Civil War hero, founder of Howard University

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

June 30, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

When death came quietly for Gen. Oliver Otis Howard in 1909, a veteran warrior, he was sitting in a chair in his Burlington, Vt., home.

His passing at age 79 also marked the death of the last surviving Union commander who had fought in the Civil War.

At his death, he was more than four decades removed from the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, which in part conspired to shape his destiny.

An obituary in The Sun said, "Including General Howard's services in the Indian wars, he was probably in more engagements than any other officer in the United States Army."

"The passing of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard marks the extermination of all the ranking Army officers who commanded the Union armies during the Civil War," reported The New York Times at his death.

George Heselton, a retired Gardiner, Maine, lawyer and historian, brought Howard to my attention recently, when he sent a column about the general written by Jim Brunelle, a Maine newspaperman and columnist.

In his "A Maine Notebook," Brunelle wrote that a March fire had destroyed a farmhouse in Leeds, Maine, that had been Howard's boyhood home.

He also lamented that Howard has been somewhat overshadowed by the achievements of Joshua L. Chamberlain, also a Maine native and Civil War general, who commanded the 20th Maine and waged a brilliant defense of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Chamberlain also had been selected by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to preside over the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox Court House in 1865. After the war, he returned to Bowdoin College, his alma mater, to serve as its president.

"His reputation is such that he has almost totally eclipsed other outstanding Civil War figures from Maine," Brunelle wrote. "Chamberlain and that war are synonymous in our minds; no other military heroes need apply."

Born in Leeds in 1830, Howard entered West Point in 1850 after graduating from Bowdoin. He was fourth in his class at West Point at graduation in 1854, and after being commissioned a second lieutenant, he remained at the military academy and taught mathematics.

"My country needs me," Howard said when he resigned as chairman of the math department at the outbreak of the Civil War.

He returned home in June 1861 and joined the 3rd Maine Volunteers as colonel. At the first Battle of Bull Run, he commanded a brigade.

In September 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general, and the next year he participated in the furious fighting at the Battle of Fair Oaks as part of the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia.

While leading his men in battle, Howard had two horses shot out from under him and was twice wounded, which eventually resulted in the amputation of his right arm.

A month later, he returned to his command in time to fight at Antietam, after which he was promoted to major general.

At Gettysburg, he commanded the 11th Corps and won the Medal of Honor.

While serving with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his famous march from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864, Sherman wrote to Grant: "I find him a polished and Christian gentleman, exhibiting the highest and most chivalrous traits of character."

Howard, who had considered a life in the ministry before he entered West Point, was a devout Congregationalist who had been called "the Christian soldier" because he insisted that his troops attend prayer and temperance meetings.

"The two Maine men differed in one important respect. Unlike Chamberlain, Howard was a committed abolitionist from the very outset and was regarded as much a moral crusader as a military warrior," Brunelle wrote. "It was because of this that he emerged as an important figure nationally at the conclusion of the war."

On May 12, 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Howard commissioner of the newly created Board of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, which was a department of the Army.

Because of his support for 4 million former slaves in their quests to find homes and jobs, and because he was a champion of black suffrage, it wasn't long before Howard's efforts were denounced by white Southerners and some Northerners.

"I never could conceive how a man could become a better laborer by being made to carry an over heavy and wearisome burden which in no way facilitates his work. I never could detect the shadow of a reason why the color of the skin should impair the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he wrote in 1865.

A believer in education for ex-slaves, Howard was joined in his efforts by 10 white Congregational churchmen in establishing with Freedmen's Bureau funds a theological seminary in 1867 that would eventually become Howard University in Washington.

The seminary was named for its founder, and Howard served as its president from 1869 to 1873, when he resumed his Army career relocating Indian tribes onto reservations in the West. He also later served as superintendent of West Point.

He retired as a major general in 1894, wrote 10 books and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory

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