My favorite description of Oliver Otis Howard comes from historian Frank O’Reilly, who has called him “pious but vapid.”
After the twin disasters that befell Howard’s Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville and then, two months later, at Gettysburg, it’s always been a bit of a wonder to me that Howard managed to keep his job. I suppose his credible defense of Cemetery Hill alongside Winfield Scott Hancock helped keep him in the ballgame, although it didn’t save him from banishment to the Western Theater.
But even that perspective deserves rethinking. After all, the West was where the Union was generally winning. Yes, troublesome Confederate generals usually got shuffled westward, but it’s harder to make the case for outright banishment with Howard and his men. Chickamauga and the siege of Chattanooga had reversed and then stalled the Union war effort, and Lincoln needed to get it back on track. One doesn’t do that with crappy troops.
Howard served credibly out West, eventually even rising to army command. For that reason, I’ve always thought of him as “Keep Your Head Down” Howard (rather than the more traditional “Uh-Oh” Howard that plays off his initials and his twin disasters). Because of his skill at keeping his head down, and despite his twin debacles, Howard went on to a long, successful career in the army—highlighted perhaps most famously by events on this date in 1877.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the Indian Wars, but I do know Howard was in the thick of them. In 1877, when the Federal government tried to force the Nez Perce tribe from their ancestral homeland in Oregon to a small reservation in Idaho, a band of about 700 of them, led by Chief Joseph, resisted. Howard, initially sympathetic to the Nez Perce’s concerns, nonetheless attempted to bring them to bay.
Chief Joseph said he did not believe “the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do.” Howard took Chief Joseph’s words as a challenge, but Chief Joseph sought to avoid war by instead leading his people toward sanctuary in Canada.
Howard pursued. The result was a five-month, 1,170-mile series of running conflicts—the Nez Perce War—which Howard characterized in his memoirs as “the most arduous campaign.” Each time Howard’s troops tried to wrangle the Nez Perce, the Nez Perce skillfully fended them off.
Exceptionally frigid weather, moreso than just the Federal pursuit, finally put an end to the chase. Unable to get past General Nelson Miles’s infantry or Howard-led cavalry, running low on food and supplies, and suffering in sub-zero temperatures, the Nez Perce surrendered. Howard, though, took the credit: “through my own interpreter [I] succeeded in persuading Chief Joseph to abandon further hostile effort and make a prompt surrender,” he wrote in his memoirs.
Popular history remembers Chief Joseph’s words thus:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
Chief Joseph’s statement—probably not written by him—has become apocryphal. After all, who can resist a sentiment like “I will fight no more forever.” Certainly not America. Chief Joseph became a national celebrity, although he ultimately died far from home.
Howard, for his part, argued that the Nez Perce had been treated unfairly from the get-go, even if that didn’t prevent him from leading forces against them. Chief Joseph place blame for the entire conflict squarely on Howard’s shoulders. “If General Howard had given me plenty of time to gather up my stock and treated Too-hool-hool-suit [another Nez Perce leader] as a man should be treated,” he said, “there would have been no war.”
History has largely remembered Chief Joseph as a military genius—a perception that, as I understand it, Howard promoted. After all, if his opponent was wily and skillful, that would better excuse Howard’s difficulty in running him down.
Howard lived until 1909, which gave him decades to tell his side of any story his way, usually well after other characters had died away. His mammoth two-volume autobiography tops out at almost 1,300 pages. For a guy who largely survived by keeping his head down, that’s an awful lot to say.
It also helped that he served as director of the Freedmen’s Bureau, superintendent of West Point, and founder of Howard University, among other achievements, and he rose all the way to the rank of major general in the regular army (his major generalship during the Civil War was of volunteers). The French also named him to their Legion of Honor.
And so, if Howard was treading the water of history, and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg were two lead weights tied to his ankles, all this other stuff has been just enough to let his legacy keep grabbing gasps of air instead of getting dragged to the murky bottom.
All of which is to say that there’s more to consider about Howard than just Chancellorsville or Gettysburg, even he’ll never be free of those debacles.