In the last two posts, I explored incidents from the life of General Hobart Ward. Today, I’m going to examine the moment when his army career came to a screeching halt. The story of Ward’s inglorious termination spanned several months, but it began with an incident that occurred during the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. It is logical to start there.
Here’s what happened.
At 4:15 P.M., May 6, 1864, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps rumbled over Poplar Run on its way to attack Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s 2nd Corps. The Confederate attack fell heavily against the 3rd and 4th Divisions under Maj. Gen. David Birney and Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott. At the height of the Confederate attack, a breach opened up in the center of the Union line, near where the Orange Plank Road intersected with the Brock Road. A Union artilleryman remembered that the break occurred in the “most unexpected and unnecessary form.” As he described it, “Mott’s troops in the second line gave way without the slightest cause . . . and a portion of Gen. J. H. Hobart Ward’s brigade, of Birney’s division, rushed pell-mell to the rear.”
The sudden panic propelled Ward to the rear as well, although he was not swept away, as if by a tidal wave of humanity, as so often happened with Civil War routs. Oddly enough, Ward walked away from the fighting. Without consultation with any of his superiors, he left the front lines, sauntering off like a man distracted. For the half-hour preceding the attack, Ward had been pacing behind the center of the 124th New York. The commander of that regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Weygant, remembered, “Up to that moment, he had not spoken a word to any one.” Then, as the Confederate bullets whistled around his ears, Ward sputtered an incomplete sentence. Speaking to Weygant, he said, “Take your regiment to the rear of those—” Without finishing the order, Ward walked rapidly away. Then, just as the Union troops began fleeing to the rear, Ward approached the 6th Maine Light Artillery commanded by Captain Edwin B. Dow, whose battery held the vital junction of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads. A line of caissons (four-wheeled support vehicles with repair equipment and additional ammunition) stood in the rear of the guns. Ward hopped atop one of those caissons and ordered the drivers to make haste for the rear. Afterward, Captain Dow didn’t take kindly to Ward’s seizure of the vehicle, saying that Ward jeopardized the position his battery was defending, “owing to the scarcity of ammunition” caused by Ward taking the caisson and all its ammunition to the rear.
Ward’s inglorious retreat earned heavier criticism from infantrymen who watched him abandon the front lines. Although four of Ward’s regiments broke for the rear, five others gamely stood their ground. The men in those regiments expressed fury when they saw their commander flee in the moment of danger. Corporal Wyman S. White witnessed Ward’s hasty withdrawal. He later wrote, “[He] rushed back to one of the limber chests and jumped onto it and ordered the drivers to ‘drive like H— down the plank road to the rear,’ and they obeyed the order.”
The Battle of the Wilderness was later known for its confusion, but still, it wasn’t easy for a general to hide in the rear. It didn’t take long for headquarters staff to find Ward and call his decisions into question. Captain Charles Noble, Jr., commander of the 3rd Division’s provost guard, found Ward about one half mile from the front lines, lingering in the vicinity of “a small pond,” possibly on the Hickman farm. With the assistance of Captain W. D. W. Miller (a staff officer attached to Maj. Gen. Hancock), Noble collected stragglers from Ward’s brigade and from Mott’s division and formed them into a new line. Ward, it seemed, didn’t do much to help the situation. In fact, he caused he routed men to break up because he ordered the drivers of his pilfered caisson to plough right through them. Noble later wrote, “General J. H. H. Ward came through the men sitting on a caisson, the horses moving down the road on a full trot. The troops seeing this broke through the obstructions, and followed the caisson down the road.” Likewise, Miller reported that Ward offered no help at all in rallying the men and even resisted the staff officers’ requests to do so. Miller wrote, “Gen’l. Ward was seated on one of the caissons. I rode up to him & asked if we had not better rally the men & form a line, he answered ‘yes,’ but did not get off the caisson or make any exertion to stop the men.”
At this point, another member of Hancock’s staff, Colonel Charles H. Morgan, came upon the confused scene and took charge, demanding that Ward exit his vehicle. Morgan asked Ward if he was wounded. Ward said, “no.” Morgan then asked if the disorganized troops milling around the pond belonged to his brigade. Ward replied, “Some of them are.” As Morgan remembered it, “I told him he had better get off that caisson and help rally his command.” Despite their annoyance with Ward, Noble and Miller admitted that Ward eventually responded to Morgan’s instructions. As Noble wrote, “Gen’l Ward then got down and assisted in rallying the troops.”
The Battle of the Wilderness ended that evening, and it didn’t take long for rumors to spread. Within hours, soldiers from the 2nd Corps gossiped about Ward’s cowardly flight to the rear and his reluctance to help rally his men. In fact, Ward heard the whispers himself as early as May 10, just as his division was engaging Confederates along the Po River. Fearful for the future of his career, Ward wrote to 2nd Corps headquarters, asking for a chance to defend his actions. He wrote, “It is with deep astonishment and regret I learn that my reputation as a soldier has been impugned.” Apparently shocked by the accusation, he wrote, “It would be difficult to convince those that know me in the army that I could be guilty of the offence described to me. I cannot conceive how my motives could be so misconstrued, for until within a few hours [ago] I was not aware of the specific accusations against me. It is almost with horror I regard the accusation, and were it true would forever abhor myself.”
Ward asked for a five-minute audience with General Hancock, and felt assured that he could convince him that his actions on May 6 had been misinterpreted. Ward never received his audience, although he did have a chance to write out a statement. The next day, May 11, Ward tried to set the record straight. He criticized three points about the accusations against him. First, he claimed that he had not appropriated a caisson. He wrote, “How or by what means the person who made the report could so have so misunderstood or misconstrued my action, it is impossible for me to conceive. . . . I believe sir there is not an officer in this army who knows me, will for one moment, believe this foul aspersion.” Second, Ward argued that he went to the rear after Longstreet’s attack had been repulsed, not before. He maintained, “The enemy had been repulsed and driven back before I started to the rear. How then can this charge be sustained? To the Gen’l. Commanding I would state, that hundreds of witnesses can testify to the facts above mentioned.” Finally, or so Ward claimed, when he finally did go to the rear after the attack—to find his troops who had retreated there—it was a decision that merited praise, not condemnation. He claimed, “That I did go to the rear is patent, hundreds, I may say thousands appreciated and applauded the motive, and the results, and until this accusation was brought forward, I deemed that I was committing an act that demanded praise stead of censure.”
The staff officers who witnessed Ward’s retreat denied his claims. They all confirmed that he went to the rear before the Confederate attack was over—not after—and that he went there atop a caisson. Colonel Morgan remembered, “My impression was and is that the original line was not reestablished when Gen. Ward left.” Captain Noble confirmed, “At the time Gen’l. Ward dismounted [the caisson] to rally his troops, the firing in the front had almost ceased—the enemy had been repulsed.” Even the divisional commander, Maj. Gen. David Birney, agreed with the staff officers’ conclusions. Having seen Ward pass to the rear, Birney stated, “It was before the repulse of the enemy and owing to their failure to make any success, that he passed to the rear.”
Ward had no opportunity to confront his accusers before a second incident intervened, worsening his tarnished reputation. On May 12, during the assault on the Mule Shoe Salient, General Hancock encountered Ward on the field, “laboring under great excitement.” In Hancock’s opinion, Ward acted strangely. As Hancock remembered it, “[he] was disposed to do some things which I thought foolish. He was being reckless and insisted upon making a charge upon the enemy’s works along the parapet. . . . Fearing that he would, in my absence, do some foolish thing during this excitement, I told him in the presence of the troops . . . to be careful and obey my directions. His appearance and actions indicated that he had been drinking more than proper.”
Ward’s divisional commander, General Birney, also noticed Ward’s erratic behavior. When Birney found him, Ward had dismounted and was apparently going to rear to claim his horse, which he said had been taken to the rear by his servant. Not seeing any reason for Ward to abandon the field while the fight was still going on, Birney instructed one of his orderlies to dismount and give Ward his horse. Ward mumbled something incoherent and then fumbled his way into the saddle, probably too drunk to ride. Shortly afterward, Birney met Hancock and explained the bizarre incident to him. Hancock told Birney that he suspected Ward had been drinking. Worried that it might be true, Birney spurred his horse to the Mule Shoe, where Ward’s infantry had made a lodgment, and after a longer interview with Ward, Birney concluded that his brigade commander was “grossly intoxicated.” Without further ado, Birney ordered Ward placed under arrest and he instructed the 1st Brigade’s senior regimental commander, Colonel Thomas W. Egan, to take command of the men in the field.
The divisional provost held Ward under guard for the remainder of the Spotsylvania Campaign, and during that time, he participated in no more battles. By May 20, Hancock issued orders remanding Ward to Fort Monroe for court-martial, charged with “misbehavior and intoxication in the presence of the enemy.” Ward went home to New York to collect material for his trial and he arrived at Fort Monroe on June 17. Strangely, that trial never happened, and perhaps Ward was lucky to avoid it. In my opinion, had the U.S. Army convened a court-martial, it is highly likely that it would have gone against him.
Why didn’t the court-martial happen? It’s hard to say, but it seems that Ward avoided court-martial because General Hancock never found the opportunity to convene a court. Instead, on July 18, 1864, the 2nd Corps staff issued Special Orders 241, which decreed that Ward should receive an honorable discharge. Not until mid-August, long after Ward had returned to New York City, did he learn that he was no longer part of the Army of the Potomac. Perhaps accurately, Ward stated that for two months he never had any knowledge of the charges preferred against him. Only with the intervention of a senator did he finally get a copy of the charges, but by that time, Special Orders 241 had already dismissed him.
Furious that he had been denied a chance to defend himself, Ward wrote to President Lincoln, asking him to revoke Special Order 241 and to convene a general court-martial “to make such disposition of my case as shall be commensurate with equity and justice.” Ward’s letter expressed confidence that he could redeem his actions. He wrote, “If I fail to make a successful defense, there will at least remain the proud satisfaction of knowing that the President of the United States, has not assented to the condemnation of a soldier without a hearing before his peers.” Further, Ward griped that the events that led to his arrest derived from “certain allegations made by a staff officer”—presumably Morgan—“who while reporting certain facts, suppressed the whole truth thereby deceiving his superiors.” Ward tried to make it seem as if Morgan’s actions were motivated by prejudice. He wrote, “The officer alluded to has on many occasions prior to my arrest in the presence of officers expressed sentiments of an inimical character toward myself, and has in this instance maliciously caused reports to be circulated to my detriment as a soldier.”
Complain as he might, officially, Ward’s record remained untarnished. Because the army held no court-martial, Ward retired in good standing. Of course, his reputation had been utterly destroyed. In guessing why Ward never had his day in court, Corporal Wyman White guessed, “He made an effort to get a hearing in the case but he did not succeed. I think the reason why he failed was that the government and army officers thought that such a cowardly case was too disgraceful to be aired by a hearing.”
It’s fair to say that Ward’s behavior merited his arrest. It’s indisputable that he rode to the rear atop a caisson, and at least once, he showed up to a battle too drunk to command. However, it’s strange that the Army never offered Ward a chance to defend himself. After all, Ward had fought at Bull Run, on the Peninsula, at 2nd Manassas, Chantilly, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wapping Heights, and Locust Grove before getting caught. As much as I don’t like to admit it, in the end, Ward was right. The army allowed a travesty of justice by not offering him a hearing—no matter how impossible it might have been to receive an acquittal.
This, I think, proves my point from the previous post. Ward must have been universally despised. The growing dissatisfaction with his personality made it such that the 2nd Corps officers simply wanted him removed the most expedient way possible. I repeat what I wrote in that post: such is the fate of people who indulge in petty tyrannies. Without respect, they have nothing.
This is Colonel Charles Hale Morgan (shown later as brevet brigadier general). On May 6, 1864, he ordered General Ward to dismount a caisson he used to escape the Battle of the Wilderness.