Few figures in American history did more either during the Civil War or in its immediate aftermath to move our nation away from the vile institution of slavery. A career military officer and a powerful presence during the Reconstruction Era, Oliver Otis Howard holds an important place in America’s long and laborious trudge toward equality.
The Christian General
Born in Leeds, Maine to a farmer in 1830, Howard breezed through his studies. He proved particularly adept at military strategy, graduating fourth in his class at the United States Military Academy in 1854. Over the next several years, he served as a brevet second lieutenant and participated in Florida’s Seminole Wars.
Moved equally by his duties as a soldier and by his faith in God, Howard’s early career would be spent seeking balance between the two. In fact, he considered very seriously the prospect of establishing his own ministry, but the start of Civil War hostilities put an end to these thoughts. Over the first two years of fighting, the Union soldier rose quickly through the ranks, becoming colonel, then brigadier general, in a matter of only months. He was distinguished among his peers for his piety and his commitment to furthering Christian values through his military leadership.
The One-Armed Hero
Oliver Otis Howard gave new meaning to the phrase “walk it off.” During a battle at Fair Oaks in 1862, Howard lost his right arm. The amputation would barely slow the tenacious soldier, who returned to the battlefield less than five months later to command forces at Antietam. Though Howard had risen to esteem by both his skill and determination, he would suffer a series of humiliating defeats in the following year. Howard’s judgment would be called into question following several tactical failures at the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
However, when Howard was reassigned to the Western campaign, he quickly reestablished himself as a General of wisdom and cunning, eventually becoming commander of the Army of Tennessee and providing western flank support to General Sherman’s decisive March to the Sea. By the end of the war, Howard would be the subject of considerable praise by his fellow Union Army generals, Sherman among them.
The Fight for Freedom
Howard’s accomplishments during the war would only be a prelude to his most important work. In 1865, Howard was made the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, charged with the responsibility of integrating freed slaves into American society. Howard would shoulder the tremendously difficult task of leading America on its first uncertain steps away from slavery. He oversaw programs designed to extend social welfare, schooling, legal support, and medical care to a population of Americans experiencing freedom for the very fist time.
As a strong advocate for Radical Reconstruction, Howard clashed openly with President Johnson during their overlapping tenures. Johnson worked hard to return power to Southern whites. Howard’s Bureau leadership would serve as a major bulwark against these efforts to turn back the clock. And as his Radical Republican party rose to greater power in 1867, he helped secure Southern blacks the right to vote. The Bureau also helped the recently freed populations of the South to become politically organized, a contribution that would echo through the Civil Rights era a century hence.
The Pen is Mightier . . .
That same year, in recognition of the role that higher education could play in advancing equality, Howard gathered together a number of socially conscious groups in order to formulate a coeducational university open to all races. Recognizing the threats of violence that plagued black schools, teachers and students, he oversaw the founding of Howard University in Washington, DC and served as its president until 1874.
That was also the final year of his tenure on the Bureau. Thereafter, Howard returned to military service, filling a series of admirable posts, including West Point Superintendent, commander of the Military Division of the Pacific, and commander of Fort Columbus on New York’s Governors Island. He retired in 1894 as a major general and died quietly at his home in Burlington, Vermont in 1909.
- Today, Howard University is the most comprehensive historically black college in the US and produces the largest number of black doctorates of any University. Click here to join the Howard community.
- Check out Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard to learn more about this man and his important contributions to American history.
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