Oliver Otis Howard

Medal of Honor citation:

Rank and organization: Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers.
Place and date: At Fair Oaks, Va., June 1, 1862.
Entered service at: Maine. Born: November 8, 1830, Leeds, Maine.
Date of issue: March 29, 1893.
Led the 61st New York Infantry in a charge in which he was twice severely wounded in the right arm, necessitating amputation.

Oliver Otis Howard was born November 8, 1830, in Leeds, Maine. He obtained his preliminary education at an academy in North Yarmouth, Maine, and by teaching school during vacations, he put himself through Bowdoin College graduating from there in 1850. Four years later he was graduated from West Point, fourth in a class whose roster comprised such names as Custis Lee, Thomas H. Ruger, James Deshler, John Pegram, Jeb Stuart, Archibald Gracie, S. D. Lee, William D. Pender, John B. Villepigue, Shephen H. Weed, and others who would make their mark in the Civil War. Howard's antebellum service was routine, more than half of it being at the Military Academy as an assistant professor of mathematics, where he was a first lieutenant of Ordnance at the outbreak of the war. His subsequent career must constitute one of the great paradoxes of American military history: no officer entrusted with the field direction of troops has ever equaled Howard's record for surviving so many tactical errors of judgment and disregard of orders, emerging later not only with increased rank, but on one occasion with the thanks of Congress. Howard was elected colonel of the 3rd Maine at the end of May, 1861, and resigned his regular commission on June 7. At the battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), Howard commanded a brigade of three Maine and one Vermont regiments in Heintzelman's division. Although his command was driven from the field in disorder, along with a large part of the Union forces, he was rewarded with a commission as brigadier general of volunteers dating from September 3, 1861. During General George B. McClellan's campaign on the Peninsula, Howard commanded a brigade in the II Corps and lost his right arm at the battle of Seven Pines. Lack of courage was not a constituent of Howard's makeup, and in eighty days he was back in command, during the retreat to the Washington defenses after the disaster at Second Manassas (Bull Run), where Edwin V. Sumner assigned him to command of the rear guard of the army. At Sharpsburg Howard succeeded to command of the 2nd Division, II Corps, after the wounding of John Sedgwick and continued to lead the division at Fredericksburg. On March 31, 1863, Howard, who had been made a major general the preceding November 29, was assigned to command the XI Corps after the relief of its former commander, Franz Sigel (at his own request), an assignment galling to the many German officers and men in its ranks. In the ensuing battle of Chancellorsville the XI Corps constituted the right of the Union army. Despite a positive order from General Joseph Hooker, Howard neglected to protect his exposed flank, was surprised by Stonewall Jackson's furious assault, and routed. At Gettysburg he was in command of the field on the first day after the death of John F. Reynolds and until the arrival of W. S. Hancock. Here he displayed a conspicuous lack of decision, but was voted the thanks of Congress for selecting Cemetery Hill and Ridge as a position for the I and XI Corps to fall back on. Although the evidence conclusively proves they were driven there, Howard's principal contribution was that he personally rallied the I Corps in the cemetery proper. That autumn (1863) the XI and XII Corps were ordered to Chattanooga under Hooker, and the following year Howard commanded the IV Corps in the Atlanta campaign. After the death of James B. McPherson, General W. T. Sherman assigned him to command of the Army of Tennessee, which formed the right wing in the campaign of the Carolinas. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Regular Army at the close of the war, to rank from the date of the capture of Savannah. Howard had been deeply religious and an enthusiastic abolitionist even in his West Point days, but after the war his concern for the welfare of the Negro became almost a monomania. In May, 1865, Andrew Johnson appointed him first commissioner of the so-called "Freedmen's Bureau," but the organization soon became riddled by fraud, corruption, and inefficiency, which Howard's religious zeal, personal honesty, and lack of administrative ability were helpless to combat. In fact, he persistently and blindly refused to credit even the most readily demonstrated charges against his subordinates. He was exonerated by a court of inquiry in 1874 from accusations arising out of his conduct of the bureau; he then became the center of a conflict arising from his attempt to introduce colored members into a Congregational church which he helped to organize in Washington. He was instrumental in establishing Howard University and was director of a bank for Negroes in which they suffered heavy financial losses. During the 1870's and 1880's he served in Indian country, was superintendent of West Point, and after his promotion to major general in 1886, commanded the Division of the East until his retirement in 1894. Thereafter General Howard resided in Burlington, Vermont, writing, speaking, and engaging in all manner of religious and educational activities. Foremost among the latter was his aiding to establish Lincoln Memorial University at Harrogate, Tennessee, to offer a college education to the mountain people of the area. In 1893 he received the Congressional medal for bravery at Seven Pines where he had lost his arm. General Howard died in Burlington, October 26, 1909, and was buried in Lake View Cemetery.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.