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O.O.Howard “The Christian General”

Speaker: David Thomson

Howard was a graduate of Bowdoin College and West Point. From very early on in his life he was a religious man and this continued at West Point. We had a picture of Howard as a bit of loner, not having many friends due to his convictions. Whilst at West Point he was involved in an argument over slavery with another student and was hospitalised for four months. Despite this setback, Howard finished fourth in his class. He went to Florida and fell under the influence of Lamas. He was connected with Joshua Chamberlain but neither mentions the other in their respective memoirs.

Howard was an avid reader and he was influenced greatly by the memoirs of Capt Hedley Vickers, a Christian who died in battle. This led Howard to reconcile his soldierly existences with his religion. Howard also reads a similar story about General Havelock published in 1859. In 1857 Howard returned to West Point as Professor of maths but continued to pursue his religion. He seemed to be in constant turmoil and decided to resign to join the ministry, but he left the decision to "the great ruler in my life".

With the outbreak of war he offered his services to Maine and was appointed colonel of the 3rd Maine Infantry. He was a hard taskmaster and "hated drunkenness and profanity". This did not go down very well with the new volunteers. He was a Brigade commander at Bull Run. He was annoyed that the battle took place on a Sunday, but despite his reservations, his brigade fared well and he personally tried to calm his men during the retreat.

His religion crept into his command structure with "optional" prayers meetings for his officers. His men regarded him as "aloof and cold" and his demeanour was subject to ridicule by the lower ranks. Howard himself was brave in the face of the enemy - it was as if God was directing him. Howard was not an isolated figure, Religion played an important role in both sides and many revival meeting took place from 1863 onwards. In 1864 the AoP built 69 chapels as they settled into the siege of Petersburg.

Early in 1863 Howard was given command of XI Corps by Hooker. He had little time to acquaint himself with his mostly German troops when Jackson tore into them at Chancellorsville. Howard was criticised for not preparing his troops on the eve of battle and he later admitted to his troop's poor performance. In the turmoil of Hookers sacking and Meade's appointment, Howard was spared the axe, mainly due to his political connections. Howard had little time to reflect on this as his Corps was again embroiled in a fight on July 1st at Gettysburg. In the confusion of the first day, Howard took over temporary command when Reynolds was killed and through the placing of a division on Cemetery Hill, he probably saved the day for the Union. Late in the day Hancock arrived with orders from Meade to take command and although Howard outranked him, Howard eventually conceded command. Subsequent to the battle both Howard and Hancock told different stories but Congress later ratified everyone involved in the matter and drew the matter to a close.

So Howard had notched up to big failures, but this did not prove he was inept. By the end of 1863 he found himself and his Corps fairly isolated and was noticeably relieved when the decision was made to transfer them west to join Sherman. Despite their obvious character differences Sherman and Howard grew to accept each other. Sherman himself stated "In him I made no mistake."

Howard took part in the march to the sea and was soon quite adept at marching his men hard to gain territory. Howard was concerned with the destruction of properly and violations on the population. However during the occupation of Columbia on February 18th 1865 his soldiers got drunk and got out of control. Howard promptly issued Order 42 effectively halting the destruction, but promptly went to have and before it was fully issued. His aides decided to let him sleep rather than disturb him. The destruction continued.

Howard was appointed commander of the army of the Tennessee, but in the victory parade in Washington, Sherman asked him to ride with him and let John Logan lead the Army on parade. Thinking it better to ride alongside his boss, Howard acquiesced.

At the end of the war Howard was appointed chief of the Freedman Bureau of Affairs.

A lively Q & A session took place and the following points were raised:-

  • At Fair Oaks Howard was wounded and lost his arm. He declined the opportunity to return to Maine to rest and insteadwent on recruiting and money raising tours. He was back before 2nd Bull Run. Unlike Sickles at Gettysburg he didn't retain the arm.

  • After the war he shunned politics and turned down the governorship.

  • At the Freedman's Bureau Howard oversaw a fledgling operation to help freed slaves. It was to provide relief and assistance - money and food. Howard looked at education as an important factor and established schools throughout the south. Howard maintained his rank and tried to run the bureau along military lines. He stayed in Washington most of the time. Due to the nature of the beast, there was a great deal of corruption in the organisation. Howard left to join the army fighting the native Indians.

  • His relation with Hooker was bad. Neither had anything good to say about each other. Despite his Christian background, Howard probably hated Hooker.

  • Post war he was appointed to fight the Nez Perce tribe. AS was customary with US forces at the time Howard underestimated his enemy and suffered some defeats. He went to California and then back east rising to second in command of the Army. In 1895 he retired. He established Howard College.

  • Howard was not an abolitionist prior to the war but as the war grew he saw the benefit in supporting it politically and by the end of the war he was very ardent in his views.

  • His nickname of the "Christian General" is a misnomer. He was possibly more of a unitarist. He was interested in helping society through education and temperance. The nickname may have come about by his lack of aggression in battle but maybe this can be countered by the fact he was surprised at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Other Civil War generals were more religious but their successes overshadowed this attribute.

  • Howard was not the easiest man to work with. He was essentially a 'Yes Man'. Sherman told him where to be and when and he did it. Howard was never anyone's first choice. He rose through the command structure from 3rd Maine to the Army of the Tennessee. His promotion arose mainly as a result of being the senior ranking officer.

  • His wife played a major role in his life. When he left West Point he chose Ordnance rather than the Engineers to be with her. They had a few children and it was her that eventually made him retire.


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