Major General Oliver O. Howard, a Medal of Honor recipient, commanded Union troops in both the Eastern and Western Theaters of the American Civil War and served as the only commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau during Reconstruction.
Oliver Otis Howard was born on November 30, 1830, at Leeds, Maine. He was the oldest of three sons of Rowland Bailey Howard and Eliza Otis Howard. Howard’s father, who was a farmer, died in 1840 when Howard was nine years old. His mother remarried two years later.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
As a youth, Howard attended Monmouth Academy and North Yarmouth Academy before enrolling at Bowdoin College in September 1846 at the age of fifteen. During Howard’s last year at Bowdoin, his uncle, Congressman John Howard, attained an appointment to the United States Military Academy for his nephew. Howard entered the Academy in the autumn of 1850 and graduated four years later, ranking fourth in his class of forty-six cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, Howard received a brevet commission as a second lieutenant of ordnance on July 1, 1854. Following a summer vacation, he reported for duty at Watervliet Arsenal near Troy, New York.
On February 14, 1855, Howard married Elizabeth Anne Waite, whom he met while he was a freshman at Bowdoin. Their marriage lasted for over fifty years and produced seven children.
The Christian General
Soon after his marriage, army officials promoted Howard to second lieutenant and transferred him to the Kennebec Arsenal in Maine, where he temporarily served as the ranking ordnance officer. In 1856, the army transferred Howard to Tampa, Florida, where he served during the Third Seminole War (1855–1858). During his assignment in Florida, officials promoted Howard to first lieutenant on July 1, 1857. While serving in Florida, Howard became an evangelical Christian. Howard’s religious passion followed him the rest of his life. Later, colleagues and subordinates mockingly referred to Howard as “the Christian general.”
U.S. Army Officer
On August 17, 1857, army officials reassigned Howard to West Point, where he served as an assistant mathematics professor for over three years. When the American Civil War erupted, Howard volunteered for service with the 3rd Maine Volunteers on May 28, 1861. Army officials commissioned him as a regimental commander in the volunteer army on June 4, 186. He resigned his commission in the regular army three days later.
First Battle of Bull Run
Howard’s regiment traveled to Washington, DC in June 1861, where its members drilled outside of the city for one month. On July 6, his unit crossed into Virginia. The next day, Howard learned that army officials had selected him to lead a brigade during the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). Like the other federal forces on the field that day, Howard’s brigade broke ranks and retreated in panic back toward Washington following a late-afternoon Confederate counterattack.
Wounded During the Peninsula Campaign
On September 3, 1861, officials promoted Howard to brigadier general. During Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862, Howard commanded the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps. At approximately 8:10 on the morning of the second day of the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31–June 1, 1862) Howard received severe wounds to his right arm while leading his brigade into a gap in the Confederate lines. Unable to mend the wounds, doctors amputated Howard’s arm. Thirty-one years later, in 1893, Congress awarded Howard the Medal of Honor for his bravery at the Battle of Seven Pines.
Northern Virginia Campaign
Howard went on sick leave from June 2 through August 27, 1862, to recover from his wound. He returned to active duty in time to take part in the Northern Virginia Campaign.
During the Maryland Campaign, Howard commanded the 2nd Brigade of Major General John Sedgwick’s 2nd Division of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps. When an injury disabled Sedgwick during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Howard replaced him as the divisional commander.
Major General at Fredericksburg
The War Department promoted Howard to major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862, and he took part in the failed Union assault on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862).
On April 1, 1863, Howard replaced Major General Franz Sigel as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 11th Corps. Sigel was a native of Germany, and the change in command was not popular with the men of the 11th Corps who were mostly German immigrants.
At the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863), Howard’s corps formed the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. Howard did not heed warnings from commanding General Joseph Hooker that his position was “in the air” (not protected by a natural obstacle). On May 2, 1863, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson marched his corps of approximately 28,000 men twelve miles via roundabout roads and flanked Howard’s position. Late in the afternoon, Jackson’s troops slammed into Howard’s unsuspecting men. Hooker’s entire right flank collapsed within one-quarter of an hour, forcing the federal army to retreat. Afterward, Hooker blamed Howard for the Union rout.
Battle of Gettysburg
One month later, at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–4, 1863), Howard suffered another costly military setback. On the first day of battle, Major General Jubal Early’s division exploited a salient in Howard’s defensive line north of town. Early’s attack sent the 11th Corps fleeing back through Gettysburg to the high ground on Cemetery Hill south of town. Howard’s men recovered, and Early’s follow-up assault the next day failed to dislodge them from their new position.
Union artillery fire from Cemetery Hill on the third day of battle contributed to the failed Confederate assault (popularly known as Pickett’s Charge) on Cemetery Ridge. Some historians credit Major General Winfield Scott Hancock with the decision to defend and hold Cemetery Hill. Nonetheless, on January 28, 1864, Howard received the “Thanks of Congress” for the decision (S. Res. 3).
Siege of Chattanooga
On September 23, 1863, officials detached Howard and his corps from the Army of the Potomac and sent to help defend the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, under siege by Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. On November 25, Howard’s Corps took part in the successful assault on Missionary Ridge that forced Bragg’s retreat into Georgia.
Howard remained in Chattanooga until April 10, 1864, when Major General William T. Sherman selected him to lead the 4th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. Howard served in that position throughout much of the Atlanta Campaign.
On July 27, 1864, following the death of Major General James B. McPherson during the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, Sherman appointed Howard to command the Army of the Tennessee. Howard continued in that capacity throughout the Savannah Campaign (November 15–December 21, 1864), also known as Sherman’s March to the Sea. At the conclusion of that campaign, the army promoted Howard to brigadier general in the regular army, effective December 21, 1864.
During the Carolinas Campaign (February–April 1865), Howard’s Army of the Tennessee comprised the right-wing of Sherman’s invasion force. On March 13, 1865, officials brevetted Howard to major general in the regular army for his gallantry at the Battle of Ezra Church (July 28, 1864) during the Atlanta Campaign.
Toward the end of the Carolinas Campaign, Howard’s men played an important role at the Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21, 1865). Afterward, Howard was present when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces to Sherman at Bennett Place, near Durham, North Carolina, on April 26, 1865.
Commissioner of the Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees
Following the war, President Andrew Johnson selected Howard as the first and only commissioner of the Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. An avowed abolitionist, Commissioner Howard tackled his duties with great enthusiasm, but over the course of the Bureau’s existence, the organization was understaffed and underfunded. Still, under Howard’s leadership, the Bureau provided a plethora of services to freedmen and some poor whites in the South, with varying levels of success.
During his time as commissioner, Howard was also instrumental in the founding of Howard University in Washington, DC. He served as president of the university from 1867 until 1873.
On July 6, 1868, Congress approved a bill that mandated an end to the Bureau’s activities—other than those related to schools and education—after one year in all states that Congress considered reconstructed. During the next year, Howard stayed on in his position as commissioner as the Freedmen’s Bureau began closing down operations. On January 1, 1869, Howard mustered out of volunteer service, but he remained in the regular army.
Regular Army Assignments
In March 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant temporarily reassigned Howard as Special Indian Commissioner to the hostile Apaches of New Mexico and Arizona. During Howard’s absence, on June 10, 1872, Congress declared “That the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands shall be discontinued . . .” effective June 30, 1872 (with the exception of the payment of wartime claims of black soldiers and sailors, and the administration of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC.). When Howard returned from the West, he remained commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau until July 1874, when officials placed him in command of the Department of Columbia.
Upon returning west, Howard campaigned against Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe and other Native Americans in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
In 1882, Howard returned east to serve as Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from January 21 to September 1, 1882. After his stint at West Point, Howard traveled west, where he commanded the Department of the Platte from 1882 to 1886. On March 19, 1886, officials promoted Howard to major general in the regular army. He next commanded the Division of the Pacific and the Department of California from 1886 to 1888.
Howard once again returned east to command the Division of the Atlantic from 1888 to 1891. His final command was the Department of the East from 1891 to 1894. Howard retired from active service on November 8, 1894, at the age of sixty-four.
After leaving the army, Howard fulfilled a pledge that he made to Abraham Lincoln to organize an institution of higher learning for Appalachian residents of the Cumberland Gap area. With the help of locally prominent citizens, Howard helped establish Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. The State of Tennessee chartered institution on February 12, 1897.
Howard spent the last years of his life lecturing, doing philanthropic work, and authoring numerous books. The seventy-eight-year-old general died from a stroke on October 26, 1909 at his home in Burlington, Vermont. He was buried there at Lakeview Cemetery.
On November 12, 1932, the State of Maine dedicated an equestrian statue of Howard on Cemetery Hill at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The inscription of the statue reads:
Erected to the memory of
Major General Oliver Otis Howard
and the citizens of Maine
who served their country in the Civil War