America has long been known as the land of opportunity. Many Americans still believe that if you work hard enough you can accomplish anything. During the late nineteenth century, there was a Union officer who epitomized this spirit as he strove to help assimilate one group on the fringe of American society. He wanted to help this group not only survive but also prosper in America. He was known as the “Christian General” for his strong adherence to Christian principles. His name was Oliver Otis Howard. This is the story of his efforts to provide African-Americans with full access into American culture and all its possibilities.
Oliver Otis Howard’s early life was a living testimony that anyone could rise beyond his or her circumstances to achieve success. He grew up in humble surroundings in the hamlet of Leeds, Maine, only twenty-five miles from the state capital of Augusta. He graduated with honors from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating, he saw action against the Seminoles in Florida. At one point, he was sent as a peace envoy to Chief Billy Bowlegs, successor to legendary Chief Osceola. He briefly returned to West Point to teach mathematics until the outbreak of the Civil War took him back to the regular ranks of the Union army. His courageous defense against a Confederate attack at the battle of Fair Oaks in 1862 resulted in the loss of his right arm and the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He quickly rose through the ranks, and by 1863 he commanded the Eleventh Corps. The corps had poor performances at Chancellorsville and in the initial engagements at Gettysburg. It was General Howard who rallied his withdrawing soldiers at Gettysburg and placed them along the strategic high ground, thereby enabling the Union’s ultimate victory in the battle. For his actions, he was voted the prestigious “Thanks of Congress,” an award only given to fifteen men in the Civil War. He spent the last years of the war serving under General William T. Sherman in the western theatre. He eventually became commander of the Union Army of the Tennessee. As the war closed, however, Oliver Howard was given new work that filled him with hope for the future.
In the war’s aftermath, Oliver Howard’s Christian beliefs helped transform him from a warrior to a peacemaker. He had a vision of what America could be, and the first step centered on the assimilation of African-Americans. There had to be a new relationship between whites and the former slaves. Howard was convinced that African-Americans needed to learn how to survive as free citizens. His rhetoric on the subject convinced his superiors that he was the man to see the task of assimilation through to completion. On May 12, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed him as the Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau. Howard vocalized his belief “that God led me and assigned that work to me.”
The War Department created the Freedman’s Bureau in March 1865 in order to provide services to the newly freed slaves. Howard embraced the bureau as one of the most important sources for opening doors for African-Americans into American culture. He sought to do all he could to give African-Americans the same levels of opportunity available to whites. He led efforts to fund and build hospitals to provide medical services to black patients and training to black medical professionals. One of the most successful was the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was there that African-American doctors received medical training. The “Christian General” also strove to offer equal legal protection to African-Americans. He created a system of quasi-courts under the bureau’s jurisdiction to help judge the disputes between whites and blacks. The courts also gathered funds to compensate former slaves for their labor or to seek out their family members who had been sold to other states. The courts even offered to draw up labor contracts between the former slaves and masters. Each of these actions allowed African-Americans to gain further entrance into American society.
These accomplishments were momentous, but one of Howard’s greatest achievements came in the realm of education. He understood that the Freedman’s Bureau could not always provide for the former slaves. Sooner or later, African-Americans had to care for themselves. The best way for them to do so was to obtain higher education. Previously most schools were associated with religious organizations. Churches had provided the teachers. Now other types of schools were appearing all over the South to teach reading and writing. Howard strove to see such progress spread throughout the African-American community. Under his administration, the Freedman’s Bureau created nearly four thousand schools and trade schools. The foremost of these was a place that still proudly bears Howard’s name — Howard University in Washington, D.C. It continues to provide higher education for African-American men and women. Howard himself served as the university president from 1869-74. He not only offered education to blacks but also to poor whites. In 1895, he helped create Lincoln Memorial University in Cumberland, Tennessee to serve the needs of poor, mountain whites. He saw great success as the head of the bureau, but he was not able to contain the internal and external threats to its success.
Oliver Howard tried to deal justly with white Southerners as well as black. His bureau provided supplies to both groups after the war. Unfortunately, some of his administrators failed to have the same conciliatory view toward their former enemies. Some administrators proved overly zealous in their desire to humiliate the South. One provocative administrator in South Carolina even insisted on issuing his directives from a tree known as the Emancipation Oak, a tree from which South Carolina slaves had been informed of their freedom. Administrators also took advantage of their position to appropriate the homes of affluent Southerners for bureau purposes. In addition to Northern corruption, the bureau faced opposition from Southerners who continued to see African-Americans as inferior. Howard struggled on in spite of these challenges, but support from American leaders began to wane. By 1872, the Freedman’s Bureau had been shut down. Nevertheless, Oliver Howard continued to pursue his dream of an America that was home to all.
After he left the Freedman’s Bureau, Oliver Howard decided to help another group adjust to American life, the Native American tribes. In March 1872, President Grant sent him to the legendary Fort Apache in Arizona to negotiate peace with the Apaches. It was a demanding challenge. Despite a number of initial setbacks, he finally succeeded in meeting with several Apache leaders and escorted them east on a tour of American cities. He then returned to Arizona, and in late September, he met with the famed Apache war chief Cochise. Howard was able to reach an agreement with the Apache chief and helped bring a temporary peace between the whites and the Indians. In 1874 he was transferred to command the Department of the Columbia, which included Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Despite desires for peace, he fought against various Indian tribes, such as Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and was present for the chief’s surrender in which he promised to “fight no more forever.” Howard continued to remain invested in assimilation efforts during his service as the commandant of West Point, as the commander of the Division of the Platte and finally as the commander of the Division of the East. He maintained a belief in bettering lives until his death in 1909 at the age of 79.
Oliver Otis Howard’s life was spent ensuring that the “American Dream” became attainable for all who lived throughout the land. Despite being a man of war when necessary, Howard’s real heart was for helping his fellow countrymen. He believed that any American had the potential to lift himself up from his current position and enjoy “the blessings of a civilized life.” Howard believed the best way to secure such blessings was to provide opportunities and to offer Christian charity to those in need. Both actions would enable individuals to gain full access into the very fabric of American life. With that entrance, an individual, no matter his or her background or ethnicity, could help advance the cause of liberty held dear by all Americans. That was the vision Oliver O. Howard pursued throughout his life — a vision that has since led to opportunity, improvement and, most importantly, hope for thousands.