“CONSUMATE MASTER OF NEEDLESS DEFEAT” GENERAL OLIVER O. HOWARD

 

12- Rick Reeves painting Pickett's Mill depicting the repulse of Hazen s Brigade by Granbury s Texas Brigade 96dpi
Cleburne’s men repulse Hazen’s brigade at Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864. Painting by Rick Reeves.

AN EMINENT FEDERAL GENERAL

During the Civil War and after, Oliver Otis Howard was held in high regard by General Sherman and other Union commanders; why that was, heaven only knows. Sherman praised Howard in a letter to Grant as “a polished and Christian gentleman, exhibiting the highest and most chivalrous traits of the soldier.” Some may find some unconscious irony in Sherman lauding Howard for chivalrous and gentlemanly behavior, since Uncle Billy was so lacking in those traits himself, and the only thing Old Crump was noted for polishing was polishing off was bottles of whiskey and boxes of cigars.

Howard was referred to as the “Christian General” by some, presumably for his ostentatious displays of piety, less his practice of same. By the field officers and men under him, however, General O. O. Howard was generally referred to as “Oh-Oh!” Howard, due to his well-earned reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on the field of battle. Historian Stephen Sears has called him an “unimaginative, unenterprising, uninspiring, a stiflingly christian soldier.” There are those who think that Sears was being uncommonly generous in his appraisal of Howard.

768px-Oliver_Otis_Howard
General Oliver O. “Oh-Oh” Howard

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, for example, General Howard commanded the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, where he earned an undimmed repute for bad generalship. The Eleventh was composed largely of immigrant volunteers; when originally formed, McClellan had seen fit to lump most of the Germans, Irish and other immigrant units into one large ghetto, so to speak, presumably so they would not contaminate his Anglo-Saxon “American” units with their foreign ways—although that was never explicitly stated. Until Howard took command of the Eleventh, the regiments had been under one or another German-American general, men who often had military training in Europe and even some combat experience. They may not have been the best corps commanders, but they were trusted by their men.

The “Dutchmen” were less than happy with their new leader and, truth be told, the corps had previously suffered from neglect at the hands of the Federal high command, often being deprived of necessary food and equipment in an army generally known for its superabundance of them. As fate would have it, Chancellorsville was the first time Howard commanded the Eleventh in combat—and it was nearly his last.

                                                                                                                                                                At Chancellorsville, Howard and his “Dutchmen” were stuck on the extreme right of the Union line, where General Hooker no doubt hoped they would be out of sight and mind. Apparently Stonewall Jackson was of a similar opinion, and convinced General Lee to let him take his corps out of the southern end of the Confederate battle-line and march behind the main body of the Rebel army to come up and around and deliver a surprise attack on Howard’s isolated force. General Jackson’s maneuver from the far right to the extreme left of the Rebel line was carried out with speed and secrecy; his “foot-cavalry” delivered an overwhelming assault against Howard and his unsuspecting troops.

While some blamed Howard for gross negligence and failing to properly entrench his troops, many in the Army of the Potomac faulted his men for cowardice, referring to them as “flying dutchmen,” as the corps collapsed under the relentless assault of Stonewall’s corps. That the Eleventh was outnumbered three to one and lacked reserves to stem the attack may have also had something to do with the defeat. Hooker also found it convenient to blame Howard and the Eleventh for the debacle rather than assume any blame on his own shoulders.

Again, at Gettysburg, Howard and the Eleventh were again severely pressed on the first day, with the corps being pushed back through the town and only managing to make a stand on the high ground south of town. Ultimately, Howard managed to hold the line on Cemetery Hill, although it was a very near thing. That evening, Howard was replaced by General Hancock—an officer of lower rank—by General Meade–some indication of Meade’s regard for Howard’s generalship.

Later that year, when Grant called on Washington for troops to retrieve the situation in Chattanooga following Rosecrans’ defeat at Chickamauga, General Meade was only too glad to send Howard and his Dutchmen out west–and out of his army. In the Western Theater, the Eleventh Corps fared far better in combat, with none of the criticism that had dogged them with the Army of the Potomac. In part this may have been because, after raising the siege of the city, they ceased to be under “Oh-Oh!” Howard’s command.

For Sherman’s big push against Atlanta the following year, Howard was put in charge of the Fourth Corps and placed under the command of General George Thomas in the Army of the Cumberland. Howard seems to have avoided major defeats in the Atlanta Campaign, at least for a few months. This was due largely to the overwhelming numerical superiority of “Uncle Billy’s” three armies, versus “Uncle Joe” Johnston’s lone Army of Tennessee.  Also, Sherman was very much in command of all his forces, moving them like chessmen on a playing board, leaving less room for Howard to commit serious blunders.

During the early months of 1864, Sherman’s massive force relentlessly advanced southward through the mountainous region of northwest Georgia, whose hilly terrain was admirably suited for defense. Hopelessly outnumbered, Joe Johnston fought one defensive battle after another, holding ground to the point where Sherman threatened to outflank him and then falling back to his next defensive line. Finally, Sherman’s advance ground to a halt on May 26, at New Hope Church. On May 27, an effort to outflank Johnston’s troops, Sherman ordered Howard to take his Fourth Corps back around to the left and attack the Rebel’s extreme right flank—much as Stonewall Jackson had done to Howard at Chancellorsville.

What Stonewall had done stealthily and quickly, Howard did obviously and slowly, so that by the time his troops had arrived at the jump off spot, the Rebels had had ample warning of an attack. To cover his exposed right, Johnston rushed his best division under his best commander—Cleburne’s Division, plus some dismounted cavalry as support. Instead of launching the full force of his command against the still fragile Rebel right, Howard, beginning late in the afternoon, began to send his troops in a brigade at a time. Hazen’s brigade had the dubious honor of attacking first, without any support, at a spot called Pickett’s Mill.

General-William-Hazen ca Civil War
Brigadier General William Babcock Hazen, “The Best Hated Man in the Army”

The story of the attack by Hazen’s men was later chronicled by Lt. Ambrose Bierce, who was on Hazen’s staff, in the short essay, “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” and a somewhat more objective account of the battle is related in Chapter 12 of Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife. While both Sherman and the divisional commander are deserving of blame for the ensuing blood bath, Bierce always reserved the full weight of blame for the “Christian” Howard.

Despite the hopelessness of the attack, Hazen and his men carried it out to the best of their ability and in fact at one point some troops of the brigade found an open flank which could be turned. At that point Hazen sent back runners with urgent dispatches, desperately calling for support to exploit the weak point in the Rebel lines—to no avail. Only after Hazen’s men had been bled dry and were in retreat, did Howard send in another brigade, only to be chewed up like the first, and then a third, which only avoided similar losses by the onset of darkness.

Criminal incompetence ought to be considered a felony, but in this case the guilty parties not only went unpunished but were rewarded for their blunders and the incident was buried deep in official reports until Ambrose Bierce disinterred it years after the was.

General Howard, in reward for his record of criminal incompetence was bestowed with further honors, positions and duties after the war. Soon after cessation of hostilities he was put in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau, to look after the welfare of the newly freed Negroes, where under his watch the Klu Klux Klan rose to power. He was later sent west to supervise the Nez Perce Indians, a peaceful tribe that simply wanted to be left alone, and Howard somehow managed to provoke a war with them. Needless to say, Howard kept being rewarded for his incompetence and lived to rewrite history with his memoirs, in whose pages his many “needless defeats” became heroic stands, although he, like Sherman, said little about the “crime” at Pickett’s Mill.

For more about the war, read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, and for more esoteric aspects of the Late Unpleasantness, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the wartime career of one of America’s greatest writers.

 

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