Oliver Otis Howard, later known as “the Christian General”, played a unique role in the Civil War, advancing through the ranks to eventually command an army, despite major defeats. Born in Leeds, Maine, on 8 November 1830, Howard was the son of Rowland Bailey and Eliza Otis Howard.
After losing his father at the age of nine, Howard attended public schools before enrolling in Bowdoin College from which he graduated in 1850. Although he had taught school during his stay at Bowdoin, he remained undecided on a career until offered a position at West Point by his Uncle John Howard. Though at first uncertain, Howard eventually took the opportunity and, at the age of nineteen, entered the cloisters of West Point, joining a class that included W. Dorsey Pender, Thomas H. Ruger, G. W. Custis Lee, and Jeb Stuart. Howard did well academically, eventually graduating fourth in his class of forty-six.
With such a high ranking, Howard could choose to join any branch of the military, yet, rather than joining the Engineers (which most high-ranking West Pointers chose), Howard selected the Ordnance Department, serving as a brevet second lieutenant. He chose this branch because, as he later wrote, “The Ordnance Department had in charge all the United States arsenals and armories of the country with a few powder stations, and at every one of these there was a house ready for a married officer, so that as soon as I could get the assent of my ﬁancée, we could be married and have immediate provision for a home.”
Howard served at a comfortable post in the Ordnance Department until 1857 when he received orders to proceed to Florida in the position of Chief of Ordnance during the Seminole Wars. Reluctantly, the young officer left his family and departed for the Everglades. Though unenthusiastic at the time Howard would later look back on this time with gratitude, for during his time in Florida, Howard experienced a conversion to Christianity. He later wrote that he was “ever after to be a different man, with different hopes and different purposes in life.”
Indeed, it seems that this was God’s sole purpose in sending Howard to Florida, for he did not stay long. Later that same year, Howard returned to West Point as an instructor in mathematics. Here he fathered three children, conducted a Bible class for both enlisted men and civilians, and studied theology with the purpose of entering into the ministry. There was not one area of his life that was not affected by his deep faith in Christ, earning him the disdainful title of “the Christian soldier”.
After the Civil War began, Howard received command of the 3rd Maine Regiment and the colonelcy that came with it. However, just two months after gaining command of this regiment, Howard was assigned to brigade command, leading his brigade at First Manassas. That fall, he received a promotion to brigadier general, bearing this rank in the Peninsular campaign. During this campaign, on 1 June 1862, he received two wounds in the arm which would eventually cost him his right arm. Despite these wounds, Howard returned in time to form the army’s rearguard at Second Manassas.
He then fought at Antietam, relieving wounded division commander John Sedgwick, and retaining command of this division through Fredericksburg where he fought as a major general.
Throughout this time, Howard developed a reputation for tremendous courage. Yet, though his personal bravery on the field was now beyond doubt, it had not always been so. In describing his first battle, Howard later wrote, “I cannot forget how I was affected by the sounds of the musketry and the roar of the cannon as I stood near my horse ready to mount at the first call from McDowell; for a few moments weakness seemed to overcome me and I felt a sense of shame on account of it. Then I lifted my soul and my heart and cried: ‘O God! enable me to do my duty.’ From that time the singular feeling left me and never returned.”
This perfectly represents Howard’s approach to every circumstance. Rather than rely on his own strength, he would turn at all times to One greater than he for strength.
Soon after his promotion to major general, Howard replaced Franz Sigel as commander of XI Corps on 2 April 1863. Looking back on the appointment, it becomes clear that the post would have better gone to an officer of more experience, for despite his demonstrated ability as a division commander, Howard did not possess the no-nonsense attitude needed to gain the respect of the somewhat rowdy troops of XI Corps. Colonel Charles S. Wainwright recognized this, describing Howard as “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.”
Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that Howard indeed lacked this “rod of iron” remaining unsuccessful in his attempts to gain the respect or love of XI Corps. This was demonstrated at Chancellorsville, when Stonewall Jackson smashed Howard’s Corps in a devastating evening flank attack. After the battle, many voices, including that of the press, cast the blame for the ignominious defeat squarely on the shoulders of Howard and the German element of XI Corps. However, others more fair-minded acknowledged that, considering XI Corps’ situation, any other corps would also have swiftly broke and fled before Jackson’s assault. One such man was Colonel Charles S. Wainwright who wrote,
“The attacks on General Howard are outrageous. He had been in command of the Eleventh Corps but a month before the fight, and was previously unknown to its officers and men. On the Peninsula he won the name of an excellent officer and brave man. 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, shewed himself the most polished gentleman I have met. I know that he was very anxious to attack Lee on Monday, and together with Couch, Reynolds, and Meade, was decidedly opposed to our withdrawal on Wednesday night.”
However, with Hooker, the media, and the politicians allied in their determination that he should bear all the blame, Howard found that, apart from a few officers in the Army of the Potomac, he had lost all respect and trust. Unjustly maligned, Howard was determined to regain the confidence of his troops, and of the people in the next campaign. In this campaign, he would face the Confederate Second Corps yet again, though it would no longer have Stonewall Jackson for its commander. In Jackson's place, General Ewell would lead the famed Second Corps in the upcoming campaign.
Richard Stoddert Ewell was born 8 February 1817, the third son Dr. Thomas and Elizabeth Stoddert Ewell and grandson of the first U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert. Yet despite his illustrious relatives, Ewell, born in Georgetown, District of Columbia, was raised in near poverty at “Stony Lonesome”, a farm near Manassas, Virginia.
Ewell managed to get an appointment to West Point Military Academy’s class of 1840, graduating thirteenth out of a class of forty-two students, a class that included William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas. Following his graduation, Ewell was stationed in the West as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons, serving during the Mexican War as part of the company that formed the mounted escort to General Winfield Scott.
After the war, Ewell, now brevetted to captain, fought aggressively in the Southwest against the Apaches, demonstrating throughout his career a competence and skill in command that developed for him an enviable reputation among his colleagues. However, all this was to change with the arrival of secession.
Ewell did not in any way support secession and stood to lose much by it, yet when his native state of Virginia seceded from the Union, Ewell, following what he saw as his duty to his state, turned in his resignation from the United States Army on 7 May 1861, entering the Virginia militia as a Lieutenant Colonel. After a month as an instructor at a cavalry training camp in Ashland, Virginia, Ewell received a promotion to brigadier general on 17 June, leading his brigade at First Manassas, though he saw little action there.
Then, in February 1862, Ewell, now a major general, received command of a division in Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s army. This turned out to be one of the odder combinations of the Civil War, the two generals rivaling one another in eccentricity. The description offered by Historian Larry Tagg begins to paint for us a picture of Ewell’s peculiarities:
“Rather short at 5 feet 8 inches, he had just a fringe of brown hair on an otherwise bald, bomb-shaped head. Bright, bulging eyes protruded above a prominent nose, creating an effect which many likened to a bird—an eagle, some said, or a woodcock—especially when he let his head droop toward one shoulder, as he often did, and uttered strange speeches in his shrill, twittering lisp. He had a habit of muttering odd remarks in the middle of normal conversation, such as ‘Now why do you suppose President Davis made me a major general anyway?’ He could be spectacularly, blisteringly profane. He was so nervous and fidgety he could not sleep in a normal position, and spent nights curled around a campstool. He had convinced himself that he had some mysterious internal disease, and so subsisted almost entirely on frumenty, a dish of hulled wheat boiled in milk and sweetened with sugar.” Ewell was truly, as one friend described him, a “compound of anomalies.”
Jackson too was known for his own oddities, yet despite these similarities, some were at first doubtful of how these two men would get along, for Ewell was well known for his witty and rather pungent comments as well as his blistering use of profanity, while Jackson was equally well known for his stern and devout piety. However, Ewell turned out to be one of the few men that could work well with Jackson’s peculiarities, leading his division admirably in the Shenandoah Valley (23 March - 9 June), and later in the Seven Days’ battles (25 June - 1 July), at Cedar Mountain (9 August), and finally at Groveton (29 August), where he was wounded in the knee. This wound led to the amputation of his leg, and thus, he was not present at Antietam, Fredericksburg, or Chancellorsville.
Throughout these battles, Ewell had built a reputation of bravery that became legendary. This bravery, combined with a generosity of spirit earned him the respect and love of all of his troops, despite his eccentricities. Though possessing a terrible temper, Ewell, pleasant and affable for the most part, was well liked and admired by nearly all. Indeed, it was difficult not to respect such a man, for he seemed devoid of all vanity and self-seeking, so common among the higher ranks of both Union and Confederate armies. The loss of this man was a dreadful blow to the Army of Northern Virginia.
During the months of his recovery, Ewell married his cousin, Lizinka Campbell Brown, now a wealthy widow of a Mississippi planter and the mother of Major G. Campbell Brown, a member of Ewell’s staff.
Nearly a year after receiving his injuries, Ewell, now minus his left leg but having lost none of his brilliance or courage, was ready to return to the fight.