On 11 August 1866, Major General Oliver Otis Howard, Director of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands and former commander of the Union Army’s XI Corps, wrote to D. A. Buehler, Chairman of the Pennsylvania College Board of Trustees, to thank him for the award of an honorary degree. Only two days before, on 9 August 1866, the board had voted to confer unto Howard the honorary LL.D, or Doctorate of Laws.
Although often overshadowed by the glamor of generals such as Winfield Scott Hancock, Daniel Sickles, and even fellow Maine native Joshua Chamberlain, General Howard was nevertheless a figure of importance to the Union efforts during the Battle of Gettysburg. It was his XI Corps that arrived in town not long after General Reynolds and the I Corps during the first day of fighting. Upon arriving, Howard set up the first divisions on Cemetery Hill, which would later become integral to the Union’s line of defense. Following Reynold’s death on 1 July 1863 and before the arrival of General Meade, it was Howard who took command of the battle. In his personal life, Howard was an exceedingly pious man, known popularly as “The Christian General” and said to have often attributed the outcome of battles to the divine providence of God. In his post-war career as Director of the Freeman’s Bureau and beyond, Howard aided in the foundation of numerous universities and theological schools, strongly advocating for education for all people, of all races. Eventually, he served as president of the college which bears his name, Howard University.
In his letter to the board of Pennsylvania College in 1866, Howard notes that while he already possessed a Doctorate of Sacred Scripture, or SS.D, from his alma mater Bowdoin College, he gratefully accepts the degree offered to him. The letter concludes with the comment that he considered the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg to be “the most eventful day of [his] life” and that he was pleased that it ended with “such measure of success.” All in all, the letter is barely a page long. No mention is made of the reason why the honorary law degree was awarded to Howard—not in the note, nor in the minutes of the board of trustees during the sessions in which he was nominated and confirmed for the conferral. What the minutes do note, however, is that it was one Dr. Brown who nominated Howard to receive the degree on 9August 1865, a full year before it was eventually conferred upon him. Although the delay in awarding remains unexplained and can only be assumed to be the result of arcane bureaucratic ritual, the reasoning behind its presentation can be uncovered by examining Howard’s secondary connections to Gettysburg and its institutions.
In his autobiography published over forty years after the battle, Howard makes note of a rendezvous with one Professor Stoever shortly after the battle’s completion. This professor is almost certainly Martin Luther Stoever, the first Professor of History for the then still relatively new Pennsylvania College. Professor Stoever was a man in many regards similar to Howard. A stalwart advocate for the Union cause, Stoever has since been referred to as “the most active member of the faculty in war-time service.” In addition to serving on the United States Christian Commission, Stoever hid Union officers trapped behind Confederate lines in his home’s basement during the battle’s street fighting and later opened his home up to the treatment of soldiers after the battle. Further, the two men shared in their evangelical tendencies. At the college, Stoever served as the editor of the Evangelical Quarterly Review and as the Secretary of the General Synod and was famed for his biographical sketches of famous clergymen. What the two men discussed and why they met at all remains unnoted, but the connection they forged in 1863 would later prove significant.
Howard’s second return to Gettysburg would occur on 4 July 1865, almost exactly two years since the battle. This time, he was to speak as the primary orator at the laying of the cornerstone for the Soldier’s National Monument. Though the ceremony was widely attended by other arguably more important individuals, including Generals Meade and Grant, Admiral Farragut, and Pennsylvania Government Curtin, Howard had center stage. Even President Johnson had been invited and was expected to attend, only failing to do so due to illness. In his impassioned speech, Howard told the story of the horrific experiences and brave actions of the volunteer soldier during the war, firmly concluding that what they went through could not be fully appreciated without having been there to see it firsthand. At his speech’s conclusion, Howard prayed that God will help nourish the plant of “American Liberty,” which the soldiers’ blood had “planted, nourished, and now preserved,” hoping that “its growth may not be hindered till its roots are firmly set in every State of this Union, and till the full fruition of its blessed fruit is realized by men of every name, color, and description, in this broad land.” Aside from presenting an optimistic and bold dream for equality, Howard’s veneration for the average soldier was likely not lost upon those who heard and read his words. Perhaps Dr. Brown, the man who had nominated Howard for his honorary degree, had listened from the audience that day or read the published transcript of Howard’s text shortly after.
Dr. J Allen Brown had experienced the war firsthand. Starting as the chaplain for the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, he eventually became the chaplain for the US Army Hospital in York, where he would have experienced the horrors left by battle firsthand. Now he served as Chairman of the Faculty at the nearby Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg and sat on the Pennsylvania College board of trustees. As an educator and staunch defender of conservative Lutheranism, Brown was the sort of man who would have appreciated Howard’s religious sensibilities and personal character. Perhaps this is why, only a month later at the board of trustee’s next meeting, he would nominate Howard for an honorary degree.
Brown’s honors for Howard did not stop at the nomination, however. In 1866, during a particularly successful period of fundraising by the Lutheran Seminary, Brown, as Chairman of the Faculty, campaigned to endow a “General Howard Professorship,” in an effort to turn the post-war patriotic sentiment of the nation into a boon for the seminary. Brown cited Howard’s “decisive character” and the important role played by the Lutheran Seminary and Seminary Ridge during the fighting as justification for such an endowment—in addition, of course, to Howard’s “positive Christian character.” This is the very character, it should be noted, that seems to have connected Howard to Professor Stoever during his time in Gettysburg. Stoever, like Brown, was a force for conservative Lutheranism in the religious community of Gettysburg, and the two were allies in opposing reform efforts to the seminary’s curriculum prior to the war. In this way, a tangible degree of separation is forged between Brown and Howard through Stoever.
Thus, we come to understand the connection between Howard and Pennsylvania College. Clearly, his role in the battle and personal characteristics left a good impression on the local community, as his invitation to speak at the Soldier’s Monument and subsequent honors show. This is altogether unsurprising, for though it would irresponsible to label Howard as the most important commander for the Union cause that took to the field during the battle, his religious sensibilities meshed perfectly with those of the conservative Lutheran elements that commanded authority in town. The description of a “pious, ardent Unionist with an interest in education” could be applied to any of Howard, Brown, or Stoever, all men connected to each other, in one way or another. It is impossible to conclude with complete accuracy that the three had been friends—clear evidence doesn’t even suggest that Howard had met Brown in person during his lifetime, and his relationship with Stoever remains generally unclear. Friendship is not a prerequisite for admiration, though, and Brown’s for Howard ultimately manifests for us today as Howard’s note of thanks and appreciation.
General Howard’s Note to the Pennsylvania College Board of Trustees can today be found in the Special Collections of Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library.
1. Glatfelter, Charles H. A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1935, vol. 1. Mechanicsburg, PA: W&M Printing, Inc., 1987.
2. Hefelbower, Samuel Gring. The History of Gettysburg College 1832-1932. York, PA: The Maple Press Company, 1932.
3. Howard, O. O. The Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard: Major General, United States Army. New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1907. 2 volumes.
4. Howard, O. O. Letter to D. A. Buehler, Washington, August 11, 1866. CW/VFM 43. Gettysburg College Special Collections, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA.
5. Oration of Major-General Oliver Otis Howard and Speech of His Excellency, A. G. Curtin, Government of Pennsylvania, at the Laying of the Corner Stone of the Monument in the Soldier’s National Cemetery, at Gettysburg, July 4, 1865. Gettysburg, PA: Aughinbaugh & Wible Book and Job Printers, 1865.
6. Pennsylvania College Board of Trustees Minutes, 1854-1879. Gettysburg College Special Collections, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA.
7. Wentz, Abdel Ross. Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, Volume 1: History. Harrisburg, PA: The Evangelical Press, 1965.