By Karen Zautyk
(Note: Last week’s lead story in The Observer dealt with the recent Civil War encampment in Kearny to celebrate the Sesquicentennial and also the long-vanished Old Soldiers’ Home. Below is a feature I wrote for our May 25, 2011, edition in advance of Memorial Day — noting it was “a story of a veteran, a supremely sad story with a Kearny connection.” In honor of 2017 Veterans Day, I thought it was worth repeating.)
It happened nearly 100 years ago and is one of those incidents easily lost in time, if not for three things: The New York Times, the Internet and serendipity. But it and the veteran deserve to be remembered.
I was doing a bit of web research on the Old Soldiers’ Home, which used to be located on Belgrove Drive, where Veterans Field is now. From 1887 until it closed in 1932, it housed veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I. During a Google search, up popped a link that said, “WALK KILLS OLD SOLDIER.”
Intrigued, I clicked on it, and there was another link, to a N.Y. Times article bearing the headline above and dated July 25, 1913. The subhead read: “Rejected at Kearny Home, He Tried to Return to Middletown, N.Y.”
Now, it must be noted that The Times story carried no byline and contained no attributions to back up its stated facts, but that was par for the course in 1913 journalism, even at The Times. You can make your own call, but I prefer to believe the account is accurate.
The article concerned a Civil War veteran named Thomas Ward, a member of Co. B of the First New Jersey Cavalry, who had fought at Gettysburg, Shiloh and Bull Run. One can infer he was a New Jersey native, but after the war, he settled up in Middletown, which is about 20 miles west of West Point. And about 70 miles from Kearny.
Google says you can drive the distance in an hour and 20 minutes. I don’t know how long it would take to walk from there — and back. Especially if you were 75 years old, as Ward was.
According to the article, Ward had hiked all the way down to Kearny in hopes of gaining admission to the Old Soldiers’ Home. It had to have taken him considerable time, and it appears he slept “rough,” without shelter. The story said that, on the night before “last Decoration Day” [which is what Memorial Day was originally called], Ward had been found “sleeping near the graves of his dead comrades in Cedar Lawn Cemetery, Paterson.”
I am presuming The Times was referring to Decoration Day 1913 and that Ward had been en route to Kearny at the time.
The septuagenarian made it here, finally, only to be turned away. The article notes that Ward “had lost his discharge papers, and the authorities of the home refused to accept him.”
So what did the old man do?
“He then started to walk back to Middletown but was overcome on his way.”
On July 19, an ailing Ward was found in the backyard of a home at 57 S. Second St. in Lakeview, which is described as being “near” Passaic. I could find no Lakeview on a map, or any reference to its location, so I called Passaic County Historian Edward Smyk. He said it probably referred to the Lakeview section of Paterson.
That makes sense, since Ward was likely retracing the route he had taken to get to Kearny.
He was brought to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Paterson, “where he grew steadily weaker” and died on the night of July 23, 1913.
Ward was a soldier who had marched with Sherman to the sea. But he could not survive this final march.
As I said earlier, this story could easily have been lost.
I believe things happen for a reason. Google results change their listing order all the time, but this week, “WALK KILLS OLD SOLDIER” happened to be on the first page. On a day I happened to be looking for the Kearny Old Soldiers’ Home references.
(Note: In 2011, I ended the article with a reference to that week’s upcoming Memorial Day Parade, “which ends on Belgrove Drive, across from the site of the Old Soldiers’ Home, where Ward had been turned away 98 years ago.” And, I added: “Maybe he’ll be there again, watching. Maybe he’ll know that at least one person in the crowd is thinking of him. For on this Memorial Day, and on subsequent ones, I shall remember Thomas Ward and his futile, heartbreaking, fatal journey.”)