June 25, 2018
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Oliver Otis Howard fought Confederate soldiers and an American president

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

Col. Oliver Otis Howard brought Maine to the fight, caught partial blame for the defeat and his fearless battlefield leadership earned him a general’s star.

As Confederate and Union troops battled atop Henry House Hill at Manassas, Va. on July 21, 1861, Howard commanded the 3rd Brigade comprising four infantry regiments: the 3rd, 4th and 5th Maine and the 2nd Vermont. Not yet committed to the fight, the brigade stood on Dogan Ridge, approximately a half-mile to the northwest.

About 3 p.m. that hot Sunday, a courier suddenly delivered to Howard an order: March due south and break the Confederates’ left flank at Chinn Ridge. Deploying the 2nd Vermont to his right and the 4th Maine to his left, Howard led his thirsty men on the run downhill to the Warrenton Pike, across Young’s Branch and uphill toward the distant Chinn House.

Leaving the 3rd and 5th Maine at Warrenton Pike, Howard rode ahead as the other regiments crested Chinn Ridge by 4 p.m. Howard ordered his soldiers to fire at the enemy atop distant Henry House Hill.

That volley drew a nasty response from Confederate reinforcements just arriving from Manassas Junction, a nearby railroad yard. Several infantry regiments and 150 cavalrymen (the latter commanded by Col. J.E.B. Stuart) promptly crossed the Manassas-Sudley Road and started firing on Howard’s soldiers from 200 yards away.

The inexperienced Union soldiers suffered. “Some of Howard’s men became disoriented and fired their weapons into the air,” wrote William C. Davis in “First Blood: Fort Sumter to First Bull Run.” Some men forgot to shoot altogether.

As the 2nd Vermont and 4th Maine fought, Howard raced his horse northward “to bring up his second line,” Davis wrote. Reaching Chinn Ridge, the 3rd and 5th Maine boys fought heroically alongside their comrades as Howard rode among them. Despite their heavy losses — the 4th Maine suffered 91 casualties, including 23 men killed — Howard’s troops could not withstand the Confederate onslaught.

Mainers and Vermonters alike suddenly bolted and fled, as did most Union soldiers by late afternoon. Howard implored his men to rally — some did so during their northward flight across Warrenton Pike — but by 5 p.m., “everywhere McDowell’s army was disintegrating,” wrote Ted Ballard in “Battle of First Bull Run.” Only one battalion served as the rear guard while Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s vaunted army skedaddled east to Washington, D.C.

Howard was ashamed that his Maine and Vermont boys had run away, although the 3rd Brigade had advanced deeper into Confederate lines than had any other Union brigade on July 21. Within a few days, Howard heard subtle rumors blaming his brigade for the defeat. If only the brigade had broken the Confederate left, if only Howard had attacked at once with all four regiments, if only the “green” soldiers had fought better: Howard figured his six-year military career had ended.

It had just begun.

Born in Leeds on Nov. 8, 1830, Howard graduated from Bowdoin College in 1850 and from West Point in 1854, then fought in Florida’s Seminole War in 1857. With Maine lacking professional soldiers in spring 1861, Howard accepted a colonelcy so he could command the 3rd Maine Infantry.

By July, Howard commanded the 3rd Brigade. Worried that the War Department would cashier him for the brigade’s poor performance, he soon learned that, like Maine, the Union needed experienced officers — and “fighting” generals, too.

His career was safe, but Howard paid a price for the brigadier general’s star he received on Sept. 3, 1861.

Nine months later, Major General George McClellan pushed the Army of the Potomac north along the James River to capture Richmond, Va. Confederate troops pitched into that army at Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. During the next day’s fighting, Howard caught two bullets in his right arm while leading his brigade into combat. Surgeons later amputated the arm.

Rather than spend the summer healing, Howard recuperated for only a few weeks before traveling to Maine to recruit soldiers. He rejoined the Army and fought at Antietam that September.

A major general by November 1862 and a corps commander by April 1863, Howard fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before transferring with his troops to Tennessee. He fought at Chattanooga and marched with William Tecumseh Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Howard’s military career should have ended with the war. Then he took charge at the Freedmen’s Bureau (an Army agency) in May 1865. Established to help freed slaves and Southern white Union sympathizers, the Freedmen’s Bureau managed educational and job-training programs at locations throughout the South.

President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean, preferred that former Southern slave-owners regain political power by suppressing the recently freed slaves. Detesting this effort, Howard often fought politically with Johnson. Congressional allies would help Howard prevail.

Acting on his belief that education would help former slaves escape poverty, Oliver Otis Howard helped establish Howard University and served as the school’s president from 1867-1873.

The Army briefly sent Howard west to battle Apaches in 1872, then transferred him permanently to command the soldiers fighting the Nez Perce and other tribes. Howard retired in 1894, a year after receiving the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Seven Pines.

So the colonel who brought three Maine regiments to the fight at Manassas and heard his name sullied for their retreat outlived most critics. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had seven children, and he had Maine’s respect; even tough Mainers did not expect a one-armed general to fight forever.

Oliver Otis Howard died in Burlington, Vt. on Oct. 26, 1909. Although he was buried there, he was never forgotten in Leeds, where he and his brothers Charles and Roland left an indelible mark after leading the campaign to build a Civil War monument atop Otis Hill.

That monument became the Leeds Peace Monument. Otis Hill became Monument Hill.

The monument still stands.

Brian Swartz may be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

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