster in the town of Holbrook. He worked there for ten years and he married Helen Nichols. After leaving Holbrook Chaffee traveled to Cuba where he served as a quartermaster’s agent for General Leonard Wood when Wood was the military governor of Santiago. Lastly, Chaffee served in the Quartermaster’s Office at New Orleans. He died May 7, 1908 in Kansas City, Missouri. Interestingly Chaffee’s brother, Adna Romanza Chaffee served for the Union during the Civil War and remained in the army after, rising all the way to Lieutenant General and even served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1904 to 1906.

The note we offer in our upcoming auction is graded Fine 15 Net by PMG with a repaired split along with some rust and minor stains. Accompanying the note signed by Chaffee is a handwritten document titled "Special Order Number 65" issued by Major General Joseph Wheeler at Gadsden, Alabama on August 34, 1863. The orders in part charge Chaffee with the task of impressing 45 horses for use by the artillery of the corps. This is a very fascinating lot made all the more intriguing by the colorful story of the man involved. The lot will carry a pre-auction estimate of $1,250-$1,750.


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