Civil War Saturday: Oliver Otis Howard

Howard, O. O. (Oliver Otis), 1830-1909

Howard, O. O. (Oliver Otis), 1830-1909

Oliver Otis Howard, born November 8th, 1830, in Leeds, Maine, was a star-crossed general in the federal Army during the Civil War. He was an officer of unquestioned bravery, with a deep devotion to his Christian faith, and terribly maligned for actions that, in the main, were beyond his ability to control. Despite the political ravages of his enemies, his life was one of great accomplishment in the face of adversity, and for the benefit of others.

Howard lost his father at the age of 9, and with it the innocence of youth. His schooling included Monmouth Academy, Yarmouth Academy, and Kent’s Hill School, prior to graduating from Bowdoin College at the age of 19, in 1850. Afterwards, he gained acceptance to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1854, 4th in a class of 46 cadets. He was commissioned as a brevet 2nd Lieutenant of Ordnance, and posted to Watervliet Arsenal in New York. Shortly thereafter, he became the commander of the Kennebec Arsenal, in Augusta, Maine.

It was at Kennebec that Howard started his real career. Maine, with it’s many rivers and tidal estuaries, had 11 rolling mills producing black powder. By 1865, those mills had produced a staggering 1/3 of ALL the black powder used for small arms ammunition in the federal Armies during the civil war. The oversight by Howard set the Kennebec Arsenal in good stead to start production of small arms cartridges, which it did, along qith other items, through the course of the war.

In 1861, Howard was granted a leave of absence from the Regular Army to accept a volunteer commission as a Colonel, leading the newly-formed 3rd Regiment, Maine Volunteer Infantry. Shortly after arriving in Washington, DC, Howard was placed in charge of the brigade to which the 3rd was attached, and for his conduct at Bull Run in July, 1861, he was promoted on September 3rd to Brigadier General.

In 1862, during the Peninsula Campaign, Howard received two wounds to his right arm which eventually resulted in it’s loss by amputation. While recuperating, he was cheered on by his old friend Phil Kearny, another federal general, who had previously lost his left arm. Kearny remarked that Howard should look happily upon his wound, as it would save him money since both he and Kearny could by gloves together.

Promoted to major General, and given command of the XIth Corps, Howard faced his first test at Chancellorsville. Howard’s men had seen Jackson’s troops moving to the right to flank them, but despite his (Howard’s) protestations to General Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, Howard was ordered to disregard those observations, and to stop bothering Hooker with nonsense.

Later that evening, Howard’s corps was struck en flank by Stonewall Jackson’s troops, and the right hand division routed, forcing the entire corps to withdraw in haste. Howard felt the sting of this immensely, especially as he was personally, and wrongly, blamed for the debacle by Hooker.

Later that year, at Gettysburg, while marching north on the Emittsburg Road to support the 1st Corps, Howard recognized the strength of the Culp’s Hill/Cemetery Ridge position, and dropped off a brigade (Von Steinwehr) there to act as an anchor if things went bad. It was a prescient move. While deployed north of Gettysburg, One of Howard’s generals (Barlow) failed to adequately deploy his division, resulting in the entire collapse of the Xith Corps, with the 1st Corps quickly following. However, Howard’s men were able to reform upon Von Steinwehr’s brigade and as a result, further damage was avoided.

Howard engaged in a nasty political fight with Major General Hancock, whom Meade had sent to Gettysburg to assume command of what were erroneously thought to be a shattered Federal force. Howard protested that he was the senior officer present and should be given command. In any case, after much debate, Howard gracefully allowed Hancock to take over, and to Hancock’s chagrin, he realized that Howard had, in fact, found the best defensive position available and his previous work was of unquestioned value. Hancock kept Howard’s deployments intact.

After Gettysburg, the badly hit XIth & XIIth Corps were merged into a new corps, titled the XXth, and sent west ti support Sherman. In July 1864, Following the death of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, in July 1864, Howard became commander of the Army of Tennessee, leading it through the remainder of the Atlanta campaign, and eventually led the entire right wing of Sherman’s famous March through Georgia, and then up through the Carolinas.

After the war, through 1874, Howard was in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau, and was noted for his founding of Howard University, incorporated by Congress in 1867. Howard led the campaign against the Nez Perce, served as Superintendent of West Point, and finally retired from the Army in 1894, with the rank of Major General. He passed away on October 26th, 1909, in Burlington, Vermont, where he is buried.

Howard is often thought of by many less-read individuals as a poor leader, but his career, and the comments and remembrances of those who served with him, speak otherwise. He was a competent leader, and bold tactician with a keen eye for details, and his life’s work speaks volumes for what one single man can accomplish when he sets his sights on a goal. Rising from a junior Ordnance officer to command of an entire army, founding a University of note, Howard left his mark on everything he touched, and we as a nation are the better for it.


  1. And that is one HELL of a portrait. Wow!

    It boggles my mind that they could get pictures like that with the equipment of the day.

  2. Yes indeed, it’s amazing what sort of images one can get with a glass-plate negative. The depth of field is unbelievable, and many of them can be magnified such that objects in the background are easily discernible.

    We’ve been able to look at images that, interesting as they are, become even more so upon close examination. There’s one shot taken at Petersburg of a group of artillerists pulling a Confederate cannon from inside the Confederate works after the position was overrun. Under magnification (using a computer) you can see details of the debris around them, including paper cartridges and pieces of equipment and personal possessions left behind by fleeing southern soldiers, details of the Federal soldier’s uniforms and equipment, and details of the gun, limber and harness as though standing right there.

    If you want to see some great images, just head over to the Library of Congress website and look at the CW collection.


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