New Perspectives on THE WEST
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Eaton, Fred
Field, Marshall
Fletcher, Alice
Gibbon, John
Gilpin, William
Glidden, Joseph F.
Goodnight, Charles
Haywood, William "Big Bill"
lat-kekt (Chief Joseph)
Houston, Sam
Howard, Oliver O.

Photo of Oliver Otis HowardOliver Otis Howard


Throughout his long military career, Oliver Otis Howard gained victory by the force of his own moral convictions as often as by force of arms.

Born in Maine in 1830, Howard received his education at Bowdoin College, then attended West Point, where he became a mathematics professor in the mid-1850's. He was on the verge of switching careers to become a minister when the Civil War erupted. During the war, he commanded troops at First Bull Run, Fair Oaks (where severe wounds forced the amputation of his right arm), Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Even in battle Howard was as much a moral crusader as a warrior, insisting that his troops attend prayer and temperance meetings. After the war, he was appointed head of the Freedman's Bureau, which was designed to protect and assist the newly-freed slaves. In this position, Howard quickly earned the contempt of white Southerners and many Northerners for his unapologetic support of black suffrage and his efforts to distribute land to African-Americans. He was also fearlessly candid about expressing his belief that the majority of white Southerners would be happy to see slavery restored. He even championed freedom and equality for former slaves in his private life, by working to make his elite Washington, D.C., church racially integrated and by helping to found an all-black college in the District of Columbia, which was soon named Howard University in his honor.

In 1872, Howard brought a similar courage and sense of commitment to the American West when he was dispatched by the Grant administration to meet with the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise and bring an end to his decade-long guerilla war against American settlers. Travelling almost alone, Howard entered the Apache chief's stronghold and secured a peace agreement by promising him a reservation of his own choosing. Other generals and public officials condemned what they saw as the overly generous terms of this agreement, but Howard's promise was upheld by an executive order which set aside nearly the whole southeastern corner of the Arizona Territory as a Chiricahua reservation on which Cochise and his people could live with little meddling from the army.

Five years later, in 1877, Howard faced a different situation in Oregon, where he was sent to persuade a Nez PercÚ band led by Chief Joseph to leave their homeland in the Wallowa Valley for the reservation assigned to them in Lapwai, Idaho. Howard found himself agreeing with Joseph that his people had never signed a treaty giving up their homeland, but in Howard's view this did not change the fact that eastern Oregon was no longer a place where Indians could roam free.

After his offer to purchase the valley was rejected, Howard made it clear that he would use force to move the Nez PercÚ as he had been commanded. And despite his sympathies for Joseph's band, he did not hesitate to send his troops against them when Nez PercÚ warriors killed several white settlers in the area. Nonetheless, Howard never lost sight of the underlying moral issue in this confrontation, and after Joseph's surrender, he was outspoken among those officers who argued without success that his band should be allowed to return to their home.

Howard's military career after the Nez PercÚ War included serving as superintendent of West Point for several years and as the commanding officer of the Department of the Platte and the Division of the East. In his later years and after his retirement from the army in 1894, he wrote several books on military and Indian affairs, including Nez PercÚ Joseph (1881), Autobiography (1907), My Life and Experiences Among Hostile Indians (1907) and Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known (1908). Howard died in 1909.

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