July 7, 2013

Author Q&A: Heroic couplet

By TOM ATWELL/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Oliver Otis Howard headed the Freedmen's Bureau, which directed Reconstruction after the Civil War.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Gordon Weil

Born in Leeds, Howard graduated from Bowdoin, continued his education at West Point and was a general in the Civil War. He lost his right arm during the Battle of Fair Oaks early in the war, returned to duty three months later, served at Gettysburg and was later one of the key generals under William T. Sherman.

Howard was what would be called today a born-again Christian and gave up alcohol, tobacco and profanity -- unusual with military officers of the time.

After the war, he was President Lincoln's choice to direct the Freedmen's Bureau, but he did not assume the post until after Lincoln's assassination.

Many of Howard's efforts were stymied by Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, but Howard and the bureau were able to provide a network of colleges -- including Howard University in Washington, D.C., which was named for him -- for the education of African Americans. Those schools in large part provided the leaders who later led the Civil Rights movement, including Thurgood Marshall.

In "The Good Man: The Civil War's 'Christian General' and His Fight for Racial Equality," Gordon L. Weil of Harpswell tells Howard's story. As background, Weil also covers the history of Reconstruction and race relations after the Civil War.

Weil is a retired official in state government, having served as energy director, public advocate and head of the Department of Business Regulation, and has been a Harpswell selectman.

The paperback was published in June by Arthur McAllister Publishers, and costs $16.95.

Q: How did you decide to write this book?

A: The Bowdoin connection matters. I went to Bowdoin; he went to Bowdoin; his papers are at Bowdoin. Beyond that, I thought that he was an underrated and not well understood person who merited more attention. And he was so influenced by his growing up in Maine.

Q: I found the "Howard and History" chapter fascinating. Taking U.S. history classes in the 1950s and early '60s, the theme was that the radical Reconstructionists went overboard in their attempts to punish the South. You point out that opinions changed as the Civil Rights movement came about, saying Howard and the bureau did not go far enough. What is the reality?

A: The Civil War in minds of many people in the North was about abolition and freeing the slaves. Probably for a majority of people, it was about maintaining the union and less about abolishing slavery. We had a brief period where Congress was dominated by northern abolitionists, since the Confederate states hadn't yet returned to Congress, and the northern abolitionists believed the Civil War would not have served its purpose if there were not significant changes made in the South.

In fact, what we now know is that the so-called Radical Republicans were way ahead of their time, in that they wanted to convert the result of the Civil War to societal change in the South. And we see from the Supreme Court decision on voting rights (in late June) that the debate continues today.

Q: Howard was known as "The Christian General," and you can see that in many of his actions. But most of the officers on both sides professed a belief in some form of Christianity, and those beliefs did not affect them the same way. Why do you think that is?

A: He was a different kind of Christian. It partly has to do with what the world meant at the time. He underwent what was then called a conversion, what would now be called being born again, and that was not the case for most officers in the military. Howard took up a serious vow to give up drinking, smoking and the use of profanity, which was quite unusual in military officers at that time.

In addition, he wasn't merely an abolitionist wanting to end slavery. He actually believed in full racial equality, believing that God created everyone equally. That was the difference, and few people held those beliefs and were willing to act on them. 

Q: Could you discuss how Howard's Maine roots affected his career?

A: First, Maine was a simple, less sophisticated society than the one found in Washington. He brought a kind of naive belief that people would do the right thing because it is the right thing, and will be honest with you. 

Second, going to Bowdoin taught him the value of a general education, what we now call a liberal arts education, and seeing things in a broad concept.

And the contacts he made in Maine, like (William Pitt) Fessenden and (James G.) Blaine, continued throughout his life and had a big impact on his career.

Q: In creating Howard University, I was surprised that a liberal arts education for the Freedmen was so controversial, and even Booker T. Washington opposed the idea. Why was that?

A: I think (some people) preferred taking a gradual approach, with a belief that African Americans coming out of slavery totally uneducated needed to learn valuable skills with which they could earn a living. Howard was not against that, but he thought they had to go beyond that so you could have African-American professors, doctors and teachers, and not just people with technical skills.

It is an interesting thing about Howard -- and one point that is overlooked -- is that the premier educational institution for African Americans is named after a white man from Maine, and that is really a great monument to him.

Q: What achievement do you think was his greatest?

A: Oh, I think his greatest achievement definitely was in education. Reconstruction failed because the Freedmen's Bureau failed, and he realized that from the warning that he got from Sherman when he took the task that it was "Hercules' task," and he was not able to pull it off.

But he tried in the course of leading the Freedmen's Bureau to create things that would serve the most, and that was in the creation of educational institutions for African Americans, often funded privately or from religious groups or funds from the Freedmen's Bureau.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: Only this: One thing you can say about Howard is that he was a man ahead of his time in terms of race relations and the equality of people. And he paid the price in 13 years of grief (in several federal investigations) for his attempts to integrate a church in Washington.

I think he is a quiet hero about whom it is worth knowing more. 

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer.  He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

tomatwell@me.com

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