Oliver Otis Howard was born on Nov. 8, 1830, at Leeds, Maine. He attended
Bowdoin College from 1846 to 1850, where he developed the basic tenets of his
character, becoming a very pious student who conspicuously refrained from
drinking, swearing, and smoking. Immediately after graduating from Bowdoin,
Howard entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and graduated fourth in
his class in 1854. Soon after, he married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Ann
Wait, and taught mathematics at West Point for several years. Howard considered
studying for the Episcopalian ministry, but eventually decided to make the army his
He threw himself into the Union war effort after the firing on Fort Sumter,
obtaining a commission as colonel of the 3rd Maine and leading a brigade at the
battle of First Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Howard was promoted to brigadier
general in the fall of 1861 and was wounded at the battle of Fair Oaks on June 1,
1862. Two bullets slammed into his right arm, forcing surgeons to amputate it.
Howard informed Lizzie the day after in a letter that “I am on my way with only my
left arm.” He maintained his sense of humor, joking with Maj. Gen. Philip Kearney,
who had lost his left arm in the Mexican War, that they would need to buy only one
pair of gloves between the two of them from now on.
Howard recuperated for three months, the only time during the war that he was
off duty, and returned to the Army of the Potomac by September, 1862. He
commanded a division of the 2nd Corps at the battle of Antietam, September 17,
and led it in the terrible attacks against a strong Confederate position in the battle of
Fredericksburg, on December 13. Both battles were very costly and Howard
performed well, achieving promotion to major general at the end of the year.
But his next assignment, command of the 11th Corps, nearly ended in disaster.
His largely German unit held the right wing of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Army of
the Potomac at Chancellorsville, and therefore was targeted by Stonewall Jackson’s
flank attack on the evening of May 2, 1863. Howard had neglected to properly
fortify his position and was caught by surprise, his corps was routed and barely
recovered in time to prevent a worst catastrophe. The battle wound up as a dismal
Yet Howard survived this blow to his career. Newspaper criticism led Hooker to
send Howard to Washington to explain the battle to Lincoln, to correct false
impressions. Howard’s interview with the president was the first time they had ever
met. The young general, only 32 years old, pled his case, but there was no real need
to do so, for neither Lincoln or any other authority thought of replacing him.
Howard had some political connections, but they were not important in saving his
career. The key was that no one thought he was willfully negligent or incompetent.
They recognized that it was an error of inexperience, and that Howard’s qualities
were such that the war effort needed him. Yet, Howard began an acquaintance with
Lincoln that eventually would play a role in the founding of this university.
Soon after, Howard performed a significant role in winning the battle of
Gettysburg. While the 11th Corps was severely beaten in a large fight north of town
on July 1, 1863, he established a strong defensive position on the high ground south
of town that became the main Union line for the remaining two days of that
In August, 1863, while returning to his command after a leave of absence to visit
his family in Maine, Howard stopped in Washington to see Lincoln a second time,
apparently about the possibility of taking a different command outside the Army of
the Potomac. He had no luck in this, but the next month he left the Potomac army
anyway when his 11th Corps and the 12th Corps were ordered to reinforce the
Union Army of the Cumberland, which had just been defeated at the battle of
Chickamauga and was under siege in Chattanooga, the Gate City to the Deep
Just before leaving for Tennessee, Howard visited Lincoln for the third and last
time, on September 27, 1863. In a letter to his wife, Howard described how Lincoln
gave him a map of the mountain area of E. Tennessee, “a very nice coast survey
map,” he called it. Apparently he made no mention in this letter of any conversation
with Lincoln regarding the loyal people of East Tennessee.
Howard performed well while leading the 11th Corps in the battle of
Chattanooga, November 24-25, 1863, an engagement which opened the way for
future operations against Atlanta. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman would lead that
massive effort in the spring of 1864, commanding a group of three Union field
Sherman gave Howard command of the 4th Corps in the Army of the
Cumberland. Howard did very well during this campaign, and soon confirmed
Sherman’s high opinion of his abilities. Sherman grew to trust and rely on Howard a
When Sherman’s command drew close to Atlanta in mid-summer, the greatest
battle of the campaign took place on July 22. In it, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson,
commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was killed. Choosing a replacement for
him was Sherman’s most important personnel decision of the campaign. After
several days of deliberation, he picked Howard for the prestigious assignment. It
was a controversial move, for Howard was a relative newcomer to the Western
armies and this was the army that Grant had commanded at Shiloh and Vicksburg,
and Sherman had commanded at Chattanooga. In picking Howard, Sherman
bypassed Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the charismatic leader of the 15th Corps, who
had ably led the army on July 22 when McPherson was shot.
Sherman felt compelled to explain why he had chosen Howard, and it depended
on two factors. First, Howard’s character–he was widely known, and admired by
most of his colleagues, for his Christian behavior. Howard was a stickler for proper
conduct, even in the army camps, and not only abstained from alcohol but lectured
anyone near him who did not. He also chastised subordinates for using foul
language, and he was, by all accounts, a genuinely good man. Although Sherman
sometimes teased Howard by deliberately swearing up a storm in his presence until
Howard became so frustrated that he had to leave, knowing that the young general
would not lecture his superior officer, it is clear that Sherman liked and admired him
for his character.
Second, Sherman knew that Howard was not a great combat leader, that his
tactical skills were modest at best. But he also knew that Howard was a superb
administrator. Command of the Army of the Tennessee involved not only leading
men into battle but, even more importantly, knowing how to administer a large
military organization of 80,000 men and hundreds of guns. He knew Logan had
scant ability in this regard.
In short, despite the damage suffered his reputation at Chancellorsville, Howard
persevered and continued to grow as a commander, continued to live his life
according to his principles, and continued to be the dutiful subordinate willing to do
almost anything necessary to put down the rebellion. All of this paid off when he
was named commander of the Army of the Tennessee on July 28, 1864. He
possessed the unusual record of holding major commands in all three of the main
field armies of the Union during the Civil War. While Howard probably did not
have the ability to hold independent command, with responsibility to plan and
execute a campaign on his own, he never had the need to do this. Sherman was with
him for the rest of the war and directed strategy, Howard simply put it into
operation. He ended the war as a member of Sherman’s elite inner circle.
At war’s end, Howard was chosen to serve his country by heading the Bureau
of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, more popularly known as the
Freedman’s Bureau, on May 15, 1865. The Bureau’s responsibility was to aid the
four million newly freed slaves, a gargantuan task to perform with meager resources
and a public that was not yet aware of the immense human need to educate, train,
and protect the freed slave in the face of white Southern resentment and racial fear.
His reputation as a “Christian soldier” and his administrative ability led to this
Howard threw himself into the work, protecting labor contracts, examining
working conditions, and serving as an ombudsman for African-Americans. He used
the resources of the Bureau to build schools and pay teacher’s salaries. Howard
spent more than 5 million dollars on education as head of the Bureau during its
existence, from 1865 through 1871. He promoted African-American education on
all levels, especially elementary level training, but also vocational training and teacher
training on the secondary level. He gave some support to the few African-American
colleges of the South.
Howard would become famous for playing a key role in the founding of two
colleges, the first was Howard University. It was created by a group of
Congregational Church members in 1869 to train African American ministers.
Howard was among the founding group, and the school was named in his honor.
He was primarily responsible for locating land for the campus within the boundaries
of the District of Columbia, using Bureau money to help pay for the land. Howard
also sustained the college financially for many years, offering to Howard University
a similar role that he would play in the founding of Lincoln Memorial University
almost 30 years later.
Following his tenure as head of the Freedman’s Bureau, Howard was shifted to
duties on the western frontier, where he had ample opportunity to observe the plight
of Native-Americans during the era of rapid American expansion into the Great
Plains and the Southwest. Again, he performed well, mixing humanitarian concern
for his enemy with able administration of far-flung resources across a developing
Howard finally retired from the army on November 8, 1894, at age sixty-four,
after forty-four years of continuous military service.
His active life was not over by any means. His lecture agent, Cyrus Kehr of
Chicago, had long had the idea of founding an educational institution as a living
memorial to Lincoln, and he mentioned this to Howard in early 1896. It was only a
vague idea, but it was now planted in Howard’s mind.
Then, in June, 1896, Howard planned to visit Chattanooga to tour its battlefields.
Upon hearing of this, the Rev. A.A. Myers and his wife Ellen wrote to Howard,
asking him to stop by at Cumberland Gap on his way. Myers and his wife had
worked since 1890 in this region, supported by the American Missionary
Association, to create schools for underprivileged mountain families. They had
been successful in starting fifteen elementary schools, plus the Harrow Academy (a
high school), but no college had yet been established in the Cumberland Gap area.
This region was just then in dire need of help, for an industrial boom that had led
to the creation of Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Cumberland Gap and Harrogate,
Tennessee, in the early 1890s, had gone bust. The Four Seasons Hotel, a 700 room
resort near the gap, was now defunct. Grand hopes of turning Middlesboro into a
Southern version of Pittsburgh and the Gap into a tourist mecca now seemed futile,
but the need to educate mountain youth persisted.
Myers’s letter to Howard bore fruit, and the former general stopped at
Cumberland Gap on his way to Chattanooga. He gave a lecture about Grant and the
battle of Chattanooga and shared the proceeds of the lecture with the Harrow
Academy. Meeting with Myers and several others on the evening of June 18, 1896,
on the verandah of the school, Myers made a pitch to Howard for help. He spoke
passionately about his efforts to help the region and of his dream to create a
During this talk, Howard recalled his last meeting with Lincoln in late September,
1863. Lincoln had spoken similarly of his own desire to help the mountain people in
some fashion after the war was over. “They are loyal, there, General, they are
loyal,” Howard remembered the president’s words. He also recalled Cyrus Kehr’s
desire to create a college dedicated to Lincoln’s ideals.
Impulsively, Howard decided to help. “Friends, if you will make this school a
larger enterprise I will take hold and do what I can.” Events moved quickly after
that. It was decided to name the institution Lincoln Memorial University, and to buy
the Four Seasons Hotel property as a campus. Cyrus Kehr became involved too.
Howard left the local arrangements up to Myers.
Howard could not take a larger role in the work just then, for he was active in the
presidential campaign of Republican candidate William McKinley in 1896, and he
hoped for a cabinet post as well. But after the election, no offer of a position in the
administration came forth, and Howard was then able to become much more active
in the school.
A charter was issued, dated February 12, 1897, and Howard was named a
member of the board of trustees. Cyrus Kehr was named the university’s first
president. Kehr suggested Howard serve as managing director of Lincoln Memorial
University, and Howard agreed on May 25, 1898.
Howard worked hard to raise money, serving as a contact person for the huge
network of acquaintances he had developed in industry and politics in the world
outside Appalachia. He raised several thousands of dollars and enjoyed virtually
unlimited authority with the board to make decisions. In 1899, he also was elected
president of the board of trustees. He appointed Rev. John Hale Larry of Rhode
Island as assistant managing director, to run things on a daily basis at Harrogate
while he worked in other parts of the country.
Tragedy struck the Howard family in February 1900, when his son, Guy
Howard, was killed in battle in the Philippine War. Howard and his wife Lizzie
deeply mourned “my strong helper…my hope for the future,” as Howard called
him. “[C]rowds & crowds of hopes are baffled & dashed to the ground in his
death,” he wrote. Partially to help himself heal, Howard immersed himself in his
work for Lincoln Memorial University.
Howard managed to pay off the mortgage on the campus, as he endured
resistance from an unexpected source. A.A. Myers lost his rudder when his wife
Ellen died in 1897, and became uncooperative. He opposed John Hale Larry’s work
as assistant to Howard, causing a great deal of disruption on campus, and
eventually resigned from an active role in the university in January 1901.
By that time, Howard was ready to reduce his role in the university too because
of advancing age and worsening health. He brought in Frederick B. Avery, an
Episcopalian minister who had been involved in the creation of the university in
1896, as college president, and then cut back his work a great deal.
After a year of semi-retirement, Howard was asked to resume his active role in
1902, and consented. He served as managing director until 1907. Frederick B.
Avery served as president of Lincoln Memorial University from 1901 to 1903, when
he was replaced by Dr. William L. Stooksbury. Howard managed to raise enough
money to build up half a million dollars in the university endowment by 1908.
The next year, on October 26, 1909, Howard wrote a letter to Dr. Stooksbury
about money for the medical school in Knoxville that Lincoln Memorial University
had just acquired. Later that day he suffered a stroke, and died that evening.
During seventy-nine years of service to his country, to his soldiers, to African-
Americans and Native-Americans, Howard garnered respect from nearly everyone
who dealt with him. One university is named after him, and another survived largely
because of his selfless energy and commitment. Howard’s biographer, Prof. John
A. Carpenter, wrote of Lincoln Memorial University that, “The college for the
mountain folk is not only a memorial to Lincoln; it is also a living monument to the
And it is therefore fitting that this “one-armed soldier” now is represented on the
campus he created, where the Four Seasons Hotel once stood, more than 107 years
after he impulsively offered to “take hold” and contribute his energy and passion to
the establishment of an Appalachian university dedicated to the principles of
Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy.