Monday, July 18, 2016

“An Outburst of Passion and Profanity”: The Career of Hobart Ward, Part 2.

This is my second post about Brigadier General Hobart Ward, a forty-year-old officer who served with the Army of the Potomac. By the summer of 1863, Ward was a veteran of a dozen Civil War engagements. So far, he had fought at Bull Run, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fair Oaks, Glendale Cross Roads, Malvern Hill, 2nd Manassas, Chantilly, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. He was also commanding more troops than he ever had in his life. After Gettysburg, he became acting divisional commander, directing the maneuvers of the 1st Division, 3rd Corps.

One might think that Ward was something of a star on the rise, but in fact, as Ward’s responsibilities grew, he received less and less respect from his troops. As I mentioned in the previous post, Ward was not a nice man. He was petty, erratic, unlikeable, and fond of drink at inappropriate moments. Moreover, Ward did not think highly of his enlisted men or of the value of human life. As one soldier who served under him later related, “General Ward was formerly a prize fighter and, no doubt, much brutalized. He regards human life much as an angler does the worm he uses for bait.” Arguably, Ward’s lowest moment came when he acted out childish vengeance against a portion of his command the day after the Battle of Wapping Heights. His troops wanted food and Ward wanted them to shut the hell up.

The affair began when Ward’s division engaged in a furious but largely forgotten battle called Wapping Heights, which occurred on July 23, 1863. That day, the 3rd Corps assaulted a portion of the Army of Northern Virginia in Manassas Gap. After a day-long engagement, Ward’s division took possession of the heights, driving off Colonel Edward Walker’s Georgia brigade. Despite the importance of the battle, Ward was rarely seen directing the action. According to one soldier, Ward stopped at a house near Linden Station to drink from a jug of whiskey offered by his corps commander, Major General William French, who was, likewise, no inspirational leader. At 4 P.M., just as the Union troops gained the summit, Ward and French came to check on the course of the battle, and both were, in the words of a witness, “in a highly exhilarated condition by this time.”

Although Ward’s misbehaviors earned the ire of his enlisted men, the real trouble occurred the next day, July 24. At 11 A.M., Ward’s division set out on a thirteen-mile trek to Springfield, a small village east of Markham. Having fought in a rigorous battle the day before and lacking rations, Ward’s soldiers were in a sour mood. Writing to friends, Chaplain Lorenzo Barber explained, “Our supplies were not up and our men were out of rations. Some of us had not had half a breakfast, and nothing left in our haversacks.” By the afternoon, after marching seven hours through the heat with nothing to eat, Ward’s 1st Brigade demanded their overdue nourishment. Specifically, they began chanting, “Hardtack! Hardtack!” A private in the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters wrote in his journal, “The men of our regiment took up the cry and kept it up all afternoon.” Chaplain Barber of the same regiment noticed how quickly the chanting spread among the other regiments. Soon, the entire division was shouting loudly for the ill-loved army cracker. Barber wrote, “Tired with their hard work and with empty stomachs, they halted to rest at almost dark. As the officers were putting them into position, the whole division (Gen. Ward’s) good naturedly cried out, ‘Hard Tack!’ ‘Hard Tack!’” In a letter to friends, Barber insisted that the chanting started out genially, but he pointed out that it carried serious undertones: “The Colonels and Brigadiers took it good naturedly as it was intended, though their own empty larders must have reminded [them] it was a suggestive joke.”

The chanting caught the attention of Ward, who rode along the line with his staff. For whatever reason, Ward was in no mood to hear his soldiers’ pleas for a meal—even one as inadequate as hard tack. The chanting soldiers embarrassed him and he wanted them silenced immediately. Sensing bad blood, Chaplain Barber continued the story: “The thing was made serious by Gen. Ward and staff riding furiously among the men, and Gen. Ward saying: ‘God damn your souls, I’ll give you hard tack; I’ll shoot the first man that says hard tack again.’ Two or three brigades nearest him kept silence, but every other regiment in his division shouted ‘hard tack’ louder than before.”

Ward grew furious when the chanting would not cease, so he rode down the line and accosted the men of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, the unit that had started the ruckus. Private Wyman White described the scene: “The general rode to the right of the regiment, and turned his horse, and facing the regiment, drew his revolver and called out in the voice of a brigadier general, ‘G—D— your souls to hell. The next man that says ‘Hardtack’ I will put a ball through his head’.” (As an aside, White’s recollection of Ward’s threat must have been remarkably accurate. Another soldier in the same regiment jotted the words in his diary that evening, and with alarming similarity, they confirmed what White and Barber had both recorded: “God damn your souls! I will give you hardtack! The first man that says hardtack I will put a ball through!”)

Whatever might be said of Ward’s reaction, it did not have the desired effect. The Sharpshooters had no intention of letting Ward get away, not without one last jab. As White related, “All was still and the general turned his horse and in an instant every man in the regiment yelled, ‘Hardtack.’ He did not stop to shoot. If he had, I dare say it would have been his last, for I heard lots of rifles click.” Barber, meanwhile, heard Ward muttering under his breath. “Baffled and disgraced,” Barber narrated, “he rode off cursing officers and men, threatening them with terrible punishment in the way of picket duty, &c.”

Even so, Ward carried out something akin to revenge. When the division went into camp, he ordered several regiments placed under temporary arrest, keeping the men at full marching gear for several hours. Meanwhile, he called into his tent the officers of those regiments that had humiliated him and gave them a rigorous tongue-lashing. Although witnesses disagreed on the length of time he kept the men standing at attention, Private John Haley probably had it correct, saying that it lasted about two hours. Haley remembered, “After we went into bivouac, a portion of the division was made to stand in line for two hours, in marching order, for yelling ‘Hard Tack!’ at General Ward as he rode past. Although many hadn’t eaten for a day or two, and are nearly insane from hunger, they should realize that such behavior will not help.” When the officers returned to the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, they told their men what Ward had said. According to Private White, “the old puff ball told the officers that he would hold them responsible for our good behavior thereafter and that ended the matter.”

Ward’s pomposity killed his reputation among his enlisted men. Chaplain Barber wrote home, making it clear that Ward was not a man to be admired: “I have not time to moralize on such an outburst of passion and profanity on the part of a commanding General, but I am sorry to say that we have some such in command of our brave and intelligent troops.”

For Ward, the incident began the downward spiral of his career. In a year, he’d find himself discharged and disgraced. One wonders, if he had been nicer to his men on July 24, would they have stuck up for him when the army threatened to remove him from command in the midst of the Overland Campaign? Such is the fate of people who indulge in petty tyrannies. Without respect, they have nothing.

Here's the photograph of Hobart Ward that everyone usually sees. Here he is as brigadier general, taken in 1863, presumably.


  1. Out of curiosity, where did you find Chaplain Barber’s letters?

  2. Barber's Letters are in a book, Letters from Berdan's Sharpshooters, by R. L. Murray. I don't know where Murray got the letters.