Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Antietam Generals: Oliver O. Howard

Today I want to start a new series of posts on this blog that will coincide with my research on the Army of the Potomac this summer. While I am making charts and analyzing the experience and strength of different commands, I thought it would be interesting to start doing profile posts on various Union generals and commanders at Antietam, covering what they did during the battle, as well as their lives and careers before, during, and after the Civil War. I will most likely keep this series focusing on brigade commanders, but who knows? Maybe we will talk about some of the well known corps commanders, division commanders, or even some relatively unknown regimental commanders. I may even branch off and start working on Confederate commanders. Guess you'll have to stay tuned for more to come.

For the first profile, I decided to pick the man who commanded what readers of this blog will immediately recognize as the coolest, most interesting, and most fascinating brigade at the battle: the Philadelphia Brigade (for those who are new to this blog, my great-great-great grandfather Elwood Rodebaugh was a private in the 106th PA, one of the regiments in the brigade). As a part of the 2nd Corps, the Philadelphia Brigade saw heavy combat on many battlefields of the war. It also had some remarkable commanders, but none paralleled the record, and in some instances controversy, of the career of Oliver O. Howard.

Oliver O. Howard

Born: Nov. 8, 1830, Leeds Maine

Died: October 26, 1909

Buried: Lake View Cemetery, Burlington, VT

Command at Antietam: 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Corps (Philadelphia Brigade)

Oliver O. Howard

Oliver O. Howard is one of the more remarkable Union generals from the American Civil War. He was an 1850 graduate of Bowdoin College, the school made famous by another one of its students who became a professor at Bowdoin and later a Union colonel and general: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. In 1854, Howard graduated fourth in his class from West Point, along with other notable Civil War figures such as Jeb Stuart and Stephen D. Lee, both of whom Howard fought against at Antietam. Howard was known as a strong Christian and an abolitionist, yet he still cultivated a friendship with Stuart during their time together at West Point. His most notable service during the years between 1854 and the start of the war was as an assistant professor of mathematics at West Point. At the start of the Civil War, Howard was elected the colonel of the 3rd Maine. He commanded a brigade at the Battle of First Manassas; while trying to flank Confederates on Henry House Hill from Chinn Ridge, Howard’s brigade was hit by Confederate counterattacks and driven from the field. On September 3, 1861, Howard was given a commission as a Brigadier General of Volunteers, and he went on to command a brigade in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. During the Battle of Seven Pines, Howard was severely wounded, and lost his right arm as a result. He returned to duty in late August, 1862, during the debacle following the Union defeat at Second Manassas, and just in time for the battle of Antietam. Howard took command of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division of the 2nd Corps, otherwise known as the Philadelphia Brigade, as the majority of the men in the brigade were from the city of Philadelphia (it was one fo the only brigades in the army to be known for its city of origin). The regiments which comprised the brigade were the 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania. Howard was not alone in taking command of a brigde on the eve of the campaign; this would be the case for many, as the defeated and broken ranks of the Army of the Potomac and Army of Virginia needed to be reorganized quickly for the upcoming fight.

At Antietam, in command of the Philadelphia Brigade, Howard was a part of John Sedgwick’s 2nd Division of the 2nd Corps, the first division from that corps to be deployed on the field that day. 2nd Corps commander Major General Edwin V. Sumner personally led Sedgwick’s men onto the field, arriving first in the East Woods, where just before 9 a.m., he made the decision to push west across the Hagerstown Turnpike so as to then turn south and drive Lee’s already battered left flank from the northern end of the field.

Ezra Carman's map showing troop placements in the West Woods between 9 and 9:30 a.m. Howard's brigade consisted of the 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania, which can be seen just west of the Hagerstown Pike, conforming to the tree line in the West Woods.

As Sumner led Sedgwick’s division into the West Woods, the men were deployed into three lines of battle, stretching north and south, and facing west. Howard’s was the last of these three lines. His men crossed the turnpike, and formed their ranks to the tree line on the western edge of a clover field, which is now known as Philadelphia Brigade Park (stop 5 on the park’s driving tour). Unknowingly, Howard’s brigade and the rest of Sedgwick’s division were out in front of the biggest Confederate counterattack at the Battle of Antietam. Lee was sending the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and John Walker to the Confederate left flank; they descended upon the flank of the Union soldiers in the West Woods, and in less than half an hour, there were over 2,000 Federal casualties. In the course of the action, John Sedgwick was wounded, and Howard assumed command of the division, or, what was left of it. Sedgwick’s division had sustained the highest casualties of any division at the battle. Howard’s brigade had suffered 545 casualties on its own, all in less than half an hour.

There was little that Howard could have done to stop the Confederate onslaught. Sumner had navigated the division into a vulnerable position, and the Confederates happened to strike at precisely the right time. The terrain of the West Woods and the close Federal battle lines made turning to meet any Confederate attack extremely difficult. Howard did what he could to rally his men, and some companies and portions of regiments made stands at various places north and east of the initial Federal position. Yet, by and large, Sedgwick’s division was completely routed from their position in the West Woods.

Howard went on to a controversial, yet accomplished career, following Antietam. By March of 1863, Howard was a Major General and in command of the 11th Corps. At Chancellorsville, Howard’s men were again on the wrong end of a Confederate flank attack, this one being the famed assault of Stonewall Jackson, the same assault which ultimately led to Jackson’s accidental and eventually fatal wounding by his own men. Several months later, at Gettysburg, Howard was one of the heroes of the Union victory. While his 11th Corps troops had been driven back from their positions north of Gettysburg on July 1, it was Howard who had left a brigade of Union troops on Cemetery Hill, preparing a fall back defensive position for Union forces which guaranteed Federal control of the crucial high ground south of town, the same high ground which Union soldiers successfully defended on July 2 and July 3, achieving one of the great military victories in American history.

The following year, Howard went west and south. During the Atlanta Campaign, he at first commanded the 4th Corps in the Army of the Cumberland. After the death of Major General James B. McPherson at the July 22, 1864 Battle of Atlanta, Howard assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee, and was a part of Sherman’s successful capture of Atlanta in September, along with the famed March to the Sea in November and December. He rode with the Army of the Tennessee in the Grand Review in Washington in May of 1865, capping what was an extraordinary Civil War career.

Howard’s work did not end with the Civil War. He was appointed the first commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau by President Andrew Johnson in May of 1865. The Freedmen’s Bureau was aimed at helping freed slaves integrate themselves into free society. The Bureau ultimately fell far short of its stated goals, and Howard faced charges of fraud and corruption for several years. While his name was cleared, it is regrettable that he was not able to better fulfill his goals of making life better for freed slaves and African Americans throughout the country following the war. Outside of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Howard was more effective; he was a major player in the founding of Howard University in Washington D.C., and he also started a bank aimed at helping freed blacks. He also served as a Superintendent of West Point in the 1880s. He retired from the army in 1894, and spent his remaining days living in Burlington, Vermont, where he died in 1909.



  1. Great entry, Can we expect a treatment on Crook one day?

  2. Thanks, Mannie. You certainly can expect one on Crook. I am open to suggestions. Let me know who else you would like to see appear on here. Enjoy your week off. We missed you today at the VC (well, I did, the rest of the guys, not so much...)