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Brigadier-General Oliver Otis Howard


BRIGADIER-GENERAL OLIVER OTIS HOWARD, "the Havelock of the American Union Army," was born at Leeds, Kennebec county, Maine, on the 8th of November, 1830, the eldest of three children of parents in moderate, but independent, circumstances. Working upon the farm until his tenth year, he was then, by his father's death, left in the care of an uncle, Hon. John Otis, of Hallowell, Maine. Having attained a good common-school education, he, in 1846, matriculated at Bowdoin College, from which he graduated at the head of his class in 1830. Entering immediately the United States Military Academy at West Point, he graduated from that institution in June, 1854, with the fourth rank in his class. He was assigned to the Ordnance Department, with brevet rank of second lieutenant, served in Texas and Florida, and was subsequently transferred to the United States arsenal at Augusta, Georgia; and from thence to the arsenal at Watervliet, Maine. On the 1st of July, 1855, he was made a second lieutenant by promotion; and on the 1st of July, 1857, promoted to be first lieutenant, and appointed Acting Assistant Professor of Mathematics at West Point, which position he held at the commencement of the rebellion. On the 28th of May, 1861, he resigned his professorship and accepted a commission as colonel of the third Maine volunteers, the first three years regiment that left that State; and, as senior colonel, led a brigade at the battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861. The gallantry and ability manifested on that occasion secured for him (September 3d) the rank of brigadier-general, and he was placed in command of a brigade in General Casey's provisional division, to which was then intrusted the charge of the national capital. In the following December, he was assigned to General Sumner's command, the first brigade of the first division of the second army corps, in McClellan's Peninsula campaign. 

At Fair Oaks, June 1, 1862, while gallantly leading a decisive charge, he was struck in the right arm by two bullets, one near the wrist and the other at the elbow; he did not leave the field, however, until wounded a second time, when he was obliged to go to the rear and submit to an amputation of the limb. In the words of a friend, "Weak and fainting from hemorrhage and the severe shock which his system had sustained, the next day he started for his home in Maine. He remained there only about two months, during which time he was not idle. Visiting various localities in his native State, he made patriotic appeals to the people to come forward and sustain the Government. 

Pale, emaciated, and with one sleeve tenantless, he stood up before them, the embodiment of all that is good and true and noble in manhood. He talked to them as only one truly loyal can talk—as one largely endowed with that patriotism which is a heritage of New England blood. Modesty, sincerity and earnestness characterized his addresses, and his fervent appeals drew hundreds around the national standard.” Before he had recovered from his wound, and against the advice of his surgeon, he hastened to the front, and at the head of a brigade of the second (French's) division, (his own being temporarily commanded by General Caldwell,) he took part in the second battle of Bull Run; and in the retreat from Centreville he commanded the rear-guard. At Antietam he succeeded General Sedgwick, who was wounded, in commend of his division. On the 13th of December, at the battle of Fredericksburg, he led his division, in support of General French's, in the heroic charge made upon the rebel position in the rear of that city. In this attempt—in which the Union troops, in the words of their commander, "did all that men could do—Howard's brigade alone lost nearly a thousand men."

During the succeeding winter he held the command of the second division of the second corps; and, in April, 1863, was confirmed as major-general of volunteers (his commission dating from the 29th of the preceding November), and was transferred to the command of the eleventh corps, thereby relieving General Sigel. His new command was composed of German troops, many of whom could not even speak the English language, and all enthusiastically devoted to their former commander, who, for some inscrutable governmental reason, had so suddenly been taken away from them. With these men, good and true soldiers, yet demoralized to a certain degree by the change of command, and before time had been afforded to him for re-organizing them or becoming better known to them, General Howard was fated to meet the first onset of the rebel attack at Chancellorsville. Under the unexpected and crushing blow, and despite the heroic endeavors of Howard himself, they broke and ran, causing a panic which had well nigh proved the irretrievable ruin of the whole Union army.

The eleventh and its commander keenly felt the dishonor of this day—but the noble-hearted and patient Lincoln's confidence in the subject of our sketch was unshaken, and when a change of commanders was urged, he simply replied, "Howard will bring it up to the work, only give him time." And splendidly did Howard and his men redeem their credit upon the battle field of Gettysburg, on the first, second, and third of July, 1863. It was to his happy forethought, on the first day of that battle, in seizing Cemetery Hill, that we may in a great measure, attribute the favorable results of the fighting on the two succeeding days. It " was one of those divine inspirations on which destinies turn," giving him a stronghold of defence and shelter, when, as he must have foreseen, and as happened three hours later, he was obliged to retire in the face of an enemy more than double his own number. And, on this hill, the natural centre of the Union lines, the eleventh corps, burning to wipe out the memory of Chancellorsville, met and terribly repulsed the brunt of the attack by the rebel General Ewell's division, at sunset of the second day. On the third day of this terrible fight, Howard's corps still held the same position, grimly watching the sublime panorama of battle which unrolled before them. "I have seen many men in action," wrote an eye-witness, "but never one so imperturbably cool as this general of the eleventh corps. I watched him closely as a minie whizzed overhead. I dodged, of course. I never expect to get over that habit. But I am confident that he did not move a muscle by the fraction of a hair's breadth." At last, however, came the furious final charge of the desperate veterans of Lee's army, recklessly bent on obtaining possession of Cemetery Hill. Two hundred and fifty cannon concentrated their uninterrmitted and terrific fire upon the Union centre (Howard's position) and the left—but Howard simply ordered one after another of his guns to be quiet, as if silenced by the enemy's fire, and his gunners flung themselves flat upon the ground. Suddenly, as the rebel line, in huge semicircular sweep, reached the Emmetsburg road, the Germans of the eleventh corps sprang to their guns, and along the whole front of the Union centre and left, more than four miles long—there rained such a storm of fiery, pitiless hail of death-bolts upon the advancing foe, as swept away not only the last hope of the Confederate chieftain, but, almost literally, his best army. Gettysburg was won, and the North was saved. President Lincoln sent to Howard an autograph letter of thanks for his inestimable services, and Congress passed a vote of similar import. General Hancock having been severely wounded in this battle, the command of his corps (the second) was given to  Howard.

In the fall of 1863, after the battle of Chickamauga, Generals Howard and Hooker, with their corps, were sent to reinforce Rosecrans, in Tennessee, and at Chattanooga came under the command of General Grant, who had then recently assumed the leadership of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Here it was, also, that Howard became acquainted with General Sherman, and laid the foundation of an intimacy which increased until the close of the war. Together they led their respective corps in the assault upon Fort Buckner, on the second day of the battle for the possession of Mission Ridge (November 23, 1863), and it was Howard's cavalry which contributed largely to the more complete discomfiture of the routed rebels, by the destruction of the Dalton and Cleveland railroad. In the long and severe march of Sherman, to the relief of General Burnside, at Knoxville, in December, 1863, General Howard bore a conspicuous part, winning the highest commendation for fidelity and intelligence from Sherman, who says, in his official report: " In General Howard throughout, I found a polished and Christian gentleman, exhibiting the highest and most chivalrous traits of the soldier." During the whole of General Sherman's march to Atlanta (May to August, 1864), General Howard and his men did splendid service. During the siege of that place, the brave and beloved General McPherson was killed on the 21st of July, and his command, that of the Army of the Tennessee, was given, by the President, at General Sherman's request, to Major-General Howard. In the opening movement (on the 29th of August) of General Sherman's feint towards raising the siege of Atlanta, General Howard's column was fiercely attacked by S. D. Lee and Hardee's rebel corps, but repulsed them with terrible slaughter; and again, at Jonesboro, on the 31st of August, he dealt to Hood's army the last crushing blow, which drove him routed from Atlanta, thenceforth open to the Union troops.

In Sherman's " March to the Sea," from Atlanta to Savannah, Major-General Howard led the right wing, marching down the Macon road, destroying the railroad, and scattering the rebel cavalry—and passing through Jackson, Monticello, and Hillsboro, to Milledgeville, the capital of the State, where he was joined by the left wing of the array, under General Slocum. From Millen, the united army moved down on either bank of the Ogeechee river, and Howard's column, by the 8th of December, had reached and seized the Gulf railroad, within twenty miles of Savannah. On the night of the 9th, Howard communicated, by scouts, with a Union gunboat lying two miles below Fort McAllister—which shortly after fell into the hands of the Union troops—and Generals Sherman and Howard went down to the fleet in a small boat, where they met Admiral Dahlgren. Their great work was done, and Savannah was a splendid Christmas gift to the President, and to the nation.*   [Footnote: *A story is told of this boat voyage, which illustrates, to some extent, the characters of both General Sherman and General Howard. On finding the fort carried, and his army again in communication with the Union army and navy, General Sherman was much elated and jubilant, and soon after they embarked, he said: "I feel good; I want to sing or shout, but my musical education was neglected. Boys" (to the staff officers in the boat), "can't you sing something?"  The "boys" seemed at a loss. "Howard," said the general, "I know you can sing, for I have heard you." "But, general," replied Howard, "I can't sing anything but hymn tunes. I don't know any thing else." "Those will be just as good as any thing else," said the commanding general; "sing them." And so, as they ran down to the squadron, Howard made the air vocal with "Shining Shore." "Homeward Bound," and "Rock of Ages;" the staff officers joining in, and Sherman occasionally trying a stave or two—though it was evident, as, he said, that his musical education had been neglected.]

Early in February commenced the march through the Carolinas, in which Howard again led the right wing, moving towards Beaufort, and menacing Charleston—and finally entering Columbia, the capital of the Palmetto State. Then pressing into North Carolina, they met and whipped Johnston's rebel army at Averysboro, on the 20th of March, 1865 ; and while on the march for Raleigh, on the 12th of April, were delighted by the glad news of Lee's surrender.

Congress, at the close of the march of Sherman's army to the sea, in December 1864, promoted General Howard to the rank of brigadier-general in the regular army, his commission dating from the 21st of December, 1864, and the Thirty-ninth Congress, at their first session, conferred on him the brevet rank of major-general in the regular army, dating from March 13, 1865.

When the Thirty-eighth Congress, at the suggestion of the lamented Lincoln, determined upon the organization of a "Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands," it was felt almost instinctively that General Howard was the man to be at the head of it, and no nomination made by the Secretary of War was more heartily approved than that by which he was named commissioner. Owing to the necessary duties connected with the closing up of his command of the right wing of General Sherman's army, General Howard was unable to take charge of his Bureau until May 12th, 1865. In its organization there were manifold difficulties to be overcome. The act was loosely drawn; many matters were left discretionary with the commissioner and his assistants, in which their duties should have been defined; and their authority was often insufficient to enforce measures which were necessary; still, during the first two or three years, the affairs of the Bureau were managed with a discretion, an integrity and a conscientious regard for the right in the conflicting interests of the freedman and his former master, which won for the commissioner and his subordinates the esteem and respect of the intelligent and loyal of all classes.

When President Johnson began to drift back to his old affinities with the rebels, and to sympathize with those whom he had at first so loudly proclaimed must be severely punished, the Freedmen's Bureau, and its patriotic and loyal commissioner, became objects of his utter aversion. He recommended that the Bureau should not be suffered to exist beyond the time specified in the first organic act, viz., two years; and when a new Freedmen's Bureau bill passed both houses of Congress, he vetoed it, attempting in a long argument to show the needlessness of any such Bureau of the Government. 

The bill was not passed over his veto, but later in the session a better bill, re-organizing it in some particulars, but retaining its substantial features and contemplating the retention of General Howard as commissioner, was passed by a strong vote, and when Mr. Johnson vetoed it, was passed again by the constitutional majority of two-thirds. Mr. Johnson then gave out that he had determined upon the removal of General Howard from the commissionership, but as the Tenure of Office act clearly prohibited this, he was compelled to allow him to remain, but did all that he could to hinder him from accomplishing what he desired. He was pardoned in every case in which application was made, and sometimes even without application, the most violent rebels, especially if their lands had been confiscated and were inuring to the benefit of the Freedmen's Bureau, and he invariably ruled that his pardon entitled them to the restoration of all their lands unless these had been sold for the non-payment of the direct revenue tax. This action of the President in many instances seriously crippled the usefulness of the Freedmen's Bureau, taking from it a source of legitimate revenue, and often requiring the relinquishment of lands occupied by colonies of freedmen, or for schools or churches for their intellectual or religious instruction ; but, during this period of trial, General Howard maintained a discreet and dignified course.

There is no reason to believe that he was actuated at any time by any other motive than a desire to do what he believed to be right and just to both parties with whom he had to deal—the Freedmen and the original owners of the lands and houses, who had legally forfeited them by their participation in the Rebellion. But the condition of affairs was complicated in several ways. The various missionary and benevolent organizations (nearly or quite half a score of them) had their schools and in some cases their churches among the freedmen, and they were all anxious to secure what they deemed their fair proportion of these abandoned lands and buildings for their purposes; and within reasonable limits it was right and proper that they should be thus aided, since the grants would not go to the personal emolument of the officers of the societies, but to the support of the Freedmen's schools and worship. General Howard, with undoubted good intentions, was too easily influenced, and did not administer the trust with perfect fairness, and as a result, one society, with which he was religiously affiliated, now holds these abandoned lauds and buildings by gift from him as commissioner, to the value of between two and three million dollars (some state the amount even higher), while other societies equally deserving had but a mere trifle granted them.

As was to be expected from a military officer of high rank, General Howard selected his assistant commissioners from his comrades in the army, and undoubtedly endeavored to make a judicious selection of these for the work, but in too many instances, they proved cruel oppressors of the Freedmen, and took advantage of their position to enrich themselves at the expense of those whom they were sent to protect. There were, doubtless, very many who administered their difficult task with perfect honesty and justice, but the number who did not, was so large that the title of Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau became almost a term of reproach. General Howard from an esprit du corps, which was in one view creditable to him, was very unwilling to believe any evil report concerning his old comrades, and sometimes kept them in place when he should have removed and punished them. In 1869 and 1870, the Bureau had from these causes fallen into such a condition that it was felt that its longer existence would be undesirable, and an investigation into its of affairs was ordered, which resulted in the exoneration of the commissioner from serious blame, though this result came about rather from the partial and imperfect character of the investigation, than from his entire innocence of all wrong. Among other good measures inaugurated by him during his administration of the Freedmen's Bureau, was the founding of Howard University, an institution for the higher education of men of color, of which he is the nominal president. He has been accused of transcending his powers in what he has done for this institution, but the charge has probably no sufficient foundation. The Bureau of Freedmen and Abandoned Lands is now virtually abolished, and General Howard has within a few months past been assigned to a new class of duties, the pacification of the wild and predatory tribes of the Southwest. In this work he will very probably prove more skilful than in the management of the Freedmen's Bureau, and win to himself deserved honor. The instances in our own, or in English history, where men of strictly military education who have risen to high command in the army, have proved good civil administrators, have been so few that it is greatly to be desired for their own sakes, as well as as for the nation's sake, that the experiment may never again be tried.

General Howard in the army was one of our ablest officers, a Chevalier Bayard, sans pear et sans reproche; as an administrative officer, he has, to say the least, won no laurels. In 1865, Colby University City (Waterville, Maine) and Shurtleff College, Alton, Illinois. conferred upon him the degree of LL.D.; and Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg, Pa., did the same in 1866.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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