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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 690

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This is the grave of O.O. Howard.

Oliver Otis Howard was born in Leeds, Maine in 1830. His father, a farmer, died, when the boy was 9 years old. But he was still able to go to school, did well, and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1850. He then went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, finishing a second degree there in 1854. He did well, graduating fourth in his class. He traveled around to various posts for awhile, then went to Florida in 1857 to fight the clean up actions in the Seminole Wars. He converted to evangelical Christianity while there and nearly left the Army to become a minister. He didn’t, but he remained super religious for the rest of his life. He went back to West Point, having been promoted to lieutenant, and taught math at the Academy.

When the Civil War broke out, Howard was promoted to colonel in the 3rd Maine Infantry. He was part of the disastrous Peninsula Campaign under McClellan. At the Battle of Fair Oaks, he was shot twice in the arm and it was amputated. He spent very little time recovering and was back in command at Antietam. He was promoted to major general in November 1862 and placed in command of a group of troops that almost all only spoke German. As he had replaced the German speaking Gen. Franz Sigel, there was nearly a revolt against him. And to be fair, he couldn’t actually communicate with them. Bad move.

Howard did a pretty bad job at Chancellorsville, when he failed to listen to Joe Hooker telling him he was vulnerable. Stonewall Jackson charged right at him and it helped lead to the Union loss that day. He also performed poorly at Gettysburg, getting into a heated verbal argument with Winfield Scott Hancock over who was in charge of defense while one of his divisions was routed to the point of fleeing through the streets of the town.

OK, maybe Howard wasn’t anything special as a commander. He did a lot better after being transferred to the Army of the Cumberland, where his troops played a critical role in the taking of Chattanooga. William Tecumseh Sherman named him commander of the Army of Tennessee in 1864 and he was critical in the former’s March to the Sea later that year.

If Howard had only been a Civil War general, he would be seen as a pretty mixed bag who nevertheless rose very high in the Union ranks. But his career was really just getting started. That’s because the Army dumped the Freedmen’s Bureau in his lap and told him to deal with it. Here, Howard’s millennial evangelicalism was critical. Unlike many generals, including Union generals, he really wanted to help the freedpeople. He wanted a robust Freedmen’s Bureau that included education, legal rights, and medical care, as well as rations before they could get started producing food on their own. Andrew Johnson hated him as the kind of northern evangelical that a good southern drinking man often hated in these years.

But the Freedmen’s Bureau never received anything close to proper funding, even after Radicals took over Congress in 1867. Even they were pretty clueless about how to actually run an occupation, which was to spend a lot of money on it and have a large Army. Instead, they continually shrunk the size of the Army and forced the Freedmen’s Bureau into a defensive position where it was only useful if the freedpeople lived nearby a fort. Otherwise, it was a maelstrom of anti-Black violence in the southern countryside.

Howard definitely did not see Black people as his equal, not at all. But he did see the need for the government to ensure basic rights to them. He was almost totally indifferent to Black suffrage. But as a human rights issue, not that he would have used that much more modern term, and in terms of economic stability and undermining the southern elite, Howard was very on board with Black rights. Land was the key for Howard. And many Black farmers were more concerned with land than the vote. They wanted to farm their own land and be left alone by whites entirely. But here Howard was in the minority, as the growing capitalist class in the North absolutely saw the freed slaves’ proper role in society as working on a white-owned cotton plantation, just for money. In fact, many of them invested in abandoned plantations to do that very thing. When Howard issued Circular 13, ordering the division of plantations into 40-acre lots for the freed slaves, Andrew Johnson overturned it within a month. And even when Radicals had the veto power, they never prioritized reinstating it. After all, private property was a much more robust principle for most of them than Black rights. Howard also was critical in founding Howard University, named after him of course, the Black university in Washington. He was always a big proponent of education and much later, in 1895, founded Lincoln Memorial University in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee for Appalachian whites.

When Congress ended the Freedmen’s Bureau entirely in 1872, Howard was sent out West to deal with the genocidal wars against Native populations. He first went to Arizona to deal with Cochise and the Chiricahua Apache, forcing them into a final treaty that year. He then was transferred to head the Department of the Columbia in 1874, based in Fort Vancouver, Washington. Here, he bumbled into started the Nez Perce War in 1877. Here, his sanctimony was more problematic. Said George Crook, sardonically, “The Creator had placed him on earth to be the Moses to the Negro” and now “he felt satisfied his next mission was with the Indians.” Of course, Crook was pretty awful his own self.

Howard went into Nez Perce country and ordered that tribe, once very friendly with whites and now facing repression and violence from white settlers all around them, to be on a reservation within thirty days, by June 15, 1877. But what Howard didn’t know, or didn’t care to know, was that there were lots of Nez Perce camped up in the mountains and they could not get to the reservation in a month because they couldn’t cross the rivers swollen with snowmelt. Increasingly angry young Nez Perce stared to take revenge, at first against those who murdered family members and then against most anyone they could find. Of course, the Nez Perce attempted to flee to Canada. Howard was inept at catching them. The Nez Perce called him “General Day-after-Tomorrow” as he was always two days behind them. They almost made it to Canada before American troops under General Nelson Miles forced them to surrender. A sad story all around and one where Howard shoulders most of the blame.

After this debacle, Howard was sent to West Point to be superintendent of the Academy. He still served in quite a few commands after that, finally retiring in 1894. Howard also wrote a bunch of forgettable books in these years, including about Chief Joseph, a biography of Isabella of Castille, and an autobiography in 1907. He retired to Burlington, Vermont, where he died in 1909, at the age of 78.

O.O. Howard is buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Burlington, Vermont.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other generals of the period, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joe Hooker is in Cincinnati and Winfield Scott Hancock is in West Norriton, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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