William Hoffman’s Encounters with History
His Brief but Enduring Role in the Clara Barton Office Story
Michael H. Hoffman
Originally published in Special Edition 2016 in the Surgeon’s Call
William Hoffman was a 19th century U.S. Army officer well known to his contemporaries, but his eventful 40 year military career was forgotten by subsequent generations–until recently. He had many dramatic and sometimes dangerous encounters with history without ever being at the center. He came to the attention of many still-familiar figures of his generation without acquiring equivalent fame. With growing interest in social, administrative and humanitarian dimensions of Civil War history, his name has returned from obscurity, though not necessarily to the benefit of his re-remembered reputation. With the opening of the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, one brief chapter in his story does take on new meaning and importance. His collaboration with Clara Barton illustrates how effective she was in building a network of support among people who were only briefly associated with her, and no longer remembered in connection with her name and story.
Hoffman was born in New York City in 1807, grew up in military garrisons where his father served as an Army officer, and secured an appointment to West Point where he began his own long and eventful military career.[i] Among other cadets that he came to know from his class of 1829 were Virginians Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee. He served in the Black Hawk War and was brevetted twice for distinguished combat service in the Mexican War.[ii] He was a blunt, tenacious officer willing to incur the ire of the military establishment. This gained him some national attention following the Grattan Massacre.
In August 1854, Lieutenant John Grattan impulsively led 29 soldiers from Fort Laramie into an unnecessary confrontation with Sioux warriors in a dispute over compensation for a stolen cow. Grattan and his men were all killed in the ensuring fight, and Major Hoffman was sent to assume command of Laramie following this disastrous event. While others argued that the massacre proved the Army needed to expand, Hoffman sent a stream of correspondence back to Washington insisting it actually demonstrated the need to place more experienced and senior officers in command on the frontier. His persistence earned the ire of senior Army leaders and even came to the personal, disapproving attention of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. In the end, though, Davis and Hoffman’s superior officers in Washington backed down.[iii] Hoffman went on to play an active role in military operations in the Southwest until the eve of the Civil War, when he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and assigned to command the 8th U.S. Infantry in Texas.[iv]
He arrived at his duty station just as U.S. forces in Texas surrendered. He spent the opening months of the war sidelined and unable to command his regiment while they waited to secure parole and leave Texas.[v] The regimental Sergeant-Major later wrote approvingly that “Although not being permitted to exercise any authority over his old command, he nevertheless gave us many words of encouragement to remain steadfast to the flag…”[vi]
Following his release, Hoffman was promoted to Colonel in April 1862 but not formally exchanged until August.[vii] He was then tapped to serve as Commissary-General of Prisoners, a daunting assignment which made him responsible for oversight of all prisons run by the Army during the Civil War.[viii] Colonel Hoffman recognized the unique logistical and managerial challenges he faced, and the lack of guidance to go with them. “My duties are entirely unique to the service,” he wrote, “and I have at no time received special instructions.”[ix] Though an able officer, he never seemed to grasp the extent to which the health, well-being, and ultimate survival of Confederate prisoners held by the Union relied on his determination to enforce humane living conditions and ensure that adequate provisions reached them. Hoffman is returning to historical memory as a controversial figure, sometimes blamed for much unnecessary suffering and mortality in Union prisons.[x]
By late 1864, he had been promoted to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General in recognition of his vast responsibilities. In late February of 1865, Clara Barton approached him about her plan to begin work among the emaciated Federal troops being brought to Annapolis for care after their release from Confederate prisons. She wanted to go to Annapolis, conduct inquiries among them about missing soldiers, and deliver any news of the missing men to their anxious families. Brevet Brigadier General Hoffman did not offer to endorse her plan initially, though she may have been reassured when he told her that he did not oppose her pursuing the idea with other officials.[xi]
Meanwhile, he did offer some important practical support for her efforts. On February 24, 1865, Hoffman wrote to Colonel F. D. Sewall, Commander at Camp Parole in Annapolis, with the following instructions:
“Miss Clara Barton, who will hand this to you, desires to be the means of informing the friends of prisoners who have been in the hands of the enemy of their fate, as far as it can be learned by inquiries of those who are now arriving in Annapolis on the parole from the South. Please permit her to post notices in the barracks asking for information concerning such prisoners as she may have occasion to inquire for, and if it is practicable to give her any information from your records without interfering with the necessary course of business, I request that you will communicate such as she may desire in general terms, not giving particulars on which to base a claim for pay or allowances. Report after trial of a few days how far these instructions can be carried out without inconvenience and wait for final approval.”[xii]
Barton’s persistence paid off, and eventually Hoffman endorsed her plan along with other senior officers including General Grant.[xiii] His role in establishing the Missing Soldiers Office and brief association with Clara Barton was over, but he deserves credit for being the official who first facilitated her work on behalf of missing soldiers. After the war Hoffman returned west to serve as regimental and garrison commander at Fort Leavenworth.
During his tenure at that post, he served on the famous Court Martial Board that tried and convicted George Custer,[xiv] and then ended his long career on a sour note. Colonel Benjamin Grierson was forming one of the newly authorized regiments of African-American soldiers at Fort Leavenworth (now immortalized as the Buffalo Soldiers.) Hoffman held deep racial prejudices that over-rode his usual sense of duty. Rather than accept that social transformation required him to adjust to new realities, Hoffman balked at his responsibility to help ensure efficient incorporation of Grierson’s regiment into the Army. Hoffman harried Grierson and his regiment with endless complaints and criticism. This culminated in a confrontation between Hoffman and Grierson on the parade fields at Fort Leavenworth.[xv] Fortunately Grierson prevailed in establishing his soon-to-be-famous unit in the Army, and Colonel Hoffman retired from the service in 1870, holding the additional rank (attained towards the end of the Civil War) of Brevet Major General.[xvi]
Hoffman settled quietly into civilian life in Rock Island, IL,[xvii] and remained there until his death on August 12, 1884.[xviii] He had been a good fit for the small pre-Civil War Regular Army. However, he didn’t fully adjust to the logistical and operational demands of the Civil War. He failed, completely, when it came to overcoming his prejudices and adjusting to new professional responsibilities and relationships following the end of slavery. His support for Clara Barton’s initiative on behalf of missing soldiers and their families does deserve to be remembered as an important humanitarian contribution. It carries new relevance in light of modern interest in humanitarian dimensions of the Civil War and the recent reopening of the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office, almost precisely 150 years after he lent his crucial support to her work.
[i] Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. June 17, 1885. (Evening News, Printers and Binders, 1885), “Necrology of William Hoffman,” pp. 36-37.
[ii]George W. Cullum, Biographical Register Of The Officers and Graduates Of The U.S. Military Academy At West Point From Its Establishment In 1802, To 1890. Third Edition, Vol. 1, Nos. 1-1000. (Houghton, Mifflin and Co. The Riverside Press, 1891) p.433. This biography available online at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924092703929;view=1up;seq=442 , last accessed February 28, 2016.
[iv] For a readily accessible summary of his career and promotion history, see Hoffman biography on the website of the Military Society of the Mexican War, http://www.aztecclub.com/bios/hoffman.htm, last accessed February 28, 2016.
[x] For a summary of the controversy surrounding Hoffman’s work as Commissary General of Prisoners, see James M. Gillispie, Andersonvilles of the North: Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners, (University of North Texas Press, 2008), pp. 75-76.
About the Author
Michael H. Hoffman, JD, is an educator and attorney with over 35 years of experience in the field of international humanitarian law. He serves as a volunteer advisor to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, where he is assisting with the development of exhibits and programs for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. He has no known family ties to William Hoffman.