American Civil War: Major General Oliver O. Howard

Oliver O. Howard during the Civil War
Major General Oliver O. Howard. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Oliver O. Howard - Early Life & Career:

The son of Rowland and Eliza Howard, Oliver Otis Howard was born at Leeds, ME on November 3, 1830. Losing his father at age nine, Howard received a strong education at series of academies in Maine before electing to attend Bowdoin College. Graduating in 1850, he decided to pursue a military career and sought an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. Entering West Point that year, he proved a superior student and graduated fourth in a class of 46 in 1854. Among his classmates were J.E.B. Stuart and Dorsey Pender. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Howard moved through a series of ordnance assignments including time at Watervliet and Kennebec Arsenals. Marrying Elizabeth Waite in 1855, he received orders to take part in a campaign against the Seminoles in Florida two years later.

Oliver O. Howard – The Civil War Begins:

Though a religious man, while in Florida Howard experienced a deep conversion to evangelical Christianity. Promoted to first lieutenant that July, he returned to West Point as a mathematics instructor that fall. While there, he frequently considered leaving the service to enter the ministry. This decision continued to weigh on him, but as sectional tensions built and the Civil War neared, he resolved to defend the Union. With the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Howard prepared to go to war. The following month, he took command of the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment with the rank of colonel of volunteers. As the spring progressed, he rose to command the Third Brigade in Colonel Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Division in the Army of Northeastern Virginia. Taking part in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, Howard’s brigade occupied Chinn Ridge but was driven off in confusion after being attacked by Confederate troops led by Colonels Jubal A. Early and Arnold Elzey.

Oliver O. Howard – An Arm Lost:

Promoted to brigadier general on September 3, Howard and his men joined Major General George B. McClellan’s newly-formed Army of the Potomac. Recognized for his devout religious beliefs, he soon earned the sobriquet “the Christian General” though this title was often used with a degree of sarcasm by his comrades. In the spring of 1862, his brigade moved south for the Peninsula Campaign. Serving in Brigadier General John Sedgwick’s division of Brigadier General Edwin Sumner’s II Corps, Howard joined McClellan’s slow advance towards Richmond. On June 1, he returned to combat when his men met the Confederates at the Battle of Seven Pines. As the fighting raged, Howard was hit twice in the right arm. Taken from the field, the injuries proved serious enough that the arm was amputated.

Oliver O. Howard - A Rapid Rise:

Recovering from his wounds, Howard missed the remainder of the fighting on the Peninsula as well as the defeat at Second Manassas. Returning to his brigade, he led it during the fighting at Antietam on September 17. Serving under Sedgwick, Howard took command of the division after his superior was badly wounded during an attack near the West Woods. In the fighting, the division sustained heavy losses as Sumner had ordered it into action without conducting proper reconnaissance. Promoted to major general in November, Howard retained command of the division. With Major General Ambrose Burnside’s ascent to command, the Army of the Potomac moved south to Fredericksburg. On December 13, Howard’s division took part in the Battle of Fredericksburg. A bloody disaster, the fighting saw the division make a failed assault on the Confederate defenses atop Marye’s Heights.

Oliver O. Howard - XI Corps:

In April 1863, Howard received an appointment to replace Major General Franz Sigel as commander of XI Corps. Largely comprised of German immigrants, the men of XI Corps immediately began lobbying for Sigel’s return as he too was an immigrant and had been a popular revolutionary in Germany. Imposing a high level of military and moral discipline, Howard quickly earned his new command’s resentment. In early May, Major General Joseph Hooker, who had replaced Burnside, attempted to swing around to the west of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s position at Fredericksburg. In the resulting Battle of Chancellorsville, Howard’s corps occupied the right flank of the Union line. Though advised that his right flank was in the air by Hooker, he took no action to anchor it on a natural obstacle or construct substantial defenses. On the evening of May 2, Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson mounted a devastating flank attack that routed XI Corps and destabilized the Union position.

Though shattered, XI Corps mounted a fighting retreat that saw it lose around a quarter of its strength and Howard was conspicuous in his attempts to rally his men. Effectively spent as a fighting force, XI Corps did not play a meaningful role in the rest of the battle. Recovering from Chancellorsville, the corps marched north the following month in pursuit of Lee who intended to invade Pennsylvania. On July 1, XI Corps moved to the aid of Brigadier General John Buford’s Union cavalry and Major General John Reynolds I Corps which had become engaged in the opening phases of the Battle of Gettysburg. Approaching on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road, Howard detached a division to guard the key heights of Cemetery Hill to the south of Gettysburg before deploying the rest of his men on I Corps’ right north of town.

Attacked by Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps, Howard’s men were overwhelmed and forced to fall back after one of his division commanders, Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow, blundered by moving his men out of position. As the Union line collapsed, XI Corps retreated back through town and assumed a defensive position on Cemetery Hill. As Reynolds had been killed early in the fighting, Howard served as the senior Union leader on the field until Major General Winfield S. Hancock arrived with orders from army commander Major General George G. Meade to take over. Despite Hancock’s written orders, Howard resisted ceding control of the battle. Remaining on the defensive for the remainder of the battle, XI Corps turned back Confederate attacks the next day. Though criticized for his corps’ performance, Howard later received the thanks of Congress for selected the ground on which the battle would be fought.

Oliver O. Howard – Going West:

On September 23, XI Corps and Major General Henry Slocum’s XII Corps were detached from the Army of the Potomac and set west to aid Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts to relieve Major General William S. Rosecrans’ besieged Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga. Collectively led by Hooker, the two corps aided Grant in opening a supply line to Rosecrans’ men. In late November, XI Corps took part in the fighting around the city which culminated with General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee being driven from Missionary Ridge and forced to retreat south. The following spring, Grant departed to take overall command of the Union war effort and leadership in the west passed to Major General William T. Sherman. Organizing his forces for a campaign against Atlanta, Sherman directed Howard to take over IV Corps in Major General George H. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland.

Moving south in May, Howard and his corps saw action at Pickett's Mill on the 27th and Kennesaw Mountain a month later. As Sherman's armies neared Atlanta, part of IV Corps took part in the Battle of Peachtree Creek on July 20. Two days later, Major General James B. McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was killed at the Battle of Atlanta. With the loss of McPherson, Sherman directed Howard to take over the Army of the Tennessee. On July 28, he led his new command into battle at Ezra Church. In the fighting, his men turned back attacks by Lieutenant General John Bell Hood. In late August, Howard led the Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Jonesboro which resulted in Hood being forced to abandon Atlanta. Reorganizing his forces that fall, Sherman retained Howard in his position and had the Army of the Tennessee serve as the right wing of his March to the Sea.

Oliver O. Howard - Final Campaigns:

Departing in mid-November, Sherman's advance saw Howard's men and Slocum's Army of Georgia drive through the heart of Georgia, living off the land, and sweeping aside light enemy resistance. Reaching Savannah, Union forces captured the city on December 21. In the spring of 1865, Sherman pushed north into South Carolina with Slocum and Howard's commands. After capturing Columbia, SC on February 17, the advance continued and Howard entered North Carolina in early March. On March 19, Slocum was attacked by General Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Bentonville. Turning, Howard brought his men to Slocum's aid and the combined armies compelled Johnston to retreat. Pressing on, Howard and his men were present the following month when Sherman accepted Johnston's surrender at Bennett Place.

Oliver O. Howard - Later Career:

An ardent abolitionist before the war, Howard was appointed head of the Freedmen's Bureau in May 1865. Charged with integrating formerly enslaved people into society, he implemented a wide array of social programs including education, medical care, and food distribution. Backed by the Radical Republicans in Congress, he often clashed with President Andrew Johnson. During this time, he aided in the formation of Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1874, he assumed command of the Department of the Columbia with his headquarters in the Washington Territory. While out west, Howard took part in the Indian Wars and in 1877 mounted a campaign against the Nez Perce which resulted in the capture of Chief Joseph. Returning east in 1881, he briefly served as superintendent at West Point before taking command of the Department of the Platte in 1882. Belatedly presented with the Medal of Honor in 1893 for his actions at Seven Pines, Howard retired in 1894 after serving as commander of the Department of the East. Moving to Burlington, VT, he died on October 26, 1909 and was buried at Lake View Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Oliver O. Howard." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Oliver O. Howard. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Oliver O. Howard." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).