In the summer of 1863, the Eleventh Corps, far more than any other organization in the Army of the Potomac, was suffering a crisis of confidence. Wracked by self-doubt, rent with petty jealousies and intrigues among the officers, and lacking in discipline, it would have taxed the most experienced officer's ability to mold it into a reliable fighting unit. As it was, approaching Gettysburg the Eleventh was led by the youngest corps commander in the army, and one of the least experienced.
Oliver O. Howard was born in Leeds, Maine, the son of a farmer who died when Oliver was nine. A good student, he graduated from Maine's liberal Bowdoin college and was leaning toward a teaching career, when a congressman uncle offered him an appointment to West Point. Howard took it, and graduated fourth in the Academy's Class of 1854. For the next few years, however, he remained undecided about his life's work. He taught mathematics at his alma mater while he studied theology under an Episcopalian priest, with the idea of going into the ministry. Meanwhile, he married and fathered three children.
A lieutenant when Fort Sumter fell in April 1861, Howard put aside his ministerial plans and devoted himself to the Union cause. He was made colonel of the 3rd Maine Regiment of volunteers in June, and lost no time in taking his regiment to Washington, D.C. to train. There he was quickly switched to leadership of a brigade. By July, within two months of being promoted from lieutenant, he was leading a full brigade into battle at First Bull Run. Although his brigade was routed along with the rest of the Union army in that battle, he was promoted to brigadier general two months later, in September 1861.
In November Howard was given another brigade in the newly organized Army of the Potomac, which was made part of the Second Corps. He led it into the army's first campaign on the Peninsula in the summer of 1862. There on June 1 Howard was wounded twice in the right arm leading his brigade in a charge at Fair Oaks--the second of the wounds shattered the bone near the elbow and the arm had to be amputated. He convalesced for less than two months and was soon back at the head of another Second Corps unit, the Philadelphia Brigade, whose leadership was vacant--its brigadier had been wounded in the face on the Peninsula.
In Howard's first fight with the Philadelphians at Antietam, the brigade--along with the rest of John Sedgwick's Second Division--was ambushed and destroyed by a Confederate force in a matter of minutes in the West Woods. Howard took control of the tattered division on the field when Sedgwick fell, wounded three times. However, he could do little besides preside over the division's flight from the field.
That fall, he was promoted to major general on November 29, and continued to lead his division through the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. There they were one of the unlucky divisions chosen for the futile, bloody assaults thrown against Marye's Heights. Within the span of three months, Howard had thus been associated with the Second Division in two of the worst disasters to befall any such organization in the history of the army.
In February 1863 Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, newly installed at the head of the Army of the Potomac, gave his crony Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles command of the Third Corps. Howard, who had seniority over Sickles, protested being passed over while Sickles got the appointment--after all, Sickles was not even a trained military man. The situation was resolved in April 1863, when Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel of the Eleventh Corps, already disgruntled because Hooker had been promoted over his head, resigned in a huff because his corps, being next to the smallest of the seven, was not commensurate with his rank. When the vacancy appeared at the head of the Eleventh Corps, Hooker gave Howard the overdue appointment.
Just thirty-two years old in 1863, Major General Oliver O. Howard had demonstrated his ability in the first two years of the war, but he was not a man gifted with obvious leadership qualities. At five feet nine inches, slightly built, and pale, "he did not call out from the troops enthusiastic applause," as Maj. Thomas Osborne, his chief of artillery, put it. Osborne described him physically as having heavy dark hair--"a profusion of flowing moustache and beard" according to another observer--and "undistinguished" eyes, a strong but not an impressive man. His empty sleeve gave him some moral weight. But, though Osborne personally admired him, he found him to be neither a profound thinker nor an officer with "large natural ability." "Howard . . . has nothing marked about him," wrote Frank Haskell at Gettysburg.
Howard's activity and his capacity to take note of every detail were impressive, according to one Captain Winkler. But most of his strengths were interior ones. He possessed a strong religious conviction that suffused his whole life. Too, he was, according to Haskell, "a very pleasant, well-dressed little gentleman," and his genteel manner was universally remarked upon. Osborne called Howard "the highest toned gentleman" he had ever known. One orderly in the Eleventh Corps described an early encounter with the new chief: when he had held the general's horse to help him mount, Howard had said, "Thank you." "Nobody said that to me since I have been in the service," the orderly remarked. Col. Charles Wainwright, chief of artillery of the First Corps, commented, "He is the only religious man of high rank that I know of in the army and, in the little intercourse I have had with him, showed himself the most polished gentleman I have ever met." Again, Wainwright wrote, "Howard is brave enough and a most perfect gentleman. He is a Christian 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."
Wainwright's worry that Howard was overmatched with the command of the Eleventh Corps was felt by many in the army. It was not a felicitous marriage of the leader and the led. To begin with, Howard was not a man who made those around him feel at ease. He was an ardent abolitionist at a time when such men were looked on as radicals. He had never lost the off-putting mannerisms which had baited his Academy classmates--his fidgety gestures and his high shrill voice. He was priggish, known disparagingly as a full-time Christian soldier--at West Point the story went around that when he met a girl, the first thing he would do would be to ask her "if she had reflected on the goodness of God during the past night." During the war, he spent Sundays going to hospitals to distribute religious tracts, a practice which not only failed to provide moral uplift as he had hoped, it created outright resentment in the outfit he was now commanding. The Eleventh Corps was largely composed of worldly Germans who had fled religious oppression back home, and these men had a deep-seated aversion to being prayed over or preached to.
Howard's devoutness was only one of the many unfortunate aspects of the terrible mismatch between him and his corps. To begin with, Howard had replaced the Germans' darling, Franz Sigel. "I fights mit Sigel!" had been a proud boast and a recruiting bonanza which had brought immigrant Germans into the Union army from every northern state, eager to show their solidarity with the ideals of their adopted country. New commander Howard with his straitlaced ways was laughable to the Continental-style freethinking and free-drinking Germans. He addressed them as "my men," which struck a sour note. Trying perhaps too hard to make good in his first corps command, he bore down hard on discipline, bringing in the ferocious disciplinarian Francis Barlow to command a division where the former commander was well-liked. Howard did not conceal his disappointment with his poor reception, and that created another round of mistrust and dislike among the corps. He understated the problem by a long shot when wrote later, "I was not at first getting the earnest and loyal support of the entire command."
And then, in May 1863, came the Battle of Chancellorsville. Howard's negligence led to the Eleventh Corps's everlasting humiliation when he dismissed reports that Jackson's Rebels corps was massing on his unprotected right flank. Believing the whole Confederate army to be in retreat, he took no steps to verify the reports, much less strengthen his right. Having promised Hooker that morning to take measures "to resist an attack from the west," Howard took not one meaningful precaution. When Jackson attacked with his full fury, the entire Eleventh Corps routed away, and the entire right wing of the army collapsed (despite the courageous attempts of Howard himself, with the Stars and Stripes tucked under the stump of his missing arm, to rally the men). The rest of the army never forgot it or forgave the "foreign" Eleventh Corps. They were not a mainstream Army of the Potomac organization, anyway-- they had been in the Shenandoah Valley when the Army was fighting the Peninsula battles, and had been absent, manning the Washington defenses, at the time of Antietam and Fredericksburg. When Hooker gave up the battle a few days later, Howard and the Eleventh Corps were the obvious choice as scapegoats for the entire debacle. Angry division commander Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz wrote Howard so bitter a letter that, said Howard, "I thought I should never survive it, but I have." Hooker encouraged division commander Schurz to use all his influence with Lincoln to put Sigel back in place at the head of the corps, and promised that if Sigel came back he would strengthen his force and help him use it. Secretary Chase and General Halleck also wanted Howard ousted. Lincoln, however, showed patience, telling critics, "Give him time, and he will bring things straight." But after such an uninterrupted string of setbacks on the battlefield over the previous year, Howard approached Gettysburg badly in need of a change of luck.
| On orders from Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, Howard started his corps from
Emmitsburg on the ten mile march north to Gettysburg at about 8:00 A.M. on July
1. At 10:30 he was within sight of the town when an orderly from Reynolds told
him the battle had started. He rode forward into Gettysburg, whence he
observed the last of the morning's fighting west of town and where, at 11:30
A.M., he was told that Reynolds was dead--he himself was now commanding officer
on the field. Strangely, at no time did he ride the few hundred yards to
inspect Reynolds's positions or meet with the First Corps generals.|
Returning instead to Cemetery Hill, Howard selected it as his headquarters and the strongpoint where he would establish his reserve, which he designated as von Steinwehr's division.
At 1:00 P.M., Schurz's division came up and passed through Gettysburg to take up positions to the north of town. Barlow's division came up next and Howard accompanied it, following Schurz's column. This was during a lull in the battle west of Gettysburg, and Howard sent dispatches to Maj. Gens. Sickles and Slocum, informing them of the First Corps's morning fight with Hill but making no request for reinforcements. Half an hour later, he changed his mind and sent those generals new messages, asking for help. At 2:00 P.M. he sent a dispatch to Meade, informing him briefly of the situation and mentioning that he had ordered Sickles forward. He then finally rode over and approved Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday's line on the ridges west of town.
Howard himself received a dispatch from the diligent cavalryman Brig. Gen. John Buford, warning him of the approach of a mass of Confederates three or four miles to the northeast between the Heidlersburg and York roads. In response, he deployed his two divisions at right angles to the First Corps line (which was facing west) to face the new danger from the north. By 2:00, Howard's men had taken up positions almost a mile forward on the low, flat ground of the valley north of town.
Rodes's division attacked from the northwest and pressed Howard's men in their front. Soon afterward, Early's division attacked Howard's vulnerable right rear from the northeast. As if perfectly timed, the jaws of the attack crushed the Eleventh Corps line, and both blue divisions came back through Gettysburg at a run, being rounded up in the hundreds by closely pursuing Rebel infantrymen. Howard's men were not panicked, however. When they saw the 2,000 men of Smith's brigade manning the crest of Cemetery Hill and six friendly guns booming away at the Rebels below, they stopped and faced about, disorganized but not demoralized. The First Corps front had collapsed at the same time, and the hordes of Howard's refugees were swelled by the weary remnants of that corps falling back on Cemetery Hill from the west.
At that moment, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock of the Second Corps rode up, authorized by Meade to assume command of all troops at Gettysburg. Crestfallen, Howard agreed to hand over command with admirably little fuss and cooperated with the extravagantly dynamic Hancock. The two divided responsibility, according to Howard: he himself assumed authority for dispositions of the units to the right of the Baltimore Pike, which included Culp's Hill, Hancock the left. Reinforcements arrived, and a defensive line was soon assembled. The new Union position on the hilltops southeast of Gettysburg was not assailed by the Confederates for the rest of the day.
Once Meade arrived that night, Howard's responsibility shrank to that of his Eleventh Corps front, which was limited to the north face of Cemetery Hill. It would be attacked only once--at dusk on July 2, by two brigades of Early's division, advancing from the east side of the town. When the men in Howard's front line came reeling back, he threw in his two nearest regiments, then Coster's brigade, then Carroll's brigade borrowed from the nearby Second Corps. The line held, and the Southerners gave up their brief gains and fell back to their original positions near town.
At the generals' meeting that night, Howard was positive about his ability to defend his present position.
On July 3, Howard was not attacked, and only observed as Pickett's Charge hit the Second Corps position on Cemetery Ridge in the afternoon.
What people would remember about Howard would be the events of the July 1. His luck had remained bad. His Eleventh Corps had lost 3,000 men--half of them captured--and inflicted less than 1,000 casualties on the attackers. True, he had been the victim of two enemy attacks coordinated only by serendipity. But Howard knew of the enemy approach, and was responsible for the far-forward defensive positions that welcomed the attacks. He was also criticized for personally remaining so far to the rear, commanding from Cemetery Hill, making it appear, according to Buford, that there was "no directing person on the field."
In September, he and his corps were sent West. There, finally, his luck changed--General Sherman, who appreciated his professionalism, would eventually make him commander of the Army of the Tennessee.
For further reading:
Carpenter, John A. "General O.O. Howard at Gettysburg." Civil War History, Sept 1963
_____, Sword and Olive Branch, Oliver Otis Howard. Pittsburgh, 1964
Hartwig, D. Scott. "The 11th Army Corps on July 1." Gettysburg Magazine 2, Jan 1990
Howard, Oliver O. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General United States Army. 2 vols. New York, 1907
McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen. New York, 1970
Weland, Gerald. O.O. Howard, Union General. Jefferson, NC, 1995