"The ground seemed to be sacred." - The death of Major Frank Biddle Ward
Updated: Jan 2
The opening week of January 1863 was a stretch of dread and uncertainty for the Ward family of Allegheny City. With reports of recent fighting around Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the household of Dr. William A. Ward was filled with anxiety over news received on January 2, purporting that William's son, Frank Biddle, had been killed in action on December 29.
At the onset of the war, 19 year old Frank Biddle Ward enlisted in the Duquesne Grays for three-months service. With the expiration of his initial enlistment, Ward continued service with the "Anderson Troop," acting as an escort and guard for Army of the Ohio headquarters. Ward quickly advanced through the ranks to the grade of Junior Major, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The young officer played a memorable role at the battle of Stones River on December 29, 1862 - leaving a lasting impression on his men for years to come. Much of what occurred during the winter engagement was recorded by members of the 15th, and published years later in their regimental history.
"We had forded Overalls Creek and were grouped around a large house. Major Ward was with us. There was a level stretch of country for a half mile to the front and then woods. Animated by a boyish spirit I waived my guidon, and immediately saw a puff of smoke from the woods, then the sound, and lastly, with a vicious thug, a bullet went into a tree at my back. 'Take care, Corporal!' said the Major. 'That was a close shot!'
At this time a party of Confederate cavalry was seen in our front, making good time for Murfreesboro, and instantly the boys took up the cry, 'There they go! Charge them! Go for them!' Major Ward, who was close to me, yelled, 'No, don't go! My orders are to go only this far.' Still the yells continued. Some of the men advancing, the Major said, 'Damn you! If you will go, I'll go too - charge!'... The skirmishers in front were making it hot for us now, and all on our end of the line moved for the woods, from which came yells and heavy firing. I passed Major Ward coming back, supported by a man on each side, a deathly pallor on his face, but telling us in feeble tones to 'go on.'
-Charles H. Kirk, Company E, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry"
"The first shots that had been fired had alarmed the rebel infantry in the rear, who reinforced their advance; so that by the time Major Ward and his men reached the point it was to meet a long line of infantry securely posted, with a high stake-and-rider fence protecting them from being run over by our men. So sudden had been our appearance that it confused them, and although their musketry fire was heavy, it was not destructive, even when our men were up to the fence, firing carbines and revolvers at the enemy not over ten feet away.
Major Ward was the first man hit on our side. He wore that day the ordinary blouse of a private soldier, and carried a carbine. The fatal ball pierced his left breast near the heart, coming out below his shoulder blade. His horse was shot at the same time, and, supported by two of the men, he walked to the rear, out of the line of fire, and then sank to the ground... Even the pain could not quench his martial spirit, for he still cheered on the men in a weak and feeble voice, which a few moments before had been so strong and lusty... Just as we were being properly reformed... an orderly arrived saying Major Ward wished me to come to him. I hurried back and found him, as he himself thought, in a dying condition. He was conscious of his condition and expressed himself satisfied with having done his duty, and said he was willing to die.
It was the wish of the Major that I remain with him, he asking for me whenever he woke up from his semi-conscious state... After he had spoken a few words, expressing his willingness to die and his firm opinion that he could not last more than a day, he requested me to leave him and not to allow anyone else in the room, as the trial of seeing his friends under the circumstances was too great. All he could say was: 'Tell the boys not to be discouraged on account of our misfortunes.'
-Adjutant J.C. Reiff, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry"
Word spread quickly to Ward's hometown of Allegheny City and the general Pittsburgh area, as told later by his brother, William W. Ward. The initial notice of Frank's fate was far less than hopeful, however, William was determined to see his brother again, dead or alive.
"On Friday, January 2, 1863, on my way to dinner, I met a friend, who, with a serious face, said: 'Do you know that your brother, Major Ward, was killed?' 'No,' I quickly answered. 'How do you know it?' 'A big fight is going on at Murfreesboro, and Frank was one of the first killed. You will hear soon enough,' was his reply. I turned back and was soon in the telegraph office. The face of my friend, M.C., the superintendent, was anything but encouraging. In reply to my inquiry he said: 'Your brother is no doubt killed; read this,' and handing me a copy of a telegram East, the following passage left me no hope: 'Majors (Adolph) Rosengarten and Frank B. Ward, of the Anderson Cavalry, killed.' There was something positive about the message, and with heavy heart I wended my way home to break the sad news to my parents. A bitter task it was - to tell them that their youngest son, the pride of their hearts, the hope of their declining years; the boy who had enlisted to fight the battles of his country for the preservation of the Union - and that, too, with an elder brother in the rebel ranks - to tell them that he was no more. I will not dwell on the sad scene which followed. Its counterpart has been witnessed in thousands of family circles in the past two years. That night I watched the telegrams closely, but found not a ray of hope.
On the 3rd I got my friend Mr. Bradley, of the Fort Wayne Railroad Company, to telegraph to Louisville in regard to sending for the body. The answer came from Col. J.B. Anderson: 'Major B. is interested with sending for the body of Major (Adolph) Rosengarten. Shall I send metallic coffin for body of Major Ward?' I answered, 'Yes.' On Sunday, the 4th, I searched every paper I could get, but without any encouragement. At the telegraph office I was told that there was no doubt of Frank's being killed, as a number of messages had gone over the line in which it was repeated, but just as I started to leave the office the operator called me and read the following:
Nashville, January 4th.
Your brother, Major F.B. Ward, was seriously wounded on December 29th. You had better come on.
(Marcelin) De Coursey
Knowing the author, I did not hesitate a minute. It was well on to 11 P.M., but I found my partner, around business, and without luggage, started to the depot. I left Pittsburg at 1:40 A.M., on the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad. Through the kindness of Mr. Augustus Bradley, the superintendent, I had a state-room, and one just as comfortable as on a steamboat... I took the train for Indianapolis and Louisville, where I arrived on the 6th instant, at 5 A.M., and proceeded to the National Hotel... I got the morning papers, but found in them no comfort for my particular case. Shortly after breakfast an incident occurred which cheer me a little. A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer went up to an officer and shook him heartily by the hand, saying: 'Why, Adjutant! We have had you killed a month ago. I wrote a sketch of your life and particulars of your death, as given to me by the best authority.' The officer said he had heard himself that he was among the dead, but to the best of his belief and feelings he was a mighty live man yet. Surely, thought I, there is hope for me yet.
Finding that I could not leave Louisville without a pass from General (Jeremiah) Boyle, whose office was not open until 11, I sauntered up to the depot and called on Colonel (John) Anderson, the Military Superintendent of the L.&N.R.R., who told me he had sent a colored man on with coffins for Majors Rosengarten and Ward. When I told him that my brother was alive at last accounts, he seemed much pleased, and said he hoped he might not need the coffin for many years...
On the 8th we were all at the cars long before they were ready to move, and crowding in got started at 10 A.M. At the next station we took on a colored man who had two coffins in charge, one marked 'Major Rosengarten' and the other 'Major Ward.' This certainly looked like death, but, knowing the circumstances, I tried to keep up a good heart. I saw the colored man at once. His name was Andrew Trabur, and when I told him I had strong hopes of finding Major Ward living, he wished me success. I arranged to meet him in Nashville. At Bowling Green two officers got aboard who had left Nashville that morning. On inquiring of one of them, Captain R., he told me that Major Ward was undoubtedly dead. He had heard so officially the day before. With a sad heart I took my seat, and the silence of my companions told me, stronger than words cold express, that they shared my sorrow. We arrived at Nashville at 7 P.M., and hurting to the Commercial Hotel I soon had a room engaged - the last one to be had in the house. We were told that we would have to go to a restaurant for supper, which I did. Eating a very frugal meal at a very luxurious price, I was soon out to hunt for the Major.
I first started to the St. Cloud Hotel, thinking that some of the officers there could tell me something about him. I met with no success, and was crossing the street to go to the Medical Directory, when I heard a familiar voice call my name. I had not heard that voice for more than a year, and although it was dark and 600 miles from where I last heard it, I at once recognized it as the voice of my old chum Will, now Lieutenant McClure. From him I learned that my brother was alive, and from all accounts had a chance of recovery, but, strange to say, he could not be found. 'Come along with me and see Mrs. B.; she is a great friend of Frank's, and knows more about it than anyone else.' In a few minutes I was in Mrs. B.'s parlor, listening to her story, which ran thus:
Dr. Kelly, one of our army Surgeons with whom she was well acquainted, had dressed Frank's wounds on the second day after he was shot. He was then at a house near Murfreesboro. Although so badly wounded as to be thought mortally so by some, Dr. Kelly thought with his youth and powerful constitution he might get through. Only two days ago a Surgeon, who was out in front and had brought a lot of wounded into Nashville, told Dr. Kelly that he had dressed the wounds of a Major out in the front, who was shot through the left breast; that the young man had given him directions where to send word to his friends, in case he died, and in corroboration handed Dr. Kelly a slip of paper with the following instructions: ' Dr. W.A. Ward, Pittsburg.' He further said that the Major had been brought into Nashville with other wounded, and that he was put in a private house where he would receive all attention, but he could not give Dr. Kelly the location of the house. Dr. Kelly had searched for him at the request of Mrs. B., but had not found him.
I was satisfied that Frank was now in Nashville, and started off on the hunt... With Lieutenant McClure I commence my search - first to the Medical Directory office, then to the hospitals where officers were, and every place I could think of where I might get a clue. Every now and again I would pass up the street where the principal undertaker had his store, and there on the pavement two rough coffins, each containing a metallic case, would stare me in the face - one marked 'Major Rosengarten,' the other 'Major Ward.' Oh, how those gruesome boxes worried me! I cannot describe my feelings every time I looked at them. There was my brother's coffin, and, beyond a reasonable doubt, he was alive and in the city, but where? At midnight I had to give it up for lack of chances for information. It looked as if all the principal buildings were illuminated, all in use as hospitals, and every time I would pass one of them I would naturally inquire of myself: 'Can he be there?' and then reply: 'No, at a private house...'
There were Lieutenant McClure and four others besides myself hunting the Major, but darkness came on and still no success; but the evidence was so positive that he was alive and recovering that I sought out the colored man who had the coffins in charge and told him I would not detain him longer - that he might go right East with Major Rosengarten's body, which was already in another coffin.
At the request of Lieutenant McClure and the others, I walked out to the camp of the Anderson Cavalry, to stay all night with my brother's companions in arms. After arriving at camp, and while passing up one of the streets of the tents, we heard some one say: 'Well, I saw our Major to-day, and he is doing first rate.' I was in that tent in less time than it takes to tell it and soon learned all. Captain Smith, of the Anderson Cavalry, had the day before gone out to Murfreesboro to look after the wounded, and had just returned. He found my brother at the house of Dr. (James) Manson, near where he first fell, where he was first carried and whence he had never been removed. Dr. Kelly had dressed his wounds there, as also the other Surgeon must have done, but how he came by the slip of paper I have never learned. The Captain told me that the Surgeons said my brother would recover. He had now lived eleven days. His voice was firm and he had sent in for some delicacies. He had asked if I was coming, and his comrades had told him I was, although they had not heard so... I rode back to town and turned the coffins over to the undertaker. I was glad to get rid of the sight of them, and hurried back to camp again to make an early start for the front in the morning...
We met with so many delays that it was 12 o'clock ere we were fairly started out of the city. There was not much of interest until we were five miles out, and then a dead horse here and there, with occasionally a grave or two on either side of the road, told of the commencement of the skirmishing. Not a fence was left to show that the residences along this pike were once well improved. Those that were not removed for cavalry fighting had been used as fuel for the soldiers. The same scenes were apparent all the way to Murfreesboro, only increasing in magnitude with every mile of approach...
We were soon at the front of the house, where a slave, was waiting. He had heard of me from one of the men who arrived before I did, and he it was who was nursing the Major. He was all anxiety. 'Has the Major' brudder come? Is he coming? I wants to see him.' Telling him who I was, he shook my hand and was out of sight in an instant. One of the men who was in the room with Frank when old Martin, the slave, came up said he did not think Martin took more than two steps up the whole flight of stairs to tell the good news. He stepped up to the bed and said: 'Major, your brudder's comin'. He'll soon be here. Ise so glad.' The host, Dr. Manson, met me at the gate, and to my inquiry, 'How is my brother?' said: 'Very feeble just now. I have just dressed his wounds and he has had a sinking spell, but is now recovering, and I am gad you are here.' He further said that he still had a chance of recovery, but that he must not be allowed to talk... He said he was shot through the left lung, the ball passing through the pericardium (the sac that holds the heart), and the water from about the heart had run out through the wound. The ball made its exit under his left shoulder blade, making a ghastly wound there... The doctor told me to go up and see him, and I was soon beside his bed. He stretched out his hand, and, with a good voice, said: 'How are you, Will? I'm glad to see you. How are they at home?' I told him not to talk and I would tell him all about home, which I did... Poor fellow! When I last saw him, not two months before, he weighed 175 pounds, and being six feet two inches in his socks, was as fine a specimen of the physical man as could be found anywhere; but twelve days of bleeding and suffering of the worst kind had altered him until he looked twice his age... I had found the boy alive, but that was all.
My other erring brother was not many miles off, for shortly after the Major was brought to this very house I was now in some rebel troops came up and took prisoners all that were in it, excepting my brother Frank and a comrade who escaped by a little strategy. Among the rebels was a Captain of the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry, the same regiment to which my brother Charlie belonged. Mrs. Manson, the lady of the house, sent word by this Captain to Charlie that his brother was in a dying condition in her house, but before he had time to respond to the call, our troops were in possession again of the house, and this prevented a meeting of the brothers who were fighting against each other - the one for the cause of liberty and the preservation of the Union, the other for a cursed aristocracy. Poor, blind, misguided man! May he soon leave a hopeless and wicked cause, and by some means retrieve his acts!
I sent the nurse to bed, after getting directions what to do. Frank wanted to talk, but I would stop him, and every now and then he would ask for water. Two full canteens were kept hanging at the head of the bed, and inserting a rubber tube in the canteen he would take the other end in his mouth and drink, although every swallow was a painful one. He now commenced to doze, and when half asleep would dream and be delirious... Sometimes he would imagine himself on the field where he fell, and would give orders again... Through the night I had written a long letter home, encouraging them there, for now that my hopes were raised, I thought he would get well...
About 6 o'clock I got up, and Mr. (John) Skillen told me that he had not been so well for the past three hours, but that he would no doubt soon rally. I did not fear anything immediately, as I knew from experience that the hours from 2 A.M. until daylight are the hardest on sick persons. So, after speaking to him occasionally, I went downstairs to breakfast. We were seated but a few moments, and I was just putting my cup of coffee to my lips, when a hand was laid on my shoulder. I turned round and met the gaze of Dr. Manson, who said: 'You had better come upstairs, your brother is dying.' For the first time I felt crushed... I was soon at his side, and reaching out his hand to me he grasped mine and said in a calm, clear voice: 'Will, I am dying. Say good-bye for me to all at home.' Completely unmanned, I was like a little child. He threw his arms around my neck, and kissing me, said: 'Cheer up, Will! Don't cry! Cheer up! Tell Charlie I died like a man.' I said: 'Frank, are you afraid to die?' A sweet smile spread over his face, and with a firm voice he said, 'No sir,' in a tone that made all feel it deeply...
He bade each of his comrades good-bye, as though he were going away on a visit, and seeing old Martin, the faithful slave who had nursed him, he held out his hand and, taking Martin's, said: 'Good-bye, Martin;' then bade the doctor and his family farewell... His calmness and resignation overcame everyone in the room. Shortly afterward he released his arms from about my neck, and his lower limbs were then icy cold. Beckoning to Lieutenant McClure, who was on the other side of him, he said: 'Straighten my legs.' His knees had been drawn up in bed and he had not power to straighten them out. He made a motion for us to get away from before him; he wanted air and light. So drawing the curtains and hoisting the window, a stream of strong sunlight beamed in on his suffering form, and lingering thus for nearly half an hour, between life and death, we hardly knew when he ceased to breathe, until Captain Smith took down a little round shaving glass, and holding it to his lips it showed no moisture. Thus he died - another victim to the plots of the disunionists...
In a short time they brought the body down, dressed only in drawers and shirt; everything else was gone. I would not wait to make a box, so, wrapping a blanket around him, after binding the jaw and limbs, they put him in the ambulance... In a short time we were on ground that told of severe fighting, and after wandering over field after field, and seeing corpses that had lain unburied for ten days, we came to the spot where the brave Andersons made their fearful charge. The men first recognized the spot by the black horse Major Rosengarten rode... the horse was killed first, he afterward... The ground seemed to be sacred. Here my two brothers had met, not to know each other, for the last time on earth...
Feeling very sore and not able to ride horseback to Nashville, I had made arrangements to ride in the military mail, and left instructions to call me early... Arriving at Nashville, at noon, I went at once to the undertaker's and found my brother's body in the coffin I had at first sent for him... His comrades had shaven him and put on a clean linen shirt and collar, so that he looked much more like himself than when he died... How different was this evening from that of the 9th, when we were all in high spirits at the prospects of the Major's recovery! We walked into town to the depot, where I found my brother's body as well as that of (Lieutenant) Colonel (Peter) Housen (Housum), of the Seventy-Seventh Pennsylvania, which I had agreed to take home to his friends. Seeing the coffins put on safely, I took my seat in this car, and was soon leaving Nashville at the rate of twenty miles per hour.
We arrived in Pittsburg on the 16th, just eleven hours behind time. I expected the bodies by the next train, but they did not arrive, and on telegraphing to Cincinnati I learned that they had not arrived there yet. They finally reached here on Monday evening, the 19th. We opened, at the depot, the rough box and took out the metallic coffin. On removing the covering from the glass plate I found that Frank looked even more natural than when first put in the coffin. While in the snowstorm the body was no doubt frozen and had that appearance. We put the coffin in the hearse and took him home, but how unlike the return for which we had hoped!
We buried him the next day, in the afternoon. It was a rainy, sleeting day, horrible under foot. The military turned out, and the first notes of the 'Dead March' from a full band made us more mournfully realize than before that we had seen him for the last time on earth. When about half way to the cemetery we passed the railroad depot where Frank was employed at the breaking out of the war. The flag was at half-mast, and quite a procession of the workmen who knew him, and had worked there under him, joined the cortege at this point, and notwithstanding the dreadful weather, walked the whole distance. These men had left their work to show their respect for him, and it was a tribute that his friends appreciated more than any other shown his memory. The ceremonies at the grave were, like all other military funerals when well conducted, very impressive. The last salute, fired after we got back to the carriages, told us that all was now over."
Frank Biddle Ward was laid to rest by his family in Lawrenceville's Allegheny Cemetery, where he remains to this day. His Cavalry Officer dress hat and shoulder straps are available for public view at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.
Kirk, Charles H. History of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. 1906.
“Major Frank B. Ward.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, 13 Jan. 1863.