Gen. Oliver Otis Howard thought he was fighting the Civil War to preserve the Union, not to free any slaves.
Howard had earned the nickname of “the Christian General” for his deep, overbearing piety. His men didn’t always appreciate his hectoring them about the Ten Commandments or the evils of booze.
His moral certainty led him to great achievements and to terrible deeds. He founded Howard University, which educated 150,000 freed slaves. But he later led a massacre of women and children belonging to the Nez Perce tribe because they wouldn’t move to a reservation.
But sometimes Oliver Otis Howard couldn’t rely on his moral compass. During the Civil War, he faced a puzzling dilemma: Should he disobey orders and allow a fugitive from slavery her freedom?
Oliver Otis Howard
Born in Leeds, Maine, on Nov. 8, 1830, his mother sent him away to live with relatives after his father died when he was very young. He graduated from Bowdoin College at 19, and went on to West Point. A diligent student, he ranked fourth in a class of 46.
In 1856, he was a lonely young soldier stationed in Florida, far from his wife and baby boy. Seeking comfort, he attended a Methodist prayer meeting and experienced a spiritual awakening. He felt a “new well spring within me, a joy, a peace & a trusting spirit.” He sensed God had destined him for great things.
His military career, like the rest of his life, veered from highlight to lowlight. He won the Medal of Honor for leading a charge at the Battle of Fair Oaks, which cost him his right arm. But he suffered ignominious defeats at Chancellorship and Gettysburg. His men started calling him “Uh-Oh” Howard.
After the Civil War he led the Freedmen’s Bureau, a Reconstruction program that helped former slaves. The Bureau had hundreds of agents in the South distributing food and medicine and finding jobs and schooling for the new citizens.
Howard issued an order to divide up land from confiscated plantations and give it to the people who’d worked them as slaves. But while he vacationed in Maine, President Andrew Johnson reversed his order. In the end, anyone who’d received the promised 40 acres and a mule had to give them back.
Johnson viewed Oliver Otis Howard as a fanatic, and he tried to stymie him at every turn. Howard eventually concluded southerners were still fighting the Civil War and wouldn’t change their attitudes. So he turned his energies to education, and he established a school that bears his name today – Howard University. He served as president from 1869-1874.
Howard explained the importance of Howard University in his 1908 autobiography. In the South, white people who opposed educating black people wouldn’t permit any room or building for use as a school. From 1865-67, mobs all over the South burned schools and churches used as schools. They flogged teachers and drove them away. A number of times, they murdered them.
Howard University started on three acres in Washington, D.C. Classes began in 1867 with five students, all daughters of the school’s white founders. Though it emphasized teacher training, Howard added a law school, a medical school and a seminary under its first president.
Eventually, black students and faculty would outnumber whites, and Howard today produces more black doctorates than any other university. Alumni include Toni Morrison, Andrew Young, Kamala Harris and Thurgood Marshall.
Oliver Otis Howard’s efforts on behalf of the former slaves earned him plenty of enemies, and they got him charged with corruption in running the Freedmen’s Bureau. After years of litigation the courts exonerated him, but he nearly went bankrupt paying his lawyers. And in 1872, Congress abolished the Freedmen’s Bureau.
For his next act, he moved west to kick Indians off their land. He commanded the Department of the Columbia from Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory. His men pursued and slaughtered Nez Perce Indians who refused to move to a reservation.
In Howard’s mind, he tried to do for the Indians what he had tried to do for freed slaves. He was giving them land on which they could lead good Christian lives, only they refused. Finally corralled into a reservation in Oklahoma, many died of disease.
Howard finally commanded the Atlantic Military Division at Fort Columbus on Governors Island in New York before retiring in 1894 as a major general. Then in 1896 he founded Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., to educate “mountain whites.”
He died in 1909 in Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 26, 1909. He lies buried in Lakeview Cemetery.
How did Oliver Otis Howard’s moral compass swing so wildly from educating freed slaves to slaughtering Indians?
One incident early in his career illuminates his thought process. He prided himself on following orders, and had difficulty resolving the moral dilemma that created.
Just after the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, the 30-year-old Oliver Otis Howard commanded a brigade. He and his men were garrisoned on a farm just west of Alexandria, Va.
Abraham Lincoln aimed to quell the southern rebellion without touching slavery. He felt he had to, otherwise the loyal border states might also rebel. Military commanders were to return escaped slaves to their owners.
Howard was entertaining visitors from Waterville, Maine, when a picket guard brought a frightened young woman to him. He described her as “tall straight, healthful and active,” with a boy of about two years old in her arms.
He saw the woman’s terror, and reassured her. In his autobiography, he recounted the incident.
“What do you wish?” I asked. “Sir, I’m a slave woman, and this here’s my child. Let me and my child go free!”
Meanwhile, a poorly dressed, shrill, sallow white woman was ushered in. “That there woman is my slave,” she said. “I have always treated her well, and here she is. She has run off. Now, sir, you must send her back to me, for she is mine. She and the boy, they’re my property.”
I found myself under most stringent orders not to harbor any slave property. The white woman, seeing my embarrassment, became more and more excited, and soon began to use abusive language, directed partially to me, but mainly to her slave.
The woman kept pressing her child to her breast and with her large eyes filled with tears continued to look toward me, repeating: “Oh! my child, my child!”
Howard realized he had to decide the case. He turned to the white woman and said, “There’s your property, take it!” She replied, “But I can’t take it. She’s stronger than I! You must give me a guard.”
That was too much for Howard. He said, “No, no, I will not give you a guard. I will never use bayonets to drive a poor girl and child into bondage.”
Both women went away, and the young fugitive found her way to Washington, D.C., and to freedom. His guests from Maine, ardent abolitionists, chastised him for his hesitation.
What to do with enslaved people presented a quandary until another New Englander, Benjamin Butler, declared them “contraband of war.”
Read Oliver Otis Howard’s account of the incident in his autobiography here. Image of Howard University PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13705310. Founders Library By Derek E. Morton – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74173648. This story was updated in 2023.