John Henry Hobart Ward died on July 24, 1903. He died unusually. He was run over by a train belonging to the Erie Railroad in Monroe, Orange County, New York. At the turn of the twentieth-century, fatal train accidents were not at all uncommon, and depending upon how one frames the incident, it might be said, accurately, that his death was not that bizarre. However, Ward must have been the only Civil War general to have been killed by a train. (Perhaps some of you in internet-land might know a counterexample, but right now, I can’t think of one.)
I really wish I knew more about Ward’s death. Most historians who write about him tend to repeat lines from Erza Warner’s Generals in Blue, saying simply that Ward was hit by a train and because of that, he died. Even the few 1903 newspapers I’ve found were not generous with details. For instance, the New York Times’s obituary said only what I have already written here. Ward was killed by a train. Period.
I am left to wonder several things. How, exactly, did the train kill him? Did he not hear it coming? Did he purposefully step on the tracks? Were there no warning sirens? Was he killed instantly or did he linger from his injuries? So many questions remain unanswered.
What is certain is this. By 1903, everyone had forgotten Ward’s ignominious ousting from the army. The New York Times said, “He bore his eighty years well, and looked the veteran he was, his military bearing with his long white mustache attracting much attention.” Truly, Ward lived a quiet, uninteresting life. He lived in New York City at 230 East 50th Street and summered at a home in Monroe. From 1871 to 1896, he worked as a clerk for the Superior Court. He retired at age seventy-three and enjoyed seven additional years until that train got him.
As an aging veteran, Ward didn’t divorce himself from the memory of his Civil War service. Most obituaries remembered him fondly, reminding readers that he was a proud veteran of two wars. The Times said, “He was frequently favorably mentioned [in official reports] and highly commended [by his superiors].”
That statement is true, if—and I stress “if”—we consider the period between 1861 and 1863 only. After the summer of 1863, Ward became harder to admire. At Chancellorsville, he ran over his own soldiers in a frightened panic, trampling one of them to death. At Wapping Heights, he was drunk on the field. The day after, he threatened his hungry soldiers, perpetrating childish revenge fantasies. At the Battle of the Wilderness, he fled the front lines and refused to come down from his escape vehicle. At the Battle of Spotsylvania, he showed up drunk on the battlefield, and once again, he tried to flee to the rear at the height of the action. Somehow, years later, all those unsightly acts were forgotten by an exceedingly generous press corps.
As I have found, historians, much like trains, are not so forgiving.
This is a postcard depicting the Erie Railroad Station in Monroe sometime after the turn of the 20th century, presumably showing the location of Hobart Ward's death.