In some ways, Ward was destined to fight in the Civil War. He came from a family steeped in military tradition. His grandfather fought in the American Revolution and his father fought in the War of 1812. He was a huge man, over six feet in height, and it was rumored that he had been a pugilist in his teenage years. In 1841, at age eighteen, Hobart Ward followed in the family tradition and joined the Army. He enlisted in the 7th U.S. Infantry, eventually reaching the rank of sergeant-major in 1845. In 1847, he served in the Mexican-American War, fighting at the Battle of Monterrey, where he was wounded, and also at the Battles of Cerro Gordo and Huamantla. After the war, Ward returned to New York and served as the state militia’s assistant commissary general from 1851 to 1855, then as the senior commissary general, which post he held until 1859. He joined the “Scott Life Guard,” a militia regiment that recruited only veterans from the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War began, Ward acquired a colonelcy from New York’s governor, Edwin Morgan, and he began raising a two-year regiment, the 38th New York (informally known as the 2nd Regiment, Scott Life Guard).
Ward and his regiment gained fame quickly. Ward was one the few officers who kept his cool during the rout at Bull Run. Later, on the Peninsula, Ward and his regiment fought several tough fights, losing eighty-eight officers and men at Williamsburg and another eighteen at Fair Oaks. At Williamsburg, Ward’s divisional commander claimed that Ward “conspicuously distinguished himself,” and has “already been noticed by me as one of the bravest of the brave.” Another officer believed that Ward was so talented that he should be elevated to the rank of major general. He wrote, “His experience during twenty years, and his services during the Rebellion, eminently fit him for the position recommended.” Major General Daniel Sickles called him a “an officer whose tact, discretion, and accomplishments fit him for command of a division, and his services have been so conspicuous and brilliant that he deserves this recognition of merit.”
Wherever Ward went, he received praise. Between 1861 and 1863, newspapers heaped commendation upon him. After Bull Run, a New York newspaper mentioned Ward’s coolness. It proclaimed, “Colonel J. H. Hobart Ward, who served during the war with Mexico, and was breveted for his good conduct on the field, throughout the late battle was collected, courageous and energetic. Wherever his men faltered, there he was to rally and encourage them, and where danger appeared he confronted it.” When Ward’s regiment, the 38th New York, mustered out in New York City in May 1863, Mayor George Opdyke couldn’t say enough about Ward’s fine qualities as a commander. Opdyke wrote, “The excellent record you have made in the army must be attributed, in a large degree, to the skill, courage and coolness of . . . the brave veteran Colonel, who just commanded the Thirty-eighth, now Brig.-Gen. Ward.”
When Ward applied for a brigadier general’s commission, his superiors jumped at the chance to discuss his finer qualities. Not only did Major Generals Philip Kearney, John Sedgwick, David Birney, and Joseph Hooker offer endorsements, but even Winfield Scott—now in retirement—chose to write a testimonial based on his experience with Ward in Mexico. One of Ward’s superiors, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, wrote of Ward, saying, “There has been no Colonel in my command who has rendered more efficient and gallant service on the Peninsula, both as Colonel, and when temporarily in command of a brigade.”
With such esteemed opinions, the U.S. Senate confirmed Ward’s promotion to brigadier general on October 4, 1862. When he assumed command of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Corps, Army of the Potomac, Ward held his men enthralled by his stature and soldierly demeanor. Captain Charles Weygant, an officer who served in Ward’s brigade, remembered his first meeting with Ward. He later wrote, “Our new brigadier was a dark-complexioned, stern-looking man, about fifty years of age, stood six feet three, weighed about two hundred and forty pounds, and when mounted on his iron grey charger looked a very giant.”
Reading all these estimations, one might assume that Ward was a wonderful general, universally loved by his men and his peers. In truth, he was a brutish tyrant. Thin-skinned, petty, and foul-tempered, Hobart Ward lacked the graces held by his contemporaries. Ward’s foul behavior surfaced early on. When his regiment, the 38th New York, was encamped in Washington in May 1861, Ward mercilessly beat an unarmed citizen for cheering on behalf of the Confederacy. Ward was standing on the steps of a hotel when he overheard three citizens cheering loudly for Jeff Davis followed by three more cheers for the Southern Confederacy. Ward was about to walk away when he heard the men propose three groans for the U.S. government. When he heard this, Ward snapped. He walked over, humorously accusing the men of acting “unconstitutionally,” and then Ward slugged one of them in the face. After their friend tumbled down the steps, the other two citizens bolted down the street, and Ward gave chase. He didn’t catch them, but the newspaper reporter who described the incident praised Ward—as any northern newspaper writer might—for standing up for the Union. Another crack in his reputation appeared a bit later, at Chancellorsville. On the evening of May 2, 1863, Ward gave way to panic (although, in all fairness, so did many Union soldiers who fought in the night action there). He put spurs to his horse and bolted for the rear, running over two men, one of whom was trampled so badly that he later died.
Probably, the beating of the southern sympathizer and the running over of the two soldiers were more emblematic of Ward’s character than all the newspaper reports or the endorsements from superiors. As my future posts will show, all these people got Ward dead-wrong. Ward was nursing a sequence of bad behaviors that became more pronounced as the war dragged on. It is unclear how Ward was able to fool so many people for so long, but he did. In May 1864, when Ward was arrested for drunkenness during the Battle of Spotsylvania (the subject of a future post), Colonel Theodore Lyman—an officer attached to George Meade’s headquarters—expressed himself shocked that he had misjudged Ward. Baffled by the fact that Ward’s career was coming to an inglorious end, Lyman wrote, “General Ward was relieved from his command, for misbehavior and intoxication in presence of the enemy at the Battle of the Wilderness. I had always supposed him to be a brave but rough man.”