A Christian & an Enthusiast: General Oliver O. Howard

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A change of pace as I get ready for a new class and a section of my Gettysburg Text about Major General Oliver O. Howard. Howard is interesting because alone of senior Union generals his Christian Faith guided his actions and he was maligned by some for that faith. 

This section is only biographic sketch before his Eleventh Corps went into action at Gettysburg. Likewise it does not discuss his very successful command of a corps and army in the West under William Tecumseh Sherman, nor his post war service. I think that he makes an interesting character study; after all, the one constant in history is humanity. We learn from men like Howard and that is important.


Padre Steve+


Major General Oliver O. Howard, U.S. Army

With John Reynolds dead and Abner Doubleday directing First Corps in its defense west of Gettysburg Major General Oliver O. Howard, commander of Eleventh Corps assumed command of the Federal forces around Gettysburg. Howard was one of the more unusual characters in the senior leadership of the Army of the Potomac, and later when he served under William Tecumseh Sherman’s command in the west, mostly because of his strong Evangelical Christian religious convictions and the fact that he did not drink. Sherman remarked to a group of generals who were mocking Howard’s temperance, “Let Howard alone! I want one officer who don’t drink!” [1]

“A Christian and an Enthusiast”

The thirty-three year old Howard was from Maine, his father had died when he was ten and in 1846 at the age of sixteen he entered Bowdoin College. He graduated from Bowdoin in 1850 near the top of his small class, and education, far from being something simply to prepare himself for a career was important of itself, and he told his mother, “Education is my first aim…. I seek not money, but a cultivated and enlightened mind, becoming & corresponding with the age in which we live.” [2] During his time at Bowdoin Howard was introspective and frequently mused on his own shortcomings and failures. He also showed little interest in world or national events, including the war with Mexico, but in his first year at Bowdoin he did take an interest in the cousin of a classmate, Elizabeth Ann Waite, or Lizzie who eventually became his wife.

While he was finishing his time at Bowdoin he was still uncertain of what he would do. It was then that his uncle, Congressman John Otis who had help to raise him following the death of his father secured for him an appointment to West Point. He did very well academically but at times struggled with some of his fellow students, some of who considered him “priggish, self-righteous, and opinionated.” [3] This was most likely due to a number of reasons, first his moderate abolitionist views, which were unpopular with many cadets, his active participation in the Bible class, which some classmates ridiculed, and his high academic standing, which provoked the jealousy of others. Howard was also resented by some for his friendship with Sergeant Warren Lothrop, a Mexican War veteran, a childhood friend who was “the son of a close friend of his own father” [4] as well as maintaining a friendship with a cadet “who had been “cut” – shunned – by the corps.” [5] While he stood by the cadet, he was forbidden to maintain the friendship by the Commandant of Cadets due to rules on fraternization, but in the eyes of some classmates, the damage had been done. One cadet who never accepted Howard was Custis Lee, an academic rival and the son of Robert E. Lee.

Despite a rough start Howard became friends with many cadets, including some who had shunned him early in his West Point experience. However, one friend who stood by Howard throughout was a cadet from Virginia named J.E.B. Stuart, who he knew from the Bible class. Howard wrote of that friendship, “I can never forget the manliness of J.E.B. Stuart…. He spoke to me, he visited me, and we became warm friends, often, on Saturday afternoons, visiting the young ladies of the post together.” [6] Howard’s friends included cadets from north and south, and never appeared to let political or ideological differences influence his choice of friends.

He graduated fourth in the class of 1854 and commissioned as a Brevet Second Lieutenant in the highly technical Ordinance Corps. He married Lizzie the following year and held a number of assignments in his corps before being assigned to Florida at the tail end of the Seminole Wars where as an Ordinance officer he saw no action. However, during his time in Florida he experienced his conversion to Evangelical Christianity, following his attendance of a number of Methodist revival meetings and his future life would bear evidence of the influence of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. His faith became a facet of his life that he would never waver from incurring the praise as well as the criticism of various contemporaries. He wrote Lizzie:

“I then bore hat the text above in mind, & said in my heart oh! My Saviour, I know that thou canst save me! I made an effort to fully believe that my sins were washed in the blood of the Lamb, that my dear Saviour had actually saved me at that moment, i.e. had pardoned all my transgressions of the laws of God, & all the wickedness of a corrupt heart – The fullness of the glow of happiness came into my heart, the tugging & burning left me – the choking sensation was gone…my mind is as clear as when making out an Ordinance Return…” [7]

Following his conversion he led prayers and Bible studies, had enlisted me to his quarters for morning devotions and even considered leaving the army for the ministry. It was fortunate for Howard that his commander, an elderly Colonel, Gustavus Loomis, was a devout Christian who had first taken him to the Methodist revival meetings, for many other senior officers would have not approved of such overtly evangelical behavior.

Howard was transferred back to West Point in September of 1857 where now as a First Lieutenant he was assigned as an instructor in Mathematics, and was able to again be with Lizzie and their children. At West Point he continued his religious activities, leading Bible studies and became the superintendent of a Sunday school for the children of enlisted men and briefly explored the possibility of entering the ministry with a local Episcopal priest and even studied Hebrew for a time.

During his time as an instructor at West Point the young officer, like many devout converts to any religion, wrestled with his faith. Always introspective Howard became even more so, do much soul-searching and with two issues that he recognized in himself, vanity and pride. He wrote: “the pride & haughtiness of my heart is more than pen can tell, but I believe God will so school me, by failures when I act without Christ, by disappointments & afflictions, as to bring my miserably foolish soul into full subjection to himself…. I fear if God would give me success with my heart as it is now, that I would be puffed up with pride & thus lose the countenance of my blessed Saviour.” [8] That struggle to harmonize the tension between his desire to excel in the army and life, with his concerns for his soul should he become consumed by ambition and vanity would become more pronounced within a few very short years.

As he had for most of his life Howard took little interest in political questions and the growing movement toward secession. This was not surprising because Howard, whose religious commitment was continuing to grow was planning to take a leave of absence from the army to attend Bangor Theological Seminary, where his brother, Charles was already a student. However, when Fort Sumter was fired on Howard “abandoned the plan to enter the ministry and determined to stay as a regular or volunteer until the war was over.” [9]

As the officers who made their choice to remain loyal to the Union were now confronted with the decision to remain in the Regular Army or join the new volunteer regiments being formed by Northern states. For many, loyalty and the desire to fight to protect the Union was mixed with a certain amount of pragmatic ambition. Remaining in the relatively small Regular Army might leave them in the position of assisting the training of new volunteer units, or involved with the administration or organizing and equipping them, possibly with limited promotion opportunity while taking a volunteer commission could lead to rapid promotion, command of a regiment or even a brigade.

But initially “the was “a prevalent opposition to regular officers accepting commissions in the volunteers,” [10] but soon the reality that the Regular army was insufficient to bring the rebellious states back into the Union caused the army to allow officers to serve with the volunteers. Howard’s fellow Mathematics instructor, Lieutenant Gouverneur Warren was one of the first young officers at West Point to accept a volunteer commission in the Fifth New York Infantry, the Duryea Zouaves. Howard wrote to Maine’s governor, Israel Washburne offering his services to the State, and after an initial rebuff was offered command of the Third Maine Volunteer Infantry. When he received the offer from Maine Howard took it to Lieutenant Colonel John Reynolds, the Commandant of Cadets and told Reynolds of the offer and asked, “I’ve had the tender, or what amounts to it, of a Maine Regiment. What answer would you give, colonel?’ Reynolds replied, “You’ll accept, of course, Howard,” [11] and then preceded to give the young officer a lesson on what colonels needed to know.

One thing Howard had settled in his mind was the legitimacy of war. As a cadet at West Point he had studied the works of Henry Wager Halleck, who wrote one of the first comprehensive books on strategy by an American and who included in his work a synopsis of the traditional Just War Theory. Halleck, like Howard, was a devout Christian and in his book he wrote “The prevention and punishment of crime causes much human suffering; nevertheless the good of the community requires that crime should be prevented and punished. So, as a nation, we employ military officers to man our ships and forts, to protect our property and our persons, and to repel and punish those who seek to rob us of our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness…” [12] When Fort Sumter was attacked and other Federal installations in the South being overrun Howard believed that “it was a citizen’s duty to defend his country just as a father would defend his wife and children from an assassin.” [13] When the regiment arrived in New York on its way to Washington it was presented a flag by patriotic Maine citizens living there. Upon receiving it, Howard thanked them and his words reflected his thoughts about war and duty, as well as his religious faith: “I was born in the East, but I was educated by my country. I know no section; I know no party; I never did. I know only my country to love it, and my God who is over my country. We go forth to battle in defense of righteousness and liberty, civil and religious. We go strong in muscle, strong in heart, strong in soul, because we are right…” [14]

Howard’s faith would be a source of personal strength throughout the war and while some like Joseph Hooker ridiculed his faith saying “He was always taken up with Sunday Schools and the temperance cause. Those things are all very good, you know, but have little to do with commanding an army corps. He would command a prayer meeting with a good deal more ability than he would an army.” [15] Likewise his “reputation as a Christian “hampered his acceptance by both fellow officers and enlisted men.” [16] Despite this, many soldiers and officers in every unit Howard commanded came to admire him

Despite this Howard did eventually succeed and became the only officer of his West Point class of 1854 to become a Major General in the Regular Army of the United States. It was not always an easy road, but Howard displayed a resiliency in the face difficulty and even defeat, a resiliency that enabled him to grow as an officer and commander as the war went on.

Shortly after the Third Maine joined the army at Washington Howard was made a brigade commander. His brigade was involved in the final attack at Bull Run were it was caught up in the disaster that overtook the army of Irvin McDowell. He was promoted to brigadier general and commanded a brigade during McClellan’s inept Peninsular Campaign and “at Fair Oaks on June 1, he was hit twice in the right arm while leading a charge; a second bullet shattered the bone near the elbow, and the arm had to be amputated.” [17] Howard’s bravery in the face of the enemy was noted, especially after having received the first wound he continued to lead his men despite having three horses shot from under him. One of his regimental commanders wrote, “The General was the only Brigadier that I saw on the field who led his men into battle & handled them there – He acted with a bravery bordering on rashness & nobly sustained his reputation as a brave and efficient officer.” [18]

Within two months Howard was back with the army, his former officers writing McClellan to recommend that Howard be given command of a division. He did not immediately get that, but was given command of a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves, the Philadelphia Brigade in John Sedgwick’s division. He took command of that division when Sedgwick was wounded at Antietam. He commanded the division when it was thrown into General Ambrose Burnside’s ill-advised and doomed assault of Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Though his division could not break the Confederate line he was commended by Major General Charles Sumner and Major General Darius Couch for his actions. Sumner noted Howard’s “judicious disposition” in driving the Confederates from Fredericksburg” while “Couch, in speak of the corps losses, stated: “Howard, coming up late, lost 700 men, besides 150 on the 11th. He did well in the part assigned to him.” [19]

During the winter following Burnside’s relief and the appointment of Major General Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac, Howard remained in command of his division. The vanity that he wrestled with in his spiritual life got the better of him when Daniel Sickles, a political general with no formal military training was appointed to command the Third Corps. Howard, who was senior to Sickles protested to Hooker and was promised the newly arrived Eleventh Corps. The corps, which had just become part of Hooker’s army was never “accepted as a true part of the Army of the Potomac,” where it was viewed as a “foreign contingent,” [20] “and was looked upon by the older units with some distain, despite its having seen considerable action.” [21] The previous Corps commander, Major General Fritz Sigel had just left the army after a disagreement regarding not receiving a larger command during the reorganization of the army. When he left many of the corps’ soldiers remained very loyal to their old commander, and “thought Howard was being advanced at Sigel’s expense.” [22]

But Hooker had created a problem for himself. Eleventh Corps was the only large unit in the Federal Army with a high concentration of Germans. Many of the soldiers had enlisted to serve under men that they knew and trusted, Fritz Sigel and Carl Schurz. When Sigel left command Hooker could have appointed Carl Schurz to command the corps, but “Hooker had little use for Schurz’s generalship,” [23] and bluntly told Secretary of War Stanton that he would not appoint Schurz to corps command. For Howard, this was not good, for “in his anxiety to receive a command commensurate with his rank he had failed to consider all the consequences.” [24]

Howard took command of Eleventh Corps barely a month before Hooker launched his offensive against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which culminated in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Howard struggled to gain the acceptance of the German soldiers of his new command, many of whom were resentful of having to serve under a non-German officer who did not understand them. Howard’s overtly Evangelical Christian approach to command and stress on temperance, which included the distribution of religious tracts did not endear him to the Germans, many of who were Catholics, free-thinkers and beer drinkers. While Howard’s piety was appreciated many soldiers of English and Scottish descent with Protestant roots, the “Germans of the Eleventh Corps, many of whom were freethinkers, the activities of “Old Prayer Book” were not welcome…. The Eleventh Corps would go on campaign under a general it neither liked nor trusted, and Howard was marching quite out of step with his command.” [25] Some understood this, Colonel Charles Wainwright, commander of the First Corps artillery wrote, “Howard, who succeeds Sigel in the Eleventh is brave enough, and a most perfect gentleman. He is a Christian and an enthusiast, as well as a man of ability, but there is some doubt as to his having snap enough to manage the Germans, who require to be ruled with a rod of iron.” [26]

In the ensuing battle Howard’s Eleventh Corps was taken in the flank by Stonewall Jackson’s troops which outnumbered his badly situated corps by nearly three-to-one, his only reserve brigade having been taken by Hooker to support Sickle’s Third Corps. The ensuing action was a disaster as regiment after regiment was rolled up by the rapidly advancing Confederate phalanx.

Blame could be assigned to both Hooker and Howard, Hooker for leaving Eleventh Corps unsupported and isolated on the flank without a reserve, and Howard for not taking better precautions to secure his right flank from a surprise attack. Neither Howard, nor his senior division commander Brigadier general Charles Devens “personally investigated any of the reports of Rebel activity on their front, and Howard compounded his negligence by leaving his command for two critical hours.” [27] Only Carl Schurz took any action to protect the corps flank and rear by quietly facing three of his regiments west. When the night was over Howard admitted “I wanted to die…. That night I did all in my power to remedy the mistake, and I sought death everywhere I could find an excuse to go to the field.” [28] However, Jackson’s victory was more tactical than strategic and as one historian noted “the corps had generally acquitted itself well in a nearly hopeless situation and delayed Confederate progress until dark,” [29]at which time the Confederates experienced the loss of Stonewall Jackson who was mortally wounded in the darkness by his own troops as he tried to push his corps forward.

However, the morale of the Eleventh Corps was crushed and it would not get a chance to redeem itself during the rest of the Chancellorsville campaign. When Hooker lost his nerve, refused to counter-attack, and then decided to withdraw he was opposed by Howard, George Meade, Darius Couch and John Reynolds who advocated a renewal of the offensive against Lee who they knew to have taken heavy casualties and had to be outnumbered by the Army of the Potomac.

The ever insightful Charles Wainwright wrote, “Some of the papers are very severe on Hooker, and insist upon that he was drunk, which I do not believe. Others go quite as far the other way, and try to screen him from all blame, seeking to throw it on one or the other of his subordinates. The attacks on General Howard are outrageous. He had been in command of the Eleventh Corps but a month before the fight, and was previously unknown to its officers and men…. He is the only religious man of high rank I know in this army, and, in the little intercourse I have had with him, shewed himself the most polished gentleman I have met. I know that he was very anxious to attack Lee on Monday, and together with Couch, Reynolds, and Meade was decidedly opposed to our withdraw on Wednesday night…” [30]

But the damage to the Eleventh Corps had been done. In the search for blame the old line prejudice and sentiment of the “Know nothings” against the immigrant Germans was once again unleashed. Inside and outside the Army of the Potomac, the Eleventh Corps was given the derisive nickname of “the flying Dutchmen” despite the fact that approximately half of its soldiers were of old line Yankee stock. The Eleventh Corps was not without good soldiers or good leaders, the real issue came from “the prejudice of Americans and the defensive attitude of the Germans…” [31] The soldiers of the corps had to endure the mocking of soldiers of other units and the scorn of the press, which “spoke of the “unexampled conduct” of the Eleventh Corps and how “the whole failure of the Army of the Potomac was owing to [its] scandalous poltroonery.” [32] In defense of the Corps Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelpfennig wrote “It would seem a nest of vipers had but waited for an auspicious moment to spit out their poisonous slanders upon this heretofore honored corps…. I have been proud to command the brave men in this brigade; but I am sure that unless these infamous falsehoods be retracted and reparations made, their good will and soldierly spirit will be broken…” [33]

Like his army commander, Fighting Joe Hooker, Howard never “conceded that he was in any way negligent, but he once hinted that at Chancellorsville he was inexperienced and that he had learned a lesson. “When I was a lad, a larger boy gave me a drubbing, but I grew in size and strength till he could do it no longer. The war experience of some of us was like that.” [34] To his credit, Howard did learn from his mistakes and never was surprised again as Eleventh Corps commander or the Commander of the Army of Tennessee under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman. However, Hooker, not only refused to take any blame, but proceeded to blame “squarely upon three of the army’s eight corps commanders…” [35] Howard, John Sedgwick and cavalry corps commander George Stoneman.

The troops were discouraged and resentful of their treatment; one officer wrote of the corps’ withdraw from Chancellorsville “I recrossed with a heavy heart, and… I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I was ashamed of the battle, and deplored the sad experience of the Eleventh Corps…” while Howard noted, “there was no gloomier period during the great war than the month which followed the disasters at Chancellorsville.” [36] Carl Schurz wrote “The spirit of this corps is broken, and something must be done to revive it.” [37] It was in this depressed environment, commanding a corps that was defeated and demoralized that Oliver Howard advanced into Gettysburg on July 1st 1863.


[1] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944 p.178

[2] Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard Fordham University Press, New York 1999 p.3

[3] Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1986 and 1999 p.24

[4] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.8

[5] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoon p.24

[6] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoon p.25

[7] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.17

[8] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.20

[9] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.21

[10] Jordan, David M. Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 2001 p.34

[11] Howard, Oliver O. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, U.S. Army Volume 1 The Baker and Taylor Company, New York 1907 Made available by the Internet Achieve through Amazon Kindle location1627 of 9221

[12] Halleck, Henry Wager. Elements of Military Art and Science Or, Course Instruction In Strategy, Fortification Tactics of Battles, &c. Embracing the Duties of Staff, Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, and Engineers, Adapted for the Use of Volunteers and Militia Third Edition D. Appleton & Company, New York and London 1862 Amazon Kindle edition location 149 of 6332

[13] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.21

[14] Ibid. Howard Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard location 1983 of 9221

[15] Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words Zenith Press, MBI Publishing, Minneapolis MN 2013 p.92

[16] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.25

[17] Tagg, Larry The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle Da Capo Press Cambridge MA 1998 Amazon Kindle Edition p. 121

[18] Ibid. Girardi The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words p.91

[19] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.41

[20] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.178

[21] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.43

[22] Ibid. Hebert Fighting Joe Hooker p.178

[23] Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 1996 p.64

[24] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.43

[25] Ibid. Sears Chancellorsville p.65

[26] Wainwright, Charles S. A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journal of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright 1861-1865 edited by Allan Nevins, Da Capo Press, New York 1998 p.183

[27] Ibid. Sears Chancellorsville p.270

[28] Ibid. Sears Chancellorsville p.286

[29] Greene, A. Wilson. From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.57

[30] Ibid. Wainwright A Diary of Battle p.210

[31] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.306

[32] Ibid. Green From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership p.58

[33] Ibid. Green From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership p.58

[34] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.49

[35] Sears, Stephen W Gettysburg Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003 pp.193-194 and Coddington p.20

[36] Ibid. Green From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership p.57

[37] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.37


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