We know not of your borders
But you push us to your corners
Maine native Oliver Otis Howard was promoted to the rank of general in the Union Army when he was only 30 years old.
He spent the first half of the Civil War in the Eastern Theater, leading a division at Antietam and a corps at Gettysburg.
After Gettysburg, Howard (now a major general) was transferred to the Western Theater, where he commanded the 27,000-man Army of the Tennessee in the Atlanta Campaign and Sherman’s “March to the Sea.”
When the war ended, Gen. Howard was appointed to head up the Freedman’s Bureau, which was created by Congress to help integrate freed slaves into American society. The Bureau’s agents did everything from distributing food to needy African-Americans, overseeing employment contracts between former slaveholders and their newly-freed slaves, and serving as advocates for former slaves in state and federal courts.
But the most lasting of the accomplishments of the Freedman’s Bureau was the creation of educational institutions for blacks. Several of the historically black colleges and universities that exist today – including Fisk University (Nashville), Hampton University (Hampton, VA), Virginia Union University (Richmond), and Dillard University (New Orleans) – were originally sponsored by the Bureau.
Perhaps the most well-known of the historically black colleges and universities is Howard University in Washington, DC. That university, which was established in 1867, was named for Gen. Howard, and he served as the school’s president from 1869 to 1874 while still serving in the army.
|The house on the Howard University|
campus where Gen. Howard lived
If you asked those who want to rename the public schools that currently honor Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders to identify some historical figures who are worthy of having schools named after them, I would think that Oliver Otis Howard would be on the short list.
But while most African-Americans would likely support honoring Howard in such a fashion, native Americans might feel quite differently.
In 1874, Gen. Howard was named commander of U. S. Army forces in the Pacific Northwest and sent to Fort Vancouver, Washington to fight Indians.
One of Howard’s assignments was to get several bands of the Nez Perce Indians to move to a reservation on the Oregon-Idaho border. In May 1877, he met with Nez Perce leaders, giving them 30 days to move or else.
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce argued that the U. S. government had unjustly seized the tribe’s traditional lands and that the reservation was not large enough for all his people to live on. He also protested that Howard wasn’t giving the Nez Perce enough time to collect their livestock and transport themselves and their lodges to the reservation – they needed several months to comply with Howard’s orders, not 30 days.
Howard’s haughty response offended the Nez Perce:
I stand here for the President, and there is no spirit good or bad that will hinder me. My orders are plain, and will be executed. I hoped that the Indians had good sense enough to make me their friend, and not their enemy.
When the Nez Perce failed to move to the reservation by his deadline, Howard sent troops to force them to do so. The Nez Perce defeated the soldiers in the Battle of White Bird Canyon on June 14 and headed east.
Between June 14 and October 5, the Nez Perce covered some 1400 miles in a desperate attempt to evade their pursuers and find sanctuary in Canada. Only about 200 of the 700 Nez Perce were warriors, but that small force fought eighteen engagements (including four major battles) against its numerically superior foe before they were finally cornered and forced to surrender.
After the Nez Perce War was won, Gen. Howard led troops against the Bannock, Paiute, and Shoshone tribes, forcing them to move to to reservations as well.
Oliver Otis Howard didn’t share the attitude of his fellow general, John Pope, who said this when President Lincoln sent him to pacify a Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862:
It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromise can be made.
A devout man who was known as “The Christian General,” Howard was sympathetic to the plight of the native Americans he fought against. But when he was told by his superiors to force the Nez Perce and other tribes to submit to the U. S. government, he unhesitatingly followed orders.
Most African-Americans who know about Howard likely view him as a hero – he was a strong supporter of the abolitionist cause before the outbreak of the Civil War, and he worked hard to ameliorate the lives of freed slaves after that war ended.
To native Americans, however, Howard is just another one of the U. S. Army “long knives” who made war on them until they were forced to surrender their lands and move to government reservations.
State Radio was formed in the Boston exurb of Sherborne, Massachusetts. “Fight No More,” which was released in 2008 on the group’s Year of the Crow album, quotes the closing sentence of Chief Joseph’s heartbreaking surrender speech:
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, and see how many of them 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.
Here’s “Fight No More”:
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