Oliver Howard: Battlefield Believer
Op-Ed by Michael Aubrecht, Copyright 2006

"When are you going to do one on a Yankee?"
You have no idea how many times I've heard this...

This usually happens after I am approached at a book signing by out-of-towners who aren't familiar with my work (which tends to be the majority of them - haha). They walk up to my table, look down at the Confederate flag, flip through my Christian books on Jackson and Stuart (now on CD too), they grab some of my free Civil War coloring books for kids, a couple bookmarks, media kit, brochure, and other handouts, then they shake my hand, allow me to talk about my work, buy a book (or sometimes two), I sign it with a verse or two of scripture, and then they never fail to ask why I haven't written a religious study on a Union general.

The first few times, I acknowledged their inquiry and said that I was certainly thinking about it. By the fifteenth time, I started to get annoyed. Even my mother, a Pennsylvania native, has mentioned my favoritism toward the Confederacy in my work and I cannot deny this fact. But come on folks, I live in Fredericksburg, Virginia and it's kinda' hard not to "root" for the home team.

Regardless, please don't misunderstand; it is by no conscious effort that I have avoided the topic of Christian Federal commanders. In fact, I have actually made a concerted effort to incorporate more of a northern contingency in my recent work (you can see some of this over on my website including an essay on Reverend Father William Corby, Chaplain of the Irish Brigade).

However, after spending some time doing research, I don't think that I could write an entire Christian-bio (in the same vein as the others) on a Yankee, and give it the same level of detail and spiritual zeal. To be honest, there just doesn't seem to be the same religious fervor, or what secular/progressives would probably call "fanaticism" among the northern generals.

Now I'll be the first to admit that perhaps this is an incorrect assumption, and one that I may have interpreted solely on the basis of my own location (the South) OR, there may be some truth in the notion that one of the major differences that existed between the Confederate and Union armies was the theology that drove their commanders. It has been a bit of a challenge and I wish that I had more time between projects to explore it.

One general in a blue uniform that meets (and may even exceed) my own personal expectations as potential book-matter is General Oliver Howard. I rediscovered him a month or so ago after I was asked to do an online chat about the role of religion in the Civil War for the great folks at the CWHC. As people attended this online presentation from all over, I worked extra hard at giving equal time to both sides. Howard, also known as the "Christian General" was one of my topics which I titled "Oliver Howard: Battlefield Believer." Here is an excerpt:

I'm sure most (if not all) of you have seen the Ron Maxwell films "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals." Obviously "G&G" is a blatant example of religion and it's impact on the war, but I would like to refer to a scene from "Gettysburg" in which General Longstreet is sharing a cup of tea(?) with their British observer and discussing the differences in their ideology. At one point, Longstreet makes a candid comment saying, "I reckon we whipped you British twice." He then responds to the observer's laughter and reply by saying something along the lines of "We Southerners like our generals to be like our preachers… religious, and a little mad."

Although these lines are quoted from a Hollywood script and obviously inserted as conjecture, they are (IMO) very accurate. Without a doubt, 19th-Century Southerners were more openly religious than their northern counterparts. For instance, I pass no less than five, 1800's-era churches on the way to work, and I only live a few miles away. This can also be seen in the way that they acknowledged their generals. In essence, both sides may have believed that their cause was the more righteous one - but the Confederacy REALLY believed that God was on their side and that the were soldiers in the "Army of the Lord."

This resulted in a strong feeling of loyalty from the Southern troops, and an admiration (even at times, an adoration that bordered on hero-worship) of the commanders that was not as prevalent in the North. For example, the Stonewall Brigade would have happily followed their beloved Stonewall Jackson straight into the pits of Hell if asked. I highly doubt that Burnsides, or even McClellan, would have had the same "blind" obedience in their ranks. (Although the Battle of Fredericksburg may disprove my theory there?) In the end, Southern generals were looked at as "gods," while their Northern counterparts were mere mortals in the eyes of their troops.

One Yankee officer did fit the bill and could have just as easily been attending camp service in a different colored uniform - if not for politics, a strong opinion against slavery, and a sense of duty toward preserving the Union. That man was General Oliver Otis Howard, who personified the Christian Soldier. Even in battle Howard was as much a moral crusader as a warrior, insisting that his troops attend prayer and temperance meetings. A recent PBS documentary summed up the life of Oliver Howard perfectly when it said, "Throughout his long military career, Oliver Howard gained victory by the force of his moral convictions, as often as by force of arms."

In 1857, Howard was a full-time soldier who was deployed to Florida for the Seminole Wars. It was there that he experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity and considered resigning from the army to become a minister. His religious proclivities would later earn him the nickname "the Christian general." On the outbreak of the American Civil War, Howard, an opponent of slavery, resigned his regular army commission and became colonel of the Third Maine Volunteers in the Union Army. Much like Jackson, Howard made spiritual strengthening a daily part of his troop's regiments.

As the war progressed, a movement referred to as "The Great Revival" took place in the South. Beginning in the fall of 1863, this event was in full progress throughout the Army of Northern Virginia. Before the revival was interrupted by Grant's attack in May 1864, approximately seven thousand soldiers-10 percent of Lee's force-were reportedly converted. Dr. Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., author of "A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies," reports that "The best estimates of conversions in the Union forces place the figure between 100,000 and 200,000 men-about 5-10 percent of all individuals engaged in the conflict. In the smaller Confederate armies, at least 100,000 were converted. Since these numbers include only "conversions" and do not represent the number of soldiers actually swept up in the revivals-a yet more substantial figure-the impact of revivals during the Civil War surely was tremendous."

According to some accounts, in the early stages of the war, revivals like the one Howard led were not the rule but the exception. Religion did not seem to have left home with the soldiers. The magazine "Christianity Today" recalled the trials and tribulations with living a Godly life while on campaign. It stated: "Day-to-day army life was so boring that men were often tempted to "make some foolishness," as one soldier typified it. Profanity, gambling, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, and petty thievery confronted those who wanted to practice their faith. Christians complained that no Sabbath was observed; despite the efforts of a few generals like George McClellan and Oliver O. Howard, ordinary routines went on as if Sunday meant nothing at all. General Robert McAllister, an officer who was working closely with the United States Christian Commission, complained that a "tide of irreligion" had rolled over his army "like a mighty wave."

Unfortunately, Howard's motivational efforts did not always transpire on the battlefield in the same manner that it did for Jackson's brigades. At the Battle of Fair Oaks (June1862) he was wounded twice in the right arm. The second wound shattered his bone near the elbow. It was amputated, and Howard spent two months recovering from his wounds before coming back. He was also given the Medal of Honor as a result of his own gallantry.

According to an August 1864 issue of "Harper's Weekly": "General Howard has lost his right arm in his country's service. It used to be a joke between him and Kearney, who had lost his left arm, that, as a matter of economy, they might purchase their gloves together." One of Howard's most significant moments (in the field) came at Gettysburg, where he assumed command of Reynolds troops after he was killed.

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 addition, Howard was active in Indian engagements and subsequent relations in the West and is remembered as a man of his word and of strong moral convictions. As was quite common, many of the surviving commanders of the Civil War became "celebrities" in the public eye, and they often signed autographs. Howard routinely signed his "The Lord Is My Shepard."

Much like Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was in the South, Oliver "O" Howard is to be credited for his evangelistic efforts on behalf of the North, in addition to his activism on behalf of all minorities living in the U.S. at the time. He was a man of God who ultimately became a man of the people - ALL people - regardless of the color of their skin.

So there you go critics… there's one on a Yankee.
And a damn (good) Yankee too.




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