Union General O.O. Howard named his son after one of the North’s worst defeats.
The Army of the Potomac’s XI Corps suffered a resounding a defeat on May 2, 1863 at Chancellorsville. The onslaught by Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s that overwhelmed the corps stands as one of the most devastating surprise attacks in American military history. One-armed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard. The corps’ commander that deadly evening, understandably defended his performance in the aftermath of Chancellorsville. In reports and correspondence as well as a memoir, the general wove an explanatory script: “My Corps is much abused, but I think in a high degree unjustly,” he wrote to his wife, Elizabeth. Howard’s satisfaction with his role on May 2 is reflected to an astonishing extent in a private family matter of some significance. Writing on May 9 to Elizabeth, who had just delivered a son, the general suggested proudly—that the little fellow be named after “the most terrific battle I ever witnessed…The battle was Chancelorville [sic]. Should we call the little boy—Chancelor & dub him Chancy.”
The memorial notion held up: They named the youngster Chancy Otis Howard. Chancy (sometimes spelled Chancey), born during the battle, lived after the war in Vancouver, Canada, New Jersey and Vermont. He failed to gain admittance to West Point, but attended a seminary, and later sold insurance—all the while bearing testimony to his father’s pride in his role at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Chancy had several children, but named none of them after military engagements.
Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker probably never heard about Howard’s odd choice of a name for his son. Hooker viewed Howard’s performance in the battle as worthy of relentless scorn, rather than commemoration. The failed arm commander spent his post-Chancellorsville life flailing away against everyone and everything in quest of a scapegoat. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick served that purpose for a time, but Hooker also flogged O.O. Howard especially mercilessly.
When he gave an interview to a journalist in San Francisco in 1872, Hooker unleashed savaged broadsides against his former corps commander. They stand in amusing contrast to Howard’s prideful attitude, commemorated in his son’s name. Howard was, Hooker declared, “a very bad man, but he’s a pious character. O, I know him so well!” Amazingly, Hooker insisted, “I knew of Jackson’s movements, and was not taken by surprise a single moment…”
Warming to his topic, Hooker described Howard as “a very queer man…He always was a woman among troops. He was not born in petticoats, he ought to have been, and ought to wear them.”
Chancy Otis Howard lived into Franklin Delano Roosevelt era, dying in 1934. He is buried in Chittenden Cemetery in Burlington, Vt., near his father.
Robert K. Krick, the chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for more than 30 years, is the author of 20 books, mostly on the Civil War, including The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.