Howard, Part 17: Commissioner Howard under Fire
KID WONGSRICHANALAI, STAFF WRITER
Oliver Otis Howard graduated from Bowdoin College in
the class of 1850. After that, he attended the military academy at West
Point and went off to war. He fought Stonewall Jackson in the thickets
of the Wilderness and John Bell Hood in the woods around Atlanta.
By 1865, Howard was known as a fighter and a "Christian
soldier." But all his training and all his skill as a soldier would do
little to help him in his toughest battle of all-the fight for the freedmen
in the years of Reconstruction. Faced with a hostile president and thousands
of angry Southerners, Howard fought a battle that he could not win.
In December 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen,
and Abandoned Lands was near its end. Congress had authorized it to operate
for only one year after the War ended. But it had been a year, and the
problems in the South were still there.
Freedmen were being killed and oppressed by Southerners
who would not let the past die. Oliver Howard knew that the only way to
insure that the freedmen would be protected after the Bureau shut down
was to secure their right to vote, to use the courts of law, and to own
their own land.
These plans of Howard's conflicted with those of President
Andrew Johnson who wanted to deny rights to the freedmen. Thus, Howard
took his plight to Congress and, with the help of a number of Radical
Republican senators, drafted Senate 60, or the Freedmen's Bureau Bill,
and Senate 61, or the Civil Rights Act.
These two bills were similar (one of the only major
distinctions was that Senate 60 was aimed at the former Confederate States
and Senate 61 was a nationwide bill) in granting powers to the Bureau
agents to step in where freedmen's rights were being denied.
The bills also made it clear that freedmen had civil
rights which all courts were bound to respect. If at any point the freedmen
had exhausted their efforts in searching for justice, they were welcome
in the Federal courts.
Senate 60 also gave the freedmen the rights to contract,
sue, testify, and start lawsuits. These two bills were polished and sent
to Johnson's desk in 1866. As expected, Johnson vetoed both bills.
In February 1866, Congress failed to override Johnson's
veto of Senate 60 but passed Senate 61-the less powerful of the two bills
as far as freedmen's rights were concerned.
But later that year, another Freedmen's Bureau's bill
was passed over Johnson's veto, extending the life of the agency. While
the passage of this latter bill made it certain that the Bureau would
be given time to accomplish its tasks, Andrew Johnson was just getting
started with his own war against the Bureau.
In April 1866, Johnson sent General J. S. Fullerton
and General James B. Steedman on an "inspection" tour of the South. Fullerton
had been one of Howard's friends and staff officers during the War and
had served as his adjutant general in the early months of the Bureau.
However, Fullerton sided with Johnson when it came to Reconstruction matters
and betrayed Howard to serve the President.
Fullerton and Steedman's tasks were simply to report
as much bad news about the Bureau as possible. To insure this, Johnson
had reporters tag along with the two. Soon, charges of corruption, murder,
misconduct, and political persuasion were flowing north in a constant
Assistant Commissioners were called inefficient and
corrupt, giving Johnson a reason to remove them from command and replacing
them with people who were sympathetic to his own cause.
Howard had all charges of corruption and misconduct
investigated, but there was only so much he could do. Johnson held all
the cards. His plan was for a quick restoration of all lands and for all
the states to rejoin the Union as soon as possible, freedmen be damned.
Thus, he urged the southern states to pledge their cooperation
with the radical Congress, giving Johnson grounds for removing Union troops
from the South and also for ending the life of the Freedmen's Bureau.
This having been done, the Southerners could do with the freedmen as they
Things were quickly turning sour for the freedmen and
for the Bureau. Many good officers were already gone-the result of military
downsizing and of Johnson's firings. Accusations that the Bureau was preaching
Republican propaganda were also spreading, tarnishing the Bureau's reputation
as a non-political organization.
Also, northern institutions-including a number of churches-that
had pledged their help at the beginning of Reconstruction were losing
both interest and funding. Lower agents of the Bureau were quickly turning
to the Southern viewpoint. Their task had been a tough one with the army
around to protect them, and now with military downsizing, stuck in hostile
territory and surrounded by very angry Southerners who saw them as invaders,
the Bureau agents either sided with the Southerners or resigned. Only
those who were truly dedicated to their task remained fighting, and for
some, their ideals led to their deaths.
Howard himself was under investigation, thanks to a
dispute at the First Congressional Church in which Howard opposed the
sermon of Reverend Doctor Charles Boynton, who preached that African-Americans
should join their own churches because God had created a separate destiny
Discrimination in the House of God was something that
Howard would not tolerate. He wrote, "I do not wish to see our church
a German church, a French church, an Anglo-Saxon church, nor an African
church, but simply a church of Christ, with its doors wide open…"
Howard tried to get the pastor removed but soon learned
that Boynton's son was a powerful newspaperman who took every chance he
got to smash Howard's reputation into the ground.
The junior Boynton found an ally in Congress-Fernando
Wood, a Democrat who used Howard and the Bureau to launch a number of
vicious attacks against the Republican Party. Wood accused Howard of mismanagement
of the Bureau and investigated Howard University, the Barry Farm Project
(in which Howard had bought land and given it to freedmen in the D.C.
area for farming), and other areas of the Bureau's activity.
In an era where fear of corruption was starting to brew-it
would explode with the Grant administration-Howard and his Bureau were
easy targets since they were responsible for millions of dollars worth
of government money. The investigating committee vindicated Howard, but
there was more to come.
The Bureau had also been given the task of paying bounties
to African-American veterans. This task Howard turned over to General
George W. Belloch, who was later proved to be guilty of fraud.
A considerable sum of money was missing from the account
books, and by 1874, the issue was coming to a head as Howard's enemies
tried to blame him for misusing funds and for corruption in the Bureau.
A Court of Inquiry upheld Howard, but later in the decade, more cases
of corruption would surface and assail Howard's reputation.
Meanwhile, as all of this was going on, the Freedmen's
Bureau was slowly disassembled (its doors permanently closed in 1872)
by Congress, which was beginning to lose interest in the plight of the
freedmen. For the freedmen, land had been denied, and the civil rights
they had been promised were nothing but an illusion. Health care, education,
work, and other issues were passed on from Congress to the new Southern
governments, which began once again to enslave the freedmen.
Oliver Howard could do nothing. He had tried his hardest
to fight for the freedmen, but the nation was not ready for such a radical
idea. Having preserved the Union, the nation was now willing to let the
freedmen fall back into servitude.
Howard's reputation had been tarnished, and his life
had been a constant fight against allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Howard University still stood, but that was probably the only true success
that Howard had in those years of Reconstruction.
Now, the one-armed war hero retreated from Washington
politics, abandoning the freedmen he had promised to care for. Howard
returned to the army, wondering if there was anything else he could do
for his country.
To Be Continued…
Next Time: Howard & Peace with Native Americans
1. Carpenter, John A. "Atrocities in the Reconstruction
Period." Journal of Negro History. 47(October, 1962): 234-247
2. Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver
Otis Howard. Fordham University Press, New York. 1999
3. John and LaWanda Cox. "General O.O. Howard and
the 'Misrepresented Bureau.'" The Journal of Southern History.
19 (November, 1953): 427-456
4. Cox, LaWanda. "The Promise of Land for the Freedmen."
The Mississippi Valley Historical Review. 45(December, 1958): 413-440
5. Drake, Richard B. "Freedmen's Aid Society and
Sectional Compromise." The Journal of Southern History. 29(May,
6. Foster, Gaines M. "The Limitations of Federal
Health Care for Freedmen, 1862-1868." The Journal of Southern
History. 48(August, 1982): 349-372
7. McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General
O.O. Howard and the Freedmen. Yale University Press, New Haven and
8. Nieman, Donald G. "Andrew Johnson, the Freedmen's
Bureau, and the Problem of Equal Rights, 1865-1866." The Journal
of Southern History. 44(August, 1978): 399-420
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circa 1870. (Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College