Oliver Otis Howard

Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909), a general on the Union side in the American Civil War, was commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau and helped establish an educational system for Southern African Americans.

Oliver Otis Howard was born on Nov. 8, 1830, on a farm in Leeds Township, Maine. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1850 and entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After graduating fourth in his class in 1854, he held minor Army appointments before returning to West Point as an instructor of mathematics.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Howard became colonel of the 3d Maine Regiment. He held important commands in the Army of the Potomac and participated in most of the major battles in the eastern theater. He lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Va., in 1862. A devout Congregationalist, he earned the sobriquet of "the Christian Soldier." He commanded a Union Army corps at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg and fought with the Army of the Tennessee, which captured Atlanta. By 1864 he had risen to brigadier general in the Regular Army. In July 1864 he took command of the Army of the Tennessee and led part of Gen. William T. Sherman's troops on the march through Georgia.

Howard's sympathetic interest in African Americans led president Andrew Johnson to appoint his commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau in May 1865. Though one generation of American historians charged the Bureau with fostering racial discord in the South and exploiting the misery of the defeated Confederates, it is now believed that the Bureau followed a moderate course, often adopting the planters' viewpoint in contract disputes with freed slaves, and helped facilitate the return of confiscated lands to their former Confederate owners. The Bureau's most constructive achievement was its partnership with Northern missionary societies in establishing more than a thousand schools for freed slaves, out of which evolved public schools for African Americans and the network of Southern African American colleges. The foremost African American college, Howard University, was named after the commissioner, who served as its president from 1869 to 1874.

Howard returned to Army life in 1874. He commanded expeditions against Indians in the West in 1877 and 1878. He was superintendent of West Point from 1880 to 1882. From 1886 until his retirement in 1894, he commanded the prestigious Division of the East. Howard wrote 10 books, several dealing with his work among Native and African Americans. He died on Oct. 26, 1909.

Further Reading on Oliver Otis Howard

The Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard (2 vols., 1907) is a basic source. A sympathetic modern biography is John A. Carpenter, Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (1964). See also George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955), which treats Howard impartially. William McFeely, Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (1968), is critical of Howard.

Additional Biography Sources

Famous Indian chiefs I have known, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Weland, Gerald, O.O. Howard, Union general, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1995.

Weland, Gerald, Of vision and valor: General Oliver O. Howard, a biography, Canton, Ohio: Daring Pub. Group, 1991.

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