One would think losing an arm would be a turning point in one’s life. But by the time a surgeon amputated his shattered right arm after the Battle of Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862, Union Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard had already experienced two life-changing events, both while in the Army. Those experiences inspired his nickname and reputation as the “Christian General.”
The 31-year-old general officer would go on to found namesake Howard University in Washington, D.C., negotiate peace with Apache leader Cochise in Arizona Territory and help chase down Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce followers in Montana Territory. Howard would later quarrel with fellow general officer Nelson A. Miles over credit for having captured Joseph in October 1877. But in June 1862 Miles, then a 22-year-old lieutenant colonel, rode into battle by Howard’s side at Fair Oaks, hours before an Army surgeon sawed off the wounded general’s mangled limb. Howard evidently did not lose his sense of humor along with his right arm. When Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny—who had lost his left arm to grapeshot wounds during the 1846–48 Mexican War—visited Howard the next day, the two joked about shopping for gloves together.
Born in Leeds, Maine, on Nov. 8, 1830, Oliver Otis Howard was only 9 when his father died. At age 19 the young man graduated from Bowdoin College and entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He endured harsh peer discipline and hazing at the academy, notably from classmate G.W. Custis Lee, eldest son of
West Point Superintendent Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee. The West Point hazing led to fights, but Howard still managed to graduate fourth out of 46 in the Class of 1854 as a brevet second lieutenant of ordnance. (His nemesis, Lee, graduated at the head of the class.) A year later Howard married Elizabeth Waite, with whom he raised seven children.
In 1856, amid the Third Seminole War (1855–58), the Army ordered the lieutenant and his pregnant wife to Fort Brooke, in Tampa, Fla., where they attended the Methodist Church. On the night of May 31, 1857, Howard experienced a religious awakening. So changed was he that over the next four years he mulled leaving the Army to attend a seminary and become a minister. That plan was derailed when the Southern states seceded and fired on Fort Sumter, and Howard was elected colonel of a regiment of Maine Volunteers.
Howard’s overt Christian mores elicited both pushback and praise. One soldier noted he had “the tone and manner of an itinerant preacher.” His abstinence from alcohol in particular prompted ribbing from former West Point classmates. At one formal dinner, when fellow officers called for a toast, Howard held high a glass of water, shouting, “The only beverage fit for a soldier!” Critics claimed they could not trust a combat officer who did not drink. But no one could argue with his coolness under fire. General William Tecumseh Sherman joked that Howard was able to maintain his composure in combat because the Christian soldier was certain he was bound for Heaven.
In the summer of 1861 Howard was at his headquarters in a northern Virginia farmhouse when a terrified black woman with a toddler in arm sought out the colonel. Admitting she and her child were slaves, she begged for their freedom. Close on her heels was their legal owner, a coarse middle-aged woman in Howard’s recollection, who demanded her property. The colonel was under orders to steer clear of the slavery issue, for fear of alienating the border states. But as the abusive slave owner pressed her case, and the mother stepped up her tearful entreaties, Howard was torn. Wondering how to reconcile his Christian beliefs with his military orders, he had a revelation.
“There’s your property, take it!” he barked.
“But I can’t take it,” the slave owner cried. “She’s stronger than I.”
Howard refused to provide any assistance, and, as expected, the woman was incapable of forcing the healthy young mother back into bondage. “Somehow that night,” the colonel wrote tongue in cheek, “the slave woman and her child found their way eastward…[and] became free.”
In weeks to come the Federal Army was swamped with such slaves seeking their freedom.
Though Howard was soon promoted to brigadier general and then major general of Volunteers, his wartime combat record proved spotty. In early May 1863 at Chancellorsville, Va., Confederate Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson outflanked him, placing the Union Army of the Potomac in jeopardy. After Howard’s XI Corps lost some 3,800 men killed, wounded, captured or missing at Gettysburg, Pa., that July, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade replaced him with a junior officer. Derided among peers as “Uh-Oh Howard,” the chastened officer was transferred to the Western theater, beyond the Appalachians, under Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman. For a while his record remained as spotty as it had been in the East. In the cynical appraisal of writer Ambrose Bierce, who served under him, Howard remained a “consummate master of the art of needless defeat.”
After Sherman took Atlanta in July 1864, he appointed fellow West Pointer Howard to command of the Army of the Tennessee. Howard would remain on Sherman’s right flank during his conclusive March to the Sea and through the Carolinas. In his memoirs Sherman commended the Christian General as a commander of “the utmost skill, nicety and precision.”
Howard’s vocal concerns about the thousands of slaves freed in the wake of Sherman’s advance appeared in the latter’s reports to President Abraham Lincoln at a critical moment. Lincoln was already looking past the war and what to do with the estimated 4 million freed black Southerners. A seasoned commander like Maj. Gen. Howard, known for his Christian beliefs, seemed an ideal choice to head up an agency that became known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Sherman had already laid groundwork for the bureau by setting aside tracts of abandoned land in the Carolinas and Sea Islands for cultivation and settlement by freed slaves.
Howard’s appointment as commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau came a month after Lincoln’s April 15, 1865, assassination. Among his first acts was to rush rations to both former slaves and Southern whites, heading off mass starvation. The bureau oversaw the establishment of schools, courts and medical facilities for freedmen. It also worked tirelessly to help Southern blacks organize themselves. The latter effort made Howard and the bureau political targets.
Not that there weren’t legitimate concerns for which Howard needed to answer. For one, he used bureau funds in part to start up Howard University, which in turn sold him an acre of land at below market value. In addition, thousands of dollars went unaccounted for on the bureau’s ledger books, and Democrats demanded the commissioner pay back the allegedly misappropriated funds. Fortunately for Howard, a subsequent court of inquiry, held at his insistence, found the general had done his duty and “deserves well of his country.”
Inevitably, though, Howard and his bureau fell afoul of Southern Democrat President Andrew Johnson, who wanted to return his beloved Dixie to at least a semblance of its antebellum heyday, a course that eventually led to his own impeachment. In the meantime, Johnson continually clashed with Howard, whom the president dubbed an “absolute monarch” of Reconstruction.
In the fall of 1865 Johnson pardoned the Sea Islands plantation owners, allowing them to reclaim their lands from the black farmers the bureau had placed on their properties. Adding insult to injury, Johnson ordered Howard to personally travel to the region and attempt to smooth over the situation with the black landowners. Howard’s brother Rowland said Oliver “dreaded it like death.”
The homesteaders of course first welcomed Howard as a conquering hero, escorting him to a packed meetinghouse on Edisto Island. There the bureau commissioner shared the bad news. “Why do you take away our lands?” one man shouted. “You give them to our all-time enemies! That is not right!” Howard sought to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement, arranging leases between the freemen and the landowners, before leaving in silent chagrin.
Howard experienced some political redemption when Ulysses S. Grant replaced Johnson as president in 1869. Grant immediately rolled out a new peace policy with regard to American Indians and believed the general could be an important tool in implementing it. Thus in 1872 Howard was directed to proceed to Arizona Territory, with 1st Lt. Joseph A. Sladen as an aide, and seek peace with Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches.
Arizona’s military commander, Brevet Maj. Gen. George Crook, offered Howard every assistance, though he found the Christian General sanctimonious and conceited. “He told me that he thought the Creator had placed him on earth to be the Moses to the Negro,” Crook recalled of Howard. “Having accomplished that mission, he felt satisfied his next mission was with the Indian.”
Howard had his work cut out for him, as Americans had been fighting Apaches continually since the Civil War. His first step was to contact scout turned overland mail superintendent Tom Jeffords, who was on speaking terms with Cochise. Then, guided by two young relatives of the chief, Howard, Jeffords and Sladen rode into Cochise’s stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains. Skeptical fellow officers mocked it as a suicide mission. It was certainly an act of genuine courage, as Cochise was the most feared Indian leader of his time and place. For his part, the Apache waited to see if it was a trap before meeting Howard.
Howard handed out lumps of sugar to the children and slept in the open mere yards from Cochise’s lean-to. For 10 days Howard and the elderly Apache leader discussed plans for a tribal reservation. Finally, at Council Rocks, the two men agreed on a large reserve in southeastern Arizona, with Jeffords as Indian agent.
Howard left the Apache camp in mid-October, after which the killings stopped. Cochise never again waged war against the Americans, right up until his death on the reservation two years later. Had it not been for Howard, many settlers avowed, their lives and property would likely have been forfeit.
Within two years of his peace accord with Cochise, after the court of inquiry had cleared Howard of any wrongdoing with regard to the Freedman’s Bureau, Grant appointed the general commander of the Department of the Columbia, essentially comprising the entire Pacific Northwest.
Howard and Grant were of one mind when it came to the president’s Indian peace plan. The most promising path for all tribesmen, according to Grant, was for them to become Christian farmers, hold title to their farms and live productive lives within the American system. President Grover Cleveland later echoed such sentiments, supporting the Dawes Act. All three men were sincere about the policy. It never occurred to them that once tribal lands had been subdivided into individual farms, any surplus land would be divided up and sold to white settlers. In the end the tribes would lose even more land.
It also never occurred to Howard he would encounter Christian Indians who wished to remain nomadic—namely, the non-treaty Nez Perces under Chief Joseph. Hailing from the northern Rockies, the tribe had enjoyed positive relations with the United States since the days of Lewis and Clark. Indeed, they had provided the Corps of Discovery with horses for their onward trek to the Pacific. The Nez Perce was also among the first Western tribes to become Christian.
An 1855 treaty recognized that Nez Perce lands in Idaho, Washington and Oregon territories totaled some 7.5 million acres, though its terms required the tribe to surrender nearly 5.5 million acres. Then gold was discovered in the northern section of Nez Perce lands, and miners rushed in, followed by ranchers and farmers.
Worse still, in 1869 the leaders of one Nez Perce band unilaterally signed away 90 percent of the tribe’s lands, settling for a 750,000-acre tract in Idaho Territory. Its terms required all Nez Perce bands to move onto the dramatically reduced reservation. Most refused, deeming the treaty illegal. Thus the tribe split between those for the reservation and non-treaty Nez Perces like Joseph, who continued to roam the full boundaries of the original 1855 reservation.
Joseph’s band hailed from the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, where his father was buried. But as the valley lay outside the boundaries specified by the new treaty, whites poured in. As tensions increased, an argument broke out over the ownership of some horses, leading to the murder of several Nez Perces. The murderers were never brought to justice, though the Nez Perces had a good idea who they were.
Joseph hoped Howard would rectify the situation, as the general’s good reputation proceeded him. When Howard arrived in Portland, the black population marched to his home, welcoming him with a brass band. On learning Chinese immigrants drew more ire than even the Indians, the general made it a practice to invite Chinese businessmen to dine with him. To battle the alcoholism plaguing Portland, Howard assumed leadership of the city’s YMCA, where during off hours he would minister to drunks or, in the words of one reporter, deliver sermons until “the veins in his face and neck [were] standing out like tight-drawn cords.”
Both Howard and the president initially sympathized with Joseph’s insistence the 1869 treaty was illegal, but by the time the general finally sat down to speak with the chief, the Grant administration had caved to the Oregon congressional delegation’s demands for Nez Perce lands.
In the wake of Lt. Col. George Custer’s June 1876 shocking defeat at the Little Bighorn the American public cried out for the collective punishment of all Indians. The following spring Howard and Joseph had their last meeting, which the former stopped in the middle of the latter’s argument. Recognizing he’d been saddled with implementing an unjust decision, much like he’d done at Edisto Island a decade earlier, Howard regardless ordered the non-treaty bands to move within the boundaries of the 1869 reservation within 30 days and even jailed Joseph’s fellow Nez Perce leader Toohoolhoolzote for speaking against the order.
By the summer of 1877 Chief Joseph and other tribal leaders had gathered some 600 Nez Perces at Camas Prairie, in west-central Idaho Territory, for the ordered June 14 move to the reservation at Fort Lapwai. On the eve of their relocation, however, White Bird’s band held a ceremony during which participants taunted several young warriors for not having avenged relatives killed at the hands of whites. Thus humiliated, three hot-headed warriors rode to the nearby Salmon River settlements and murdered four men.
Joseph had been away from camp. On returning, he quickly had his people move within the protective confines of 5-mile-long White Bird Canyon. Meanwhile, Howard had 13 friendly Nez Perce scouts guide more than 100 1st Cavalry troopers and a handful of civilian volunteers under Captain David Perry to the tribal stronghold. The general believed his men would “make short work of it.” But after a two-day ride of more than 70 miles, Perry’s men were approaching near exhaustion when they started down the slopes of White Bird Creek. Concealed among the ravines and canyons, the Nez Perces cut his force to pieces on June 17, killing 34 troopers.
Howard realized he’d need superior forces to bring the Nez Perces to ground. Success would require a reliable supply system, and that meant mules—lots of mules. While countering civilian criticism he was doing nothing, he quietly bought up every animal he could find.
Following the battle Chief Joseph and his followers crossed the Salmon River Canyon, heading southeast. Howard soon followed with his infantry and mule-drawn artillery. The challenge of fording swift water with men and equipment was something the general had never mastered, however, and amid heavy rains the expedition made painfully slow progress. Once across they pursued Joseph’s trail until discovering the Nez Perces had doubled back, re-crossed the Salmon and were behind them, heading northwest for the Bitterroot Mountains.
The press decried Howard’s slow pace, calling him a blunderer and a coward. There was even talk of recalling him to Washington in disgrace. Division of the Pacific commander Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell sent an aide to investigate the general’s conduct. He arrived just as Howard launched a final charge against warriors in the July 11–12 Battle of the Clearwater. While the Nez Perces inflicted more than 40 casualties on the troopers at the cost of just four dead and six wounded, the general did force the Indians to retreat across the Bitterroots via Lolo Pass. Howard had the after-action report sent directly to newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes, possibly saving his job.
A Nez Perce messenger soon arrived in Howard’s camp, claiming to represent Joseph and seeking terms. It was a delaying tactic. While the general parleyed with the false messenger, Joseph led his people through the Bitterroots. Howard gave pursuit, but the mountain trail stretched his army thin, and his scouts took fire from the Nez Perce rearguard, one dropping dead, another taking a bullet wound to the chest. Howard’s methodical pace both frustrated his superiors and prompted scorn among his enemy. The Nez Perce name for Howard meant “Day After Tomorrow,” a snide reference to when he’d catch up to them.
Though Howard’s troopers did finally catch up to the Nez Perces in southwest Montana Territory, a force led by Colonel John Gibson beat them to it. At dawn on August 9 Gibson launched a surprise attack, but Joseph’s warriors rallied and fought back hard in the two-day Battle of the Big Hole. Howard arrived too late to reinforce Gibson, but he did bring doctors, who tended the casualties (31 soldiers had been killed, 38 wounded). Joseph lost upward of 70 followers, of whom perhaps 30 were warriors. The surviving Nez Perces managed to break off and escape into newly established Yellowstone National Park. There Howard thought he had them boxed in, but warriors stole most of his mules and some ponies in a night raid early on August 20. Hours later, in the daylong Battle of Camas Meadows, each side suffered only a few casualties, but Howard regardless elected to halt the pursuit to give his tired command a rest.
By then Sherman clearly wondered whether Howard himself had the drive to conclude his mission. After the debacle in Yellowstone, he’d even sent out 7th Infantry Lt. Col. Charles Champion Gilbert to assume command of the campaign. Ironically, Gilbert couldn’t catch up with Howard. The Nez Perces next sought sanctuary in the Crow Nation, but the Crows flatly refused. Joseph then turned his people north for the Canadian border, hoping to find refuge there.
By that point in the pursuit Howard had noticed that whenever he slowed the pace of his march, the Nez Perces slowed theirs. Realizing time was short, he sent a messenger to Colonel Miles, then encamped to the east at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, advising that if he hurried, he could intercept Joseph before he crossed the international border. The general then slowed his pursuit.
Howard’s trick worked. Lulled into a false sense of security, the Nez Perces stopped to make camp on the north slope of the Bear Paw Mountains, just 40 miles from the border. There Miles did catch up with them, sending word to Howard he had engaged the Nez Perces. With a small escort Howard rushed ahead of his command to be there for the finish. The battle turned into a three-day siege in which most of the Nez Perce leadership, save Joseph and White Bird, were killed. Finally, on October 5, the chief surrendered, Howard’s aide, Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood recording the chief’s famed “I will fight no more forever” speech. By the Army’s count, Joseph and 417 others officially surrendered. White Bird reported that he and some 170 others managed to reach Canada.
Both Howard and Miles had promised Joseph he could return home. But General Sherman countermanded that order and ultimately had them sent to a small Oklahoma reservation. To Howard’s credit, he spent years seeking to have the Nez Perces returned to their Idaho reservation.
The following spring the Bannocks—tired of being housed with Shoshones at the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southern Idaho Territory, and equally weary of whites cheating them out of government rations—staged a breakout. Chief Buffalo Horn led some 600 to 800 warriors on the warpath up and down the Snake River Valley.
But the Army handled this breakout differently than when it fought the Nez Perces. First, Howard directed the campaign from camp instead of leading in the field. Second, the general placed a generous bounty on the heads of Bannock chiefs, which other tribes were all too happy to collect, leaving the marauders leaderless from time to time. On July 7, in Howard’s last field action, Bannocks attacked his camp at the confluence of Butter Creek and the Columbia River. In the forthcoming fight the Bannocks killed upward of a dozen whites at the cost of some 15 warriors. Five troopers were wounded, one mortally. Within a month the uprising was over.
In 1881–82 Howard served as superintendent of West Point. He was then appointed commander of the Department of the Platte, serving through 1886. During this period he wrote and spoke about the Nez Perce War, at first defending his campaign and later praising Joseph. Promoted to command the Military Division of the Pacific, through 1888, he retired in 1894 as commander of the Department of the East. Around the turn of the century Howard, the ever optimistic reformer, helped set up a string of YMCAs. On Oct. 26, 1909, the 78-year-old veteran of the Civil War and Indian wars died in his sleep at home in Burlington, Vt.
Despite bad press, the Christian General had logged a fine military career, having bought about peace with the Apaches and successfully pursued the Nez Perces. He’d certainly earned a place as one of the top Army commanders out West. WW
Oklahoma-based Mike Coppock is a frequent contributor to Wild West. For further reading he suggests Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War, by Daniel J. Sharfstein, and Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army. This article was published in the June 2021 issue of Wild West.