Oliver Otis Howard

Oliver Otis Howard

Oliver Otis Howard was born in Leeds, Maine, on 8th November, 1830. Educated at Bowdoin College he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point in 1855. After two years in the army he returned to the military academy to teach mathematics.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War, Howard, an opponent of slavery, resigned his regular army commission and became colonel of the Third Maine Volunteers in the Union Army.

Howard fought at the Bull Run (July, 1861) and accompanied George McClellan on his Peninsular Campaign. During the battle at Fair Oaks (May, 1862), Howard was badly wounded and had to have his right arm amputated. Howard also took part the the battles at Antietam (September, 1862), Fredericksburg (December, 1862), Chancellorsville (May, 1863) and Gettysburg (May, 1863). Promoted to the rank of major general, Howard commanded the Army of Tennessee under William T. Sherman during his Atlanta Campaign in 1864.

After the war President Andrew Johnson appointed Howard as commissioner of the Freedom Bureau. His first task was to provide food and medical facilities for former slaves. In 1867, with the support of Radical Republicans in Congress, helped establish Howard University and for five years served as its president (1869-74).

Howard returned to military service and fought in the Indian Wars before serving as superintendent at West Point (1880-82). After leaving the army he continued his campaign to improve the quality of African American education in the Deep South and founded the Lincoln Memorial University, in Harrogate, Tennessee (1895).

Howard also wrote several books including Chief Joseph (1881), Zachary Taylor (1892), Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard (1907) and Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known (1908). Oliver Otis Howard died on 26th October, 1909.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) While at West Point Oliver Howard campaigned against conservatism in the United States Army. He wrote about these events in his autobiography published in 1907.

One thing that troubled me was class distinction, which seemed to intense for our republican ideas, and, indeed, made the army itself disliked by the people at large. While considering this subject in 1858 I wrote an article entitled Discipline in the Army. There I advocated with as much force as I could a paternal system. I endeavored to show that the general who cared for his men as a father cares for his children, providing for all their wants and doing everything he could for their comfort consistent with their strict performance of duty, would be the most successful; that his men would love him; would follow him readily and be willing even to sacrifice their lives while enabling him to accomplish a great patriotic purpose.

(2) Oliver Howard remembers going home for the first time after deciding to join the Union Army in May, 1861.

Before entering my front gate, I raised my eyes and saw the picture of my little family framed in by the window. Home, family, comfort, beauty, joy, love were crowded into an instant of thought and feeling, as I sprang through the door and quickly ascended the stairway.

My wife was patriotic, strong for the integrity of the Union, full of the heroic spirit, so when the crisis came, though so sudden and hard to bear, she said not one adverse word. I saw her watch me as I descended the slope toward the ferry landing, looked back, and waved my hat as I disappeared behind the ledge and trees.

(3) Oliver Howard described taking his regiment, Third Maine Volunteers, on the way to Washington in June, 1861.

At railroad stations in Maine, on the approach and departure of our trains, there was abundant cheering and words of encouragement. However, here and there were discordant cries. Few, indeed, were the villages where no voice of opposition was raised. But, later in the war, in the free States after the wounding and the death of fathers, brothers, and sons, our sensitive, afflicted home people would not tolerate what they called traitorous talk.

(4) In his autobiography Oliver Howard described fighting at Bull Run on 21st July, 1861.

I saw Burnside's men, who had come back from the field with their muskets gleaming in the sunshine. They had some appearance of formation and were resting on their arms. I noticed other troops more scattered; ambulances in long columns leaving the field with the wounded. There were men with broken arms; faces with bandages stained with blood; bodies pierced; many were walking or limping to the rear; meanwhile shells were shrieking and breaking in the heated air. I was sorry, indeed, that those left of my men had to pass that ordeal.

When forming, I so stationed myself, mounted, that the men, marching in twos, should pass me. I closely observed them. They were pale and thoughtful. Many looked up into my face and smiled. As soon as it was ready the first line swept up the slope, through a sprinkling of trees, out into an open space on high ground. An enemy's battery toward our front and some musketry shots with no enemy plainly in sight caused the first annoyance. Soon another battery off to our right coming into position increased the danger. And, worse than the batteries, showers of musket balls from the wood, two hundred yards away.

Many officers labored to keep their men together, but I saw could effect nothing under fire. At last I ordered all to fall back to the valley and reform behind the thicket. Before many minutes, however, it was evident that a panic had seized all the troops within sight. Some experienced veteran officers, like Heintzelman, entreated and commanded their subordinates, by turns, to rally their men; but nothing could stop the drift and eddies of the masses that were faster and faster flowing toward the rear.

Captain Heath, of the Third Maine, who, promoted subsequently to lieutenant colonel and fell in the battle of Gaines Mills, walked for some time by my horse and shed tears as he talked to me: "My men will not stay together, Colonel, they will not obey me," he said. Other brave officers pleaded and threatened. Surgeons staying back pointed to their wounded and cried: "for God's sake, stop; don't leave us!" Nothing could at that time reach and influence the fleeing crowds except panicky cries like: "The enemy is upon us! We shall be taken!" These cries gave increase to confusion and speed to flight.

Heintzelman, with his wounded arm in a sling, rode up and down and made a last effort to restore order. He sharply reprimanded every officer he encountered. He swore at me. From time to time I renewed my attempts. My brother, C. H. Howard, if he saw me relax for a moment, sang out: "Oh, do try again!" Part of the Fourteenth New York from Brooklyn rallied north of Bull Run and were moving on in fine shape. "See them," said my brother; "let us try to form like that!" So we were trying, gathering a few, but in vain. Then I stopped all efforts, but sent out this message and kept repeating it to every Maine and Vermont man within reach: "To the old camp at Centreville. Rally at the Centreville camp."

(5) In July, 1861, Oliver Howard joined the Army of Potomac under the command of General George McClellan.

My first sight of McClellan was in 1850, when I was a cadet at West Point. He had then but recently returned from Mexico, where he had gained two brevets of honor. He was popular and handsome and a captain of engineers, and if there was one commissioned officer more than another who had universal notice among the young gentlemen of the academy it was he, himself a young man, a staff officer of a scientific turn who had been in several battles and had played everywhere a distinguished part.

Eleven years later, after his arrival in Washington, July 23, 1861, an occasion brought me, while standing amid a vast multitude of other observers, a fresh glimpse of McClellan. He was now a major general and fittingly mounted. His record, from a brilliant campaign in West Virginia, and the urgent demand of the Administration for the ablest military man to lift us up from the valley of our existing humiliation, instantly brought this officer to the knowledge and scrutiny of the Government and the people.

(6) In his autobiography published in 1907 General Oliver Howard commented on the way that Abraham Lincoln treated General George McClellan during the early months of 1862.

Mr. Lincoln evidently had begun to distrust McClellan. There was growing opposition to him everywhere for political reasons. Think of the antislavery views of Stanton and Chase; of the growing antislavery sentiments of the congressional committee on the conduct of war; think of the number of generals like Fremont, Butler, Banks, Hunter, and others in everyday correspondence with the Cabinet, whose convictions were already strong that the slaves should be set free; think, too, of the Republican press constantly becoming more and more of the same opinion and the masses of the people really leading the press. McClellan's friends in the army had often offended the Northern press. In his name radical antislavery correspondents had been expelled from the army.

(7) In his autobiography Oliver Howard describes the aftermath of a battlefield during Peninsular Campaign.

As we approached the front a thick mist was setting in and a dark cloudy sky was over our heads, so that it was not easy at twenty yards to distinguish a man from a horse. Miles, guiding us, remarked: "General, you had better dismount and lead your horses, for the dead and wounded are here.

A peculiar feeling crept over me as I put my feet on the soft ground and followed the young officer. Some stretchers were in motion. A few friends were searching for faces they hoped to find. There were cries of delirium, calls of the helpless, the silence of the slain, and the hum of distant voices in the advancing brigade, with the intermittent rattle of musketry, the neighing of horses, and the shriller prolonged calls of the team mules, and soon the moving of lanterns guiding the bearers of the wounded to the busy surgeons.

I remember that the call of one poor fellow was insistent. He repeatedly cried: "Oh, sir! Kind sir! Come to me!" I walked over to where he lay and asked: "What regiment do you belong to?"

He answered: "The Fifth Mississippi."

I then said: "What do you want?"

He replied: "Oh, I am cold!"

I knew it was from the approach of death, but noticing that I had a blanket over him I said: "You have a good warm blanket over you." He looked toward it and said gently: "yes, some kind gentleman from Massachusetts spread his blanket over me, but, sir, I'm still cold."

A Massachusetts soldier had given his only blanket to a wounded man - a wounded enemy.

(8) In his autobiography General Oliver Howard describes how he was ordered to reinforce Brigadier General William French at Fair Oaks on 29th May, 1862.

Just as we were ready to advance, the enemy's fire began to meet us, cutting through the trees. My brown horse was wounded through the shoulder, and I had to dismount and wait for another. Turning toward the men, I saw that some had been hit and others were leaving their ranks. This was their first experience under fire. I cried out with all my might: "Lie down!" Every man dropped to the ground. In five minutes I had mounted my large grey horse, my brother (Charles Howard) riding my third and only other one, a beautiful zebra.

In order to encourage the men in a forward movement I placed myself, mounted, in front of the 64th New York, and Lieutenant Charles H. Howard, in front of the 61st New York. Every officer was directed to repeat each command. I ordered: "Forward!" and then "March!" I could hear the echo of those words and, as I started, the 64th followed me with a glad shout up the slope and through the woods.

Before reaching French's line I was wounded through the right forearm by a small Mississippi rifle ball. Lieutenant Howard just then ran to me on foot and said that the Zebra horse was killed. He took a handkerchief, bound up my arm, and then ran back to the 61st.

As the impulse was favorable to a charge I decided to go on farther, and, asking Brooke's regiment on French's left to lie down, called again: "Forward!" And on we went, pushing back the enemy and breaking through the nearest line. We pressed our way over uneven ground to the neighborhood of the crossroads.

The rear of their line was rapidly firing. My grey had his left foreleg broken and, though I was not aware of it, I had been wounded again, my right elbow having been shattered by a rifle shot. Lieutenant Howard was missing. Lieutenant William McIntyre seized me, and put me in a sheltered place on the ground. I heard him say: "General, you shall not be killed." McIntyre himself was slain near that spot, giving his life for mine. The bullets were just then raining upon our men, who without flinching were firing back.

(9) After being badly wounded at Fair Oaks, General Oliver Howard was taken to a large house that had been converted into a Union Army hospital.

Dr. Hammond, my personal friend, met me near the house, saw the blood, touched my arm, and said: "General, your arm is broken." The last ball had passed through the elbow joint and crushed the bones into small fragments. He led me to a negro hut, large enough only for a double bed. Here I lay down, alarming an aged negro couple who feared at first that some of us might discover and seize hidden treasure which was in that bed.

My brigade surgeon, Dr. Palmer, and several others soon stood by my bedside in consultation. At last Dr. Palmer, with serious face, kindly told me that my arm had better come off. "All right, go ahead," I said.

"Not before 5 p.m., general." "Why not?" "Reaction must set in." So I had to wait six hours. I had received the second wound about half-past ten. I had reached the house about eleven, and in some weakness and discomfort occupied the negro cabin till the hour appointed. At that time Dr. Palmer came with four stout soldiers and a significant stretcher. The doctor put around the arm close to the shoulder the tourniquet, screwing it tighter and tighter above the wound. They then bore me to the amputating room, a place a little gruesome with arms, legs, and hands not yet all carried off, and poor fellows with anxious eyes waiting their turn.

On the long table I was nicely bolstered; Dr. Grant, who had come from the front, relieved the too-tight tourniquet. A mixture of chloroform and gas was administered and I slept quietly. Dr. Palmer amputated the arm above the elbow. When I awoke I was surprised to find the heavy burden was gone.

(10) General Oliver Howard fought at Antietam in September, 1862. In his autobiography published in 1907, he compared the military achievements of the two opposing commanding officers, George McClellan and Robert E. Lee.

Lee's generalship at Antietam could not be surpassed; but while McClellan's plans were excellent, the tactical execution was bad. Had all of the right column been on the spot where the work was to begin, Sumner, seizing Stuart's heights by the Potomac, could have accomplished the purpose of his heart - to drive everything before him through the village of Sharpsburg and on to Burnside's front. Of course, Burnside's move should have been vigorous and simultaneous with attacks on the right. McClellan so intended. we had, however, a technical victory, for Lee withdrew after one day's delay and recrossed the Potomac.

(11) General Oliver Howard fought at Fredericksburg in December, 1862. He later wrote about how General Ambrose Burnside reacted to the defeat.

At first, Burnside, saddened by the repulse of his attacks in every part of his lines, planned another battle for the 14th. His heart naturally went out to the old Ninth Corps that he had but lately commanded.

On the 14th, while matters were in suspense, I went up into a church tower with Couch, my corps commander, and had a plain view of all the slope where the severest losses of the preceding day had occurred. We looked clear up the suburban street or deep roadway and saw the ground literally strewn with the blue uniforms of our dead.

Burnside closed this remarkable tragedy by deciding to move the night of December 15, 1862, his brave but beaten army to the north side of the Rappahannock. That work of removal was accomplished without further loss of men or material.

(12) General Oliver Howard wrote about the battle of Chancellorsville in his autobiography, Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard (1907)

It has been customary to blame me and my corps for the disaster. The imputations of neglect to obey orders; of extraordinary self-confidence; of fanatical reliance upon the God of battles; of not sending out reconnaissances; of not intrenching; of not strengthening the right dank by keeping proper reserves; of having no pickets and skirmishers; of not sending information to General Hooker, etc., etc., are far from true. My command was by positive orders riveted to that position. Though constantly threatened and made aware of hostile columns in motion, yet the woods were so dense that Stonewall Jackson was able to mass a large force a few miles off, whose exact whereabouts neither patrols, reconnaissances, nor scouts ascertained. The enemy crossing the plank road, two and a half miles off, we all saw. So the turning at the Furnace was seen by hundreds of our people; but the interpretation of these movements was certainly wrong. Yet, wherein did we neglect any precaution? It will be found that Devens kept his subordinates constantly on the qui vive; so did Schurz. Their actions and mine were identical. The Eleventh Corps detained Jackson for over an hour; part of my force was away by Hooker's orders; part of each division fought hard, as our Confederate enemies clearly show; part of it became wild with panic, like the Belgians at Waterloo, like most of our troops at Bull Run, and the Confederates, the second day, at Fair Oaks.

I may leave the whole matter to the considerate judgment of my companions in arms, simply asserting that on the terrible day of May 2, 1863, I did all which could have been done by a corps commander in the presence of that panic of men largely caused by the overwhelming attack of Jackson's 26,000 men against my isolated corps of 8,000 without its reserve thus outnumbering me 3 to 1.

There is always a theory in war which will to rest all the imputation of blame to those who do not deserve it. It is to impute the credit of one's great defeat to his enemy. I think in our hearts, as we take a candid review of everything that took place under General Hooker in the blind wilderness country around Chancellorsville, we do, indeed, impute our primary defeat to the successful effort of Stonewall Jackson, and our other checks to General Robert E. Lee.

(13) General Oliver Howard summarized the state of the Confederate Army after the battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863.

We could gather little hope from the splendid condition of Lee's army. It had been reorganized. Its numerous brigades were grouped into divisions and the divisions into three army corps, and cavalry. Stonewall Jackson, it is true, was no more, but the three lieutenant generals - Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Ewell - were not wanting in ability or experience. They were trusted by Lee and believed in by the troops and people.

(14) General Oliver Howard took part in the battle of Gettysburg. In his autobiography Howard wrote about his feelings after the battle had finished.

It is sometimes said to me that writing and speaking upon the events of war may have a deleterious influence upon youth. I can conceive of two reasons of such a warning - one, that a soldier by his enthusiasm may, even unconsciously, infuse into his writing and speech the war spirit, and thus incite strong desires in younger minds for similar excitements and deeds; and secondly, a soldier deeply affected as he must have been in our great struggle for national existence, may not take sufficient pains in his accounts of historic incidents to allay any spirit of animosity or dissension what may still exist.

But with regard to the first, I think there is need of a faithful portraiture of what we may call the after-battle, a panorama which shows with fidelity the fields covered with dead men and horses; and the wounded, numerous and helpless, stretched on the ground in masses, each waiting his turn; the rough hospitals with hay and straw for bedding, saturated with blood and wet with the rain; horses torn into fragments; every species of property ruthlessly demolished or destroyed - these, which we cannot well exaggerate, and such as these, cry out against the horrors, the hateful ravages, and the countless because of war. They show plainly to our children that war, with its embodied woes and furies, must be avoided, except as the last appeal for existence, or for the rights which are more valuable than life itself.

When I dwell on the scenes on July 4th and 5th at Gettysburg, the pictures exhibiting Meade's men and Lee's though now shadowy from time, are still full of terrible groupings and revolting lineaments.

There is a lively energy, an emulous activity, an exhilarating buoyancy of spirit in all the preparations for an expected battle, and these feelings are intensified into an increased ardor during the conflict; but it is another thing to see our comrades there upon the ground with their darkened faces and swollen forms; another thing to watch the countenances of friends and companions but lately in the bloom of health, now disfigured, torn, and writhing in death; and not less affecting to a sensitive heart to behold the multitude of strangers prone and weak, pierced with wounds, or showing broken limbs and every sign of suppressed suffering, waiting for hours and hours for a relief which is long coming - the relief of the surgeon's knife or of death.

As to the second reason, any feeling of personal resentment towards the late Confederates I would not counsel or cherish. Our countrymen - large numbers of them - combined and fought us hard for a cause. They failed and we succeeded; so that, in an honest desire for reconcilement, I would be the more careful, even in the use of terms, to convey no hatred or reproach for the past. Such are my real convictions, and certainly the intention in all my efforts is not to anger and separate, but to pacify and unite.

(15) Report on the work of the Freemen's Bureau that was signed by General Oliver Howard and Salmon P. Chase (August, 1867)

The abolition of slavery and the establishment of freedom are not the one and the same thing. The emancipated negroes were not yet really freemen. Their chains had indeed been sundered by the sword, but the broken links still hung upon their limbs. The question, "What shall be done with the negro? agitated the whole country. Some were in favour of an immediate recognition of their equal and political rights, and of conceding to them at once all the prerogatives of citizenship. But only a few advocated a policy so radical, and, at the same time, generally considered revolutionary, while many, even of those who really wished well to the negro, doubted his capacity for citizenship, his willingness to labour for his own support, and the possibility of his forming, as a freeman, an integral part of the Republic.

The idea of admitting the freedmen to an equal participation in civil and political rights was not entertained in any part of the South. In most of the States they were not allowed to sit on juries, or even to testify in any case in which white men were parties. They were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenceless against assault. Vagrant laws were passed, often relating only to the negro, or, where applicable in terms of both white and black, seldom or never enforced except against the latter.

In some States any court - that is, any local Justice of the Peace - could bind out to a white person any negro under age, without his own consent or that of his parents? The freedmen were subjected to the punishments formerly inflicted upon slaves. Whipping especially, when in some States disfranchised the party subjected to it, and rendered him for ever infamous before the law, was made the penalty for the most trifling misdemeanor.

(16) General George Crook, Autobiography (1889)

Soon after his arrival at Prescott, General Howard expressed his wish for a general council with the Indians. So word was sent to Old Camp Grant that on such a day all the Indians were to meet for a council. Our party rode on horseback from Prescott to McDowell.

I was very much amused at the General's opinion of himself. He told me that he thought the Creator had placed him on earth to be the Moses to the Negro. Having accomplished that mission, he felt satisfied his next mission was with the Indian. This struck me as particularly funny, as the "Freedmen's Bureau Denouement" was still on the mouths of everybody, and things certainly looked very bad for those connected with it, especially for General Howard. I was at loss to make out whether it was his vanity or his cheek that enabled him to hold up his head in this lofty manner.

General Howard opened the council by stating the object of the council, and informing the Indians that he had commanded 30,000 men during the war, and if they did not behave themselves and do what he told them, he would come sweeping through their country and exterminate them all.

Eskimmi-yan was the "head center" of the cut-throats there assembled, and looked at General Howard in a half-quizzical, half contemptuous and defiant manner, as much as to say, "Go to hell!" When it came Skimmy's time to talk, he evaded all the points at issue, but told General Howard that he, Skimmy, had heard all his life of a man who was so pure that the Great Spirit had kept him on an island in order that he could not witness the frailties of mortals, and that he was satisfied that Howard was that man.