Major General Oliver Otis Howard was seeking a measure of redemption at Gettysburg. His XI Corps had been routed at Chancellorsville when Stonewall Jackson fell on its unsuspecting right flank. Howard knew he and his corps had failed, and he understood that the rest of the army believed it, too. On May 10 he felt compelled to issue a general order acknowledging “a feeling of depression” in the corps. “Some obloquy has been cast upon us on account of the affair of Saturday, May 2,” he said. “I believe that such a disaster might have happened to any other corps of this arm, and do not distrust my command.” He said the events of May 2 would be a learning experience, and felt that his officers and men were eager for another chance to prove their worth.
Howard was up before dawn on July 1, 1863, to begin preparations to send his three divisions—under Francis Barlow, Adolph von Steinwehr, and Carl Schurz—forward toward Gettysburg. The long columns of men finally set out around 8:30 a.m. for the 11-mile march. After some morning showers, the day was promising to be hot and dusty. Howard rode along the Emmitsburg Road ahead of his corps, and he often had to detour through woods and fields to avoid the wagons and men of the I Corps. He had two Howard brothers with him on the march—his brother the major, and his minister brother Rowland, who had reached the XI Corps on June 24 with John Chamberlain as a member of the United States Christian Commission. Rowland had never experienced combat. He was excited by the “pomp and circumstance” of an army on the march, and the way the men waved their banners as they approached the Pennsylvania border.
The general remembered coming within sight of Gettysburg with his entourage at around 10:30 that morning. He could hear the roar of artillery and the ripping sheets of musketry ahead. For Rowland, the sound of the guns “excited a thrill of patriotic emotion.”
The rest of his corps was still coming up, so Howard spent some time examining the terrain. He rode through a peach orchard to the right of the Emmitsburg Road, and then along a ridge that ended on a hill south of town that was crowned by Evergreen Cemetery. He was there when a messenger arrived from Reynolds with confirmation that the battle had started. “Here was a broad view which embraced the town, the seminary, the college, and all the undulating valley of open country spread out between the ridges,” Howard said. “There was a beautiful break in the ridge to the north of me, where Culp’s Hill abuts against the cemetery, and touches the creek below. It struck me that here one could make a strong right flank.” He turned to Theodore Meysenberg, his adjutant. “This seems to be a good position, Colonel,” he said.
“It is the only position, general,” Meysenberg replied.
The pious, one-armed general from Maine had made a decision that would have enormous ramifications for the Union army at Gettysburg.
For the rest of his life, Howard believed that his decision to post his men on Cemetery Hill was the key to the Union victory at Gettysburg. It was his redemption for the disaster at Chancellorsville. He objected when one of Reynolds’s aides, Joseph George Rosengarten, claimed that Reynolds had made the decision and told one of Howard’s aides to have the general occupy Cemetery Hill. Howard refuted that account. The only aide of Howard’s who had spoken with Reynolds that morning was Capt. Daniel Hall, and Hall, he said, had received no such instructions. “General Reynolds gave no order whatever in regard to occupying Cemetery Hill, nor did he make any allusion to it,” Hall affirmed.
The weight of evidence tilts in Howard’s favor, although not everyone was convinced. Abner Small of the 16th Maine, who developed a poor opinion of Howard’s generalship, believed that Reynolds should receive the credit. “General Howard’s memory is conveniently defective,” Small averred, “as it would otherwise conflict with his claim to the championship of Gettysburgh.”
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