Oliver Otis Howard is best known for his efforts in the American Civil War. He was a Christian soldier who fought to preserve the Union and protect the rights of African-Americans.
Oliver Otis Howard was born in 1808 and died in 1889. He was a Christian soldier and leader during the westward expansion of America.
Oliver Otis Howard, Maj. Gen. (Library of Congress)
Losing an arm would seem to be a watershed moment in one’s life. However, by the time a surgeon amputated Union Brig. Gen.
Oliver Otis Howard’s broken right arm during the Battle of Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862, he had already undergone two life-changing experiences, both while in the Army. His moniker and reputation as the “Christian General” came from these encounters.
The 31-year-old general commander went on to establish Howard University in Washington, D.C., negotiate a peace treaty with Apache chief Cochise in Arizona Territory, and assist in the pursuit of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce followers in Montana Territory.
Later, Howard and fellow general commander Nelson A. Miles would dispute over credit for capturing Joseph in October 1877.
Miles, then a 22-year-old lieutenant colonel, went into combat with Howard at Fair Oaks in June 1862, only hours before an Army surgeon sawed off the wounded general’s damaged leg.
Howard’s sense of humour was obviously not lost along with his right arm. The following day, when Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny came to see Howard after losing his left arm to grapeshot wounds during the 1846–48 Mexican War, the two joked about going glove shopping together.
Oliver Otis Howard was born on November 8, 1830, in Leeds, Maine, and was only 9 years old when his father died. The young guy graduated from Bowdoin College at the age of 19 and enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At the school, he was subjected to severe peer punishment and hazing, particularly by student G.W. Custis Lee, the oldest son of the academy’s founder.
Colonel Robert E. Lee, Superintendent of West Point. Despite the fact that the West Point hazing resulted in fights, Howard graduated fourth out of 46 in the Class of 1854 as a brevet second lieutenant of ordnance.
(His arch-enemy, Lee, graduated first in his class.) Howard married Elizabeth Waite a year later, and they had seven children together.
During the Third Seminole War (1855–58), the Army sent the officer and his pregnant wife to Fort Brooke, Florida, where they joined the Methodist Church. Howard had a religious epiphany on the night of May 31, 1857.
He was so transformed that he considered quitting the Army to study seminary and become a priest during the following four years.
When the Southern states seceded and fired on Fort Sumter, the plot was thwarted, and Howard was appointed colonel of a regiment of Maine Volunteers.
Major General William Tecumseh Sherman (sitting in the middle) and his staff, including O.O. Howard (far left), pose for a Civil War picture.
Howard’s right arm was broken and severed shortly after the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, on June 1, 1862. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Howard’s overt Christian values drew both criticism and admiration. He had “the tone and demeanor of an itinerant preacher,” according to one soldier. Former West Point classmates teased him about his abstention from booze in particular.
When other officers asked for a toast at a formal meal, Howard raised a glass of water and said, “The only beverage suitable for a soldier!” Critics argued that a combat officer who did not drink could not be trusted.
But no one could deny his calmness in the face of danger. General William Tecumseh Sherman quipped that Howard was able to keep his cool in battle because he was certain he was on his way to Heaven.
Howard was at his headquarters in a northern Virginia farmhouse in the summer of 1861 when a frightened black lady with a child in her arm approached him. She confessed that she and her kid were slaves and pleaded for their release.
Their legal owner, a rough middle-aged lady in Howard’s memory, was hot on her tail and claimed her property.
To avoid offending the border states, the colonel was told to stay away from the slavery problem. Howard was torn as the cruel slave owner pushed her case and the mother’s emotional pleadings intensified.
He had an epiphany while trying to reconcile his Christian convictions with his military instructions.
“Your property is here; take it!” He yelled.
The slave owner screamed out, “But I can’t take it.” “She is more powerful than I am.”
Howard declined to help, and the lady proved unable of putting the healthy young mother back into bondage, as anticipated. The colonel jokingly wrote, “Somehow that night, the slave lady and her kid made their way eastward…[and] were free.”
Slaves seeking their freedom flocked joined the Federal Army in droves in the weeks ahead.
Despite being elevated to brigadier general and subsequently major general of Volunteers, Howard’s military record throughout the war was poor. Confederate Lt. Gen.
Stonewall Jackson outflanked him at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in early May 1863, putting the Union Army of the Potomac in danger.
Following the loss of 3,800 soldiers by Howard’s XI Corps at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade replaced him with a subordinate commander.
The chastened officer was moved to the Western theater, beyond the Appalachians, under Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman, and was dubbed “Uh-Oh Howard” by his colleagues.
For a while, his record in the West was just as shaky as it had been in the East. Howard remained a “consummate master of the art of unnecessary defeat,” according to writer Ambrose Bierce, who served under him.
Sherman chose fellow West Pointer Howard to lead the Army of the Tennessee after capturing Atlanta in July 1864. During Sherman’s last March to the Sea and through the Carolinas, Howard would stay on his right flank.
Sherman praised the Christian General as a leader with “the greatest competence, nicety, and accuracy” in his memoirs.
A uniformed official from the Freedmen’s Bureau stands between freed slaves and Southern landowners in a postwar image from Harper’s Weekly. Howard was under a lot of strain as the bureau’s director. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
At a crucial juncture, Howard’s outspoken worries over the hundreds of slaves liberated as a result of Sherman’s advance surfaced in the latter’s dispatches to President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was already thinking about what he would do with the anticipated 4 million liberated black Southerners once the war ended.
A seasoned leader like Maj. Gen. Howard, who was renowned for his Christian views, looked like an excellent candidate to lead the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Sherman had already established the foundation for the bureau by reserving large swaths of abandoned land in the Carolinas and the Sea Islands for freed slaves to cultivate and inhabit.
Howard was appointed commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau a month after Lincoln’s murder on April 15, 1865. One of his first actions was to provide food to former slaves as well as Southern whites, preventing widespread famine.
The agency was in charge of establishing freedmen’s schools, courts, and medical facilities. It also worked hard to assist blacks in the South in organizing themselves. Howard and the agency became political targets as a result of the latter attempt.
Howard came under fire for using Freedmen’s Bureau money to establish Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then accepting an acre of property from the institution for less than market value, on which he constructed the home that still remains today. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
That isn’t to say that Howard didn’t have valid issues to address. For one thing, he utilized some of the bureau’s money to help establish Howard University, which then sold him an acre of property for less than market value.
Thousands of dollars were also missing from the bureau’s ledger records, prompting Democrats to demand that the commissioner repay the allegedly stolen money.
Fortunately for Howard, a later court of inquiry, convened at his request, determined that the general had carried out his duties and “deserves well of his nation.”
Inevitably, Howard and his agency ran afoul with Southern Democrat President Andrew Johnson, who sought to restore at least a semblance of Dixie to her antebellum glory days, a path that ultimately to his own impeachment.
Meanwhile, Johnson was constantly at odds with Howard, whom he called the “absolute king” of Reconstruction.
Johnson pardoned the Sea Islands plantation owners in the autumn of 1865, enabling them to recover their property from the black farmers who had been put on their land by the bureau.
To add insult to injury, Johnson directed Howard to personally go to the area and try to resolve the conflict with the black landowners. Oliver “dreaded it like death,” according to Howard’s brother Rowland.
Howard was greeted as a conquering hero by the homesteaders, who escorted him to a crowded meetinghouse on Edisto Island. The terrible news was delivered by the bureau commissioner.
One guy yelled, “Why do you take away our lands?” “You hand them over to our arch-enemies! That’s not correct!” Before departing in silence, Howard attempted to achieve a mutually acceptable arrangement by negotiating leases between the freemen and the landlords.
When Ulysses S. Grant took over as president in 1869, Howard received some political atonement. Grant set out a new peace strategy for American Indians right away, and he saw the general as a key instrument in putting it into action.
As a result, Howard was ordered to go to Arizona Territory in 1872, accompanied by 1st Lt. Joseph A. Sladen, to seek peace with Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches.
The general met with a number of Apache leaders in Arizona Territory, including Santos, who is shown above. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC Chapel Hill) is a public research university in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Brevet Maj. Gen. George Crook, Arizona’s military leader, gave Howard whatever help he could, while finding the Christian General pompous and arrogant.
Crook remembered Howard telling him that he believed the Creator had sent him on earth to be the Negro’s Moses. “After completing that assignment, he was certain that his next mission would be with the Indian.”
Since the Civil War, Americans had been battling Apaches on a regular basis, so Howard had his job cut out for him. His first move was to contact Tom Jeffords, a scout turned overland mail supervisor who was friendly with Cochise.
Then Howard, Jeffords, and Sladen rode into Cochise’s stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, led by two young cousins of the chief. Fellow colleagues laughed it off as a suicide mission.
Cochise was the most dreaded Indian chief of his time and location, thus it was unquestionably a brave move. Before meeting Howard, the Apache waited to check whether it was a set-up.
On Oct. 12, 1872, near Council Rocks, in the heart of Cochise’s Arizona Territory stronghold, Howard and the Apache chief signed a contract that put an end to years of U.S.-Apache conflict.
Cochise never fought the Americans again until his death on June 8, 1874. (Alamy Stock Photo/Randy Prentice)
Howard gave the kids sugar lumps and slept in the open, only yards from Cochise’s lean-to. For ten days, Howard and the old Apache chief spoke about the creation of a tribal reserve.
Finally, at Council Rocks, the two men decided to establish a vast reserve in southern Arizona, with Jeffords serving as Indian agent.
The murders ceased when Howard departed the Apache camp in mid-October. Cochise never again fought war against the Americans until his death two years later on the reserve. Many settlers said that if it hadn’t been for Howard, their lives and property would have been lost.
After a court of inquiry absolved Howard of any misconduct in relation to the Freedman’s Bureau, Grant named Howard as the general commander of the Department of the Columbia, which effectively included the whole Pacific Northwest, only two years after his peace agreement with Cochise.
When it came to the president’s Indian peace proposal, Howard and Grant agreed. According to Grant, the most hopeful route for all tribesmen was to become Christian farmers, own their fields, and live productive lives inside the American system.
Later, President Grover Cleveland mirrored these views by endorsing the Dawes Act.
The policy was taken seriously by all three guys. They never considered that once tribal holdings were split into individual farms, any excess land would be divided and sold to white immigrants. The tribes would lose much more territory in the end.
Joseph, the Chief (Library of Congress)
Howard also had no idea that he would come across Christian Indians who preferred to stay nomadic, such as the non-treaty Nez Perces led by Chief Joseph. The tribe, which hails from the northern Rockies, has maintained good ties with the US since the days of Lewis and Clark.
They had really supplied horses to the Corps of Discovery for their journey to the Pacific. The Nez Perce were one of the first tribes in the West to convert to Christianity.
Although the Nez Perce holdings in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon totalled 7.5 million acres, the tribe was forced to cede roughly 5.5 million acres under the conditions of an 1855 treaty.
Then, in the northern part of the Nez Perce territory, gold was found, and miners, ranchers, and farmers flocked in.
Worse, in 1869, the chiefs of one Nez Perce band unilaterally signed away 90% of the tribe’s territory, opting instead for a 750,000-acre tract in Idaho Territory. All Nez Perce bands were forced to relocate to the drastically smaller reserve as part of the agreement’s conditions.
The pact was deemed unlawful by the majority of those who rejected. As a result, the tribe was divided between those who supported the reservation and those who did not, such as Joseph, who roamed the whole 1855 reservation.
Joseph’s family was from the Wallowa Valley in northern Oregon, where his father was laid to rest. Whites flocked to the valley since it was beyond the new treaty’s borders. As emotions rose, a dispute over the ownership of several horses erupted, resulting in the death of many Nez Perces.
The killers were never apprehended, despite the fact that the Nez Perces had a clear notion who they were.
Howard’s excellent reputation preceded him, so Joseph thought he would correct the problem. When Howard landed in Portland, the black community marched to his house with a brass band to greet him.
When the general saw that Chinese immigrants attracted more ire than Indians, he began inviting Chinese merchants to eat with him.
To combat the city’s burgeoning alcoholism, Howard took over as president of the YMCA, where he ministered to drunks or preached until his “veins in his face and neck [were] sticking out like tight-drawn cords,” as one reporter put it.
Both Howard and the president sympathized with Joseph’s assertion that the 1869 pact was unconstitutional, but by the time the general sat down to talk with the chief, the Grant administration had given in to the Oregon congressional delegation’s demands for Nez Perce territory.
Following Lt. Col. George Custer’s stunning loss at the Little Bighorn in June 1876, the American people demanded that all Indians be punished collectively. Howard and Joseph had their last encounter the following spring, during which the former abruptly ended the latter’s argument.
Despite the fact that he knew he’d been forced to carry out an unjust decision, similar to what he’d done at Edisto Island a decade before, Howard ordered the non-treaty bands to move within the boundaries of the 1869 reservation within 30 days, and even jailed Joseph’s fellow Nez Perce leader Toohoolhoolzote for speaking out against the order.
By the summer of 1877, Chief Joseph and other tribe leaders had collected 600 Nez Perces at Camas Prairie in west-central Idaho Territory, in preparation for the June 14 order to relocate to the Fort Lapwai reservation.
White Bird’s band, on the other hand, conducted a celebration on the eve of their move, during which attendees mocked many young warriors for not having avenged relatives murdered by whites.
Three enraged warriors traveled to the neighboring Salmon River villages and killed four men as a result of their humiliation.
The Nez Perce War broke out in 1877 in Idaho Territory’s White Bird Canyon, as shown in this 1891 sketch. (Alamy Stock Photo/Glasshouse Images)
Joseph had been gone from camp for some time. When he returned, he immediately ordered his troops to relocate inside the 5-mile-long White Bird Canyon’s protected boundaries.
Meanwhile, Howard had 13 friendly Nez Perce scouts lead over 100 1st Cavalry soldiers and a few civilian volunteers to the tribal stronghold under the command of Captain David Perry.
The commander was certain that his troops would “make quick work of it.” Perry’s troops, though, were near exhaustion as they began down the White Bird Creek hills after a two-day ride of more than 70 miles.
On June 17, the Nez Perces, hidden amid the ravines and valleys, slashed his army to pieces, killing 34 soldiers.
To put the Nez Perces to ground, Howard knew he’d require superior troops. A dependable supply chain was required for success, which meant mules—lots of mules. While he remained silent in the face of public outcry, he discreetly purchased every animal he could locate.
Following the fight, Chief Joseph and his people traveled southeast via the Salmon River Canyon. Howard arrived with his troops and mule-drawn artillery not long after.
However, the general had never mastered the difficulty of fording fast water with troops and equipment, and the expedition made excruciatingly slow progress under severe rains.
They followed Joseph’s track until they discovered the Nez Perces had retraced their steps, re-crossed the Salmon, and were closing in on them, moving northwest toward the Bitterroot Mountains.
Howard was chastised by the newspapers (and cartoonists) for his ineffective first pursuit of the Nez Perces. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Howard’s sluggish pace was chastised by the press, who labeled him a blunderer and a coward. There was even discussion of recalling him in shame to Washington. Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, commander of the Pacific Division, sent an assistant to examine the general’s actions.
In the Battle of the Clearwater on July 11–12, he arrived just as Howard made his last assault on warriors. Despite the fact that the Nez Perces killed more than 40 soldiers at a cost of just four dead and six injured, the general forced the Indians to flee over the Bitterroots via Lolo Pass.
Howard was able to save his career by having the after-action report delivered straight to freshly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Soon after, a Nez Perce messenger came in Howard’s camp, claiming to be Joseph’s representative and demanding conditions. It was a stalling strategy. Joseph led his followers through the Bitterroots while the general dealt with the bogus messenger.
Howard pursued, but the mountain route taxed his troops, and his scouts were ambushed by the Nez Perce rearguard, one of whom died and another was wounded in the chest by a bullet.
Howard’s deliberate approach irritated his bosses and enraged his adversaries. Howard was known among the Nez Perce as “Day After Tomorrow,” a sarcastic allusion to when he’d catch up to them.
Though Howard’s troops eventually caught up with the Nez Perces in southwest Montana Territory, they were beaten to it by a force commanded by Colonel John Gibson. Gibson made a surprise assault at daybreak on August 9, but Joseph’s men rallied and fought back valiantly in the two-day Battle of the Big Hole.
Howard arrived too late to join Gibson’s reinforcements, but he did bring physicians to help with the casualties (31 soldiers had been killed, 38 wounded). Joseph lost about 70 disciples, with around 30 of them being fighters.
The remaining Nez Perces were able to break away and flee to Yellowstone National Park, which had just been created.
Howard believed he had them cornered, but in a nocturnal assault early on August 20, warriors took most of his mules and ponies.
Despite the fact that neither side lost many losses in the daylong Battle of Camas Meadows, Howard chose to call a stop to the chase to give his exhausted men a respite.
Sherman was beginning to worry whether Howard had the motivation to complete his goal. He’d even sent out 7th Infantry Lt. Col. Charles Champion Gilbert to take command of the campaign after the disaster in Yellowstone. Gilbert, ironically, couldn’t keep up with Howard.
The Nez Perces then went to the Crow Nation for refuge, but the Crows bluntly refused. Joseph then directed his people north, hoping to reach safety on the Canadian border.
Howard had observed at that stage in the chase that anytime he slowed his march, the Nez Perces slowed theirs as well.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, he sent a message to Colonel Miles, then camped to the east at the junction of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, suggesting that if he moved quickly enough, he might catch Joseph before he passed the international boundary. After that, the general paused his chase.
Howard’s ruse was successful. The Nez Perces, lulled into a false feeling of security, camped on the north slope of the Bear Paw Mountains, barely 40 miles from the boundary.
Miles eventually caught up with them and informed Howard that he had engaged the Nez Perces.
Howard raced ahead of his command with a tiny escort to be there for the finale. With the exception of Joseph and White Bird, the fight developed into a three-day siege in which the majority of the Nez Perce leadership was slain.
On October 5, the chief finally surrendered, with Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Howard’s assistant, recording the chief’s famous “I will fight no more forever” statement.
Joseph and 417 others formally surrendered, according to the Army. According to White Bird, he and around 170 other people made it to Canada.
Howard and Miles had both assured Joseph that he would be able to return home. General Sherman, on the other hand, overruled the order and had them transferred to a tiny Oklahoma reserve. To Howard’s credit, he fought for the Nez Perce to be restored to their Idaho reservation for years.
The Bannocks launched a revolt the next spring, fed up with being housed alongside Shoshones at the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southern Idaho Territory, and fed up with whites scamming them out of government supplies.
On the warpath up and down the Snake River Valley, Chief Buffalo Horn commanded 600 to 800 warriors.
However, unlike while fighting the Nez Perces, the Army handled this breakout differently. First, rather than commanding on the field, Howard commanded the campaign from camp.
Second, the general put a large reward on the heads of Bannock leaders, which other tribes eagerly accepted, leaving the marauders without a leader from time to time. Bannocks assaulted Howard’s camp near the junction of Butter Creek and the Columbia River on July 7, in his last field battle.
In the ensuing battle, the Bannocks murdered over a dozen whites while losing 15 warriors. Five troopers were injured, one of them died. The rebellion was ended after a month.
Howard sat for this picture in uniform in 1908, a year before his death on Oct. 26, 1909, at the age of 78. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Howard was the superintendent at West Point from 1881 to 1882. He was subsequently made commander of the Department of the Platte, a position he held until 1886.
He wrote and talked about the Nez Perce War at this time, first justifying his effort and then praising Joseph. He was promoted to head the Military Division of the Pacific from 1888 to 1894, and then retired as commander of the Department of the East in 1894.
Howard, the ever hopeful reformer, assisted in the establishment of a series of YMCAs at the turn of the century. The 78-year-old Civil War and Indian war veteran died in his sleep at home in Burlington, Vermont, on Oct. 26, 1909.
Despite the negative publicity, the Christian General had a distinguished military career, having successfully negotiated peace with the Apaches and pursued the Nez Perces. He’d acquired a reputation as one of the best Army commanders in the West. WW
Mike Coppock, who lives in Oklahoma, is a regular contributor to Wild West. He recommends Daniel J. Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War, as well as Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army’s Autobiography.
The original version of this story appeared in the June 2023 edition of Wild West.
Oliver Otis Howard was a Christian soldier who fought in the American Civil War. He died on June 23, 1864 after being shot by a Confederate sniper. Reference: how did oliver otis howard die.
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