They called him “the Christian General.” He’d lost an arm in the Civil War, helped freed slaves join mainstream America, founded Howard University for African Americans; and chased Nez Perce Chief Joseph across Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming before capturing him in Montana.
He was Oliver Otis Howard, who earned a Medal of Honor for heroism at the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines but suffered humiliation at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
Then he fought in Sherman’s crippling slash-and-burn campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas.
During the Indian Wars of the 1870s, he was ordered to force Indians off their traditional homelands and onto reservations.
Years after his surrender, Chief Joseph blamed his tribe’s anguish, suffering and death on General Howard, saying, “If General Howard had given me plenty of time to gather up my stock and treated Toohoolhoolzote as a man should be treated, there would have been no war.”
A PBS report said, “Howard never lost sight of the underlying moral issue in this confrontation, and after Joseph’s surrender, he was outspoken among those officers who argued without success that his band should be allowed to return to their home.”
But Joseph would see his Wallowa Valley homeland only once again.
Oliver Otis Howard was born on Nov. 8, 1830, in Leeds, Maine. He attended Bowdoin College from 1846 to 1850, where he was a pious student who didn’t smoke, drink or swear.
Then he went to West Point, graduating in 1854, fourth in his class of 46; married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Ann Waite, with whom he’d have seven children, and returned to West Point to teach mathematics.
Howard’s first combat assignment was fighting the Seminoles in Florida, during which time he considered becoming an Episcopal minister but decided to stay in the army.
During the Civil War, he fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Sherman’s scorched earth rampages in Georgia and the Carolinas.
At Fair Oaks where he was a brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, he was wounded twice in his right arm which was then amputated. Later, Howard met with Brigadier General Philip Kearny who’d lost his left arm and they joked about going shopping together for gloves!
Years after the war, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, which said simply: “Led the 61st New York Infantry in a charge in which he was twice severely wounded in the right arm, necessitating amputation.”
His service during the Civil War was not all glory however. The year 1863 saw him suffer military failures at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
Poor planning on his part at Chancellorsville resulted in his XI Corps being decimated. He knew that Stonewall Jackson’s troops were lurking in the area but didn’t prepare for it, and Jackson attacked as Howard’s men were having supper, inflicting 2,407 Union casualties — with 217 killed.
Two months later, Howard hoped to redeem himself at Gettysburg, but instead disaster struck again. At Cemetery Hill, one of Howard’s division commanders — Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow — was wounded and captured, and within two days Howard had suffered 3,801 more casualties, with 368 killed.
In the end however, Gettysburg was a Union victory and Howard said, “The more you look at the battle of Gettysburg, the more you will see the hand of a guiding Providence.”
In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman launched his infamous “scorched earth” March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savanna, and one of his main generals was O.O. Howard. Their orders were to burn crops, kill livestock, consume supplies, and destroy civilian infrastructure along the way.
In Savannah, Sherman and his victorious commanders feasted on native oysters and turtle soup; but the campaign wreaked such violence and destruction that it spawned deep hatred for generations.
Months later, Howard again played a major role under Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee in another scorched earth campaign in the Carolinas.
After the Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson appointed him commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) to help former slaves. His job was to create schools, arrange medical aid and negotiate work contracts.
Hoping to get thousands of freed slaves off his hands, General Sherman had issued the controversial Special Field Order 15. It would give land to freed slaves and poor whites confiscated by the Union or abandoned by white owners during the war.
Then President Johnson seeking reconciliation with Southern whites pardoned them by the thousands and gave them back their land — including lands already turned over to former slaves.
Howard was placed in the uncomfortable position of having to inform many of them that the government was reneging on its promise and was returning the lands to their former owners, putting him in moral conflict with the president.
He next helped found Howard University — named after him — and served as its president for several years.
Howard returned to the Army in 1874 and was sent to Washington Territory by President Ulysses S. Grant, as commander of the Department of the Columbia to deal with the Indians.
Howard’s legacy will be forever linked with Nez Perce Chief Joseph, of the Wallowa Valley in Northwest Oregon, who was ordered to a reservation in Lapwai, Idaho Territory but refused to go.
One band of Nez Perce under Chief Toohoolhoolzote was resigned to confinement at Lapwai, realizing the battle was lost. But Howard didn’t make the move easy — giving them only 30 days to comply. The Indians hoped for a year’s time to prepare and move their livestock
Toohoolhoolzote pleaded but Howard harshly rejected the request: “I am telling you! Thirty days…”
“You ask me to talk, then tell me to say no more,” the chief replied. “I am chief! I ask no man to come and tell me anything what I must do!”
“Yes, you are chief. I am telling you!” Howard said. “Thirty days you have to move in … If not, soldiers will put you there or shoot you down!”
For three months over 1,170 miles of rugged wilderness, Howard chased Chief Joseph and his band trying to reach sanctuary in Canada with Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. With uncanny evasion skills, Joseph was able to hit-and-run Howard’s soldiers.
The Nez Perce were never more than about 800 strong, with only a third of them men.
Then on Oct. 5, 1877, it all ended.
At Bears Paw, Mont., after a five-day battle, Howard and Colonel Nelson A. Miles trapped Chief Joseph’s dwindling band just 40 miles south of the Canadian border and safety. There were only 418 Nez Perce left — 331 were women and children.
With dignity and great sorrow, Chief Joseph presented his rifle to General Howard and made his famous speech ending with “Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
By 1879, the Indian Wars were over. Howard was promoted to major general and appointed superintendent of West Point — serving from 1880 to 1882. His final command was the Division of the East, serving until his retirement in 1894.
Twenty-seven years after the surrender, General Howard and Chief Joseph met again in Carlisle, Pa. The General said:
“It took a great war. I would have done anything to avoid the war, even to giving my life. But the time had come when we had to fight. There come times when a fight is a mighty good thing and when it is over let’s lay down all our feelings and look up to God and see if we cannot get a better basis on which to live and work together.
“After the Indians accepted the reservation the government of the United States reduced it and reduced it again, and the Indians rebelled and I was sent to carry out the government’s instructions. I could not do otherwise.”
Howard “the Christian General” died in Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 26, 1909, at age 78.
For his principled resistance to the removal of the Indians from their ancient lands, Oliver O. Howard became renowned as a humanitarian and peacemaker and today remains an American hero of the turbulent and violent 1800s.
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Syd Albright is writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
Loss of faith
Chief Joseph and his father Old Chief Joseph were Christians and actively promoted peace with the whites. In 1855, the Old Chief even helped Washington’s territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens set up a Nez Perce reservation stretching from Oregon into Idaho.
Then following the gold rush in 1863, the federal government took back almost six million acres of the land, cutting the reservation to one-tenth its former size.
Feeling betrayed, Old Chief Joseph denounced the United States, slashed his American flag, shredded his Bible and refused to move his band from the Wallowa Valley or sign a treaty to make the new reservation boundaries official.
While trying to help freed slaves …
Oliver O. Howard is not remembered as a skilled administrator, but he did his best to help the freed slaves when he was appointed commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau), established to operate for only a year.
He was saddled with a poorly trained staff and many Southern whites opposed his efforts by passing laws called Black Codes that restricted movement, conditions of labor, and other civil rights, essentially reinstating slavery to African-Americans.
Nevertheless, his Bureau was able to feed millions of the poor, build hospitals, establish a multitude of schools and training institutes for blacks, provide direct medical aid, and negotiate thousands of labor contracts for the former slaves.
He also helped found Howard University in Washington, D.C., named after him and served as its president from 1869 to 1874 before returning to the Army.
Reading for kids
Stephen Crane’s American classic Civil War story “The Red Badge of Courage” is believed to be based on the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in the spring of 1863 and is recommended reading for children and adults.
It’s about a young soldier in the Union Army — Henry Fleming — who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he then longs for a wound, a “red badge of courage,” to counteract his cowardice.
Chief Joseph was allowed to see his beloved Wallowa Valley homeland in Oregon just once after his surrender in 1877. Accompanied by Indian Inspector James McLaughlin, the 64-year-old Chief returned in 1900 and visited his father’s grave — tears rolling down his cheeks.
The Rebel Yell
On Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, General O.O. Howard’s men were holding a defensive position awaiting a Confederate attack. Then at dusk on July 1, 1863, The Confederate attack began with a frightening Rebel yell. “The enemy stood with tenacity never before displayed by them, but with bayonet, clubbed musket, sword, pistol, and rocks from the wall, we cleared the heights and silenced the guns,” Confederate Major Samuel Tate later wrote.
See and hear the Rebel Yell re-enacted on YouTube: