Dentists and Civil War Generals

Oliver Otis Howard was a Civil War general from Leeds, Maine. Prior to serving as top commander under W.T. Sherman, he attended Bowdoin College, class of 1850, his tenure at the prestigious school overlapping that of Joshua Chamberlain, class of 1851. Growing up in a state that was (and still is) the whitest state in the nation, Howard’s views on race put him in the vanguard for his time and place.

[Oliver Otis Howard, 1830-1909, bust portrait, facing left; i...

Civil War General, Oliver Otis Howard, from Leeds, Maine.

I’ve been going to the same dentist, Dr. Gary Howard, for more than a decade. Every six months, I go in for my twice yearly cleaning and check-up. I’m fortunate to have dental insurance, which provides for regular maintenance of my teeth. Howard’s hygienists and office staff are personable and most have been with him for as long as I’ve been seeing Dr. Howard.

Over the years, Dr. Howard has always asked me about what new book I might be working on. He was a big fan of my first one, When Towns Had Teams, as he grew up during the era when local baseball was king and being from Winthrop, he knew many of the players I wrote about.

Monday morning, after he checked my teeth after the hygienist’s cleaning, we got talking about books and he mentioned a new book that he’s excited about, written by Gordon L. Weil (Bowdoin class of 1958). He ran out to his car and grabbed the book and said, “let me know what you think and drop it off sometime when you’re done.” The book is, The Good Man: The Civil War’s ‘Christian General’ and His Fight for Racial Equality. The topic of the book happens to be about Oliver Otis Howard, my dentist’s great-great grandfather.

Howard told me that his great-great grandfather had been head of the Freedman’s Bureau (which directed Reconstruction after the Civil War), and an early believer in full racial equality. Interestingly, that fact bears a strong link to my post on Friday about John Hope Bryant’s book, in which he referenced the Freedman’s Bureau. I mentioned this to Dr. Howard.

Bryant wrote about how when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves, he also created the Freedman’s Bureau, which was responsible for the launch of the Freedman’s Saving and Trust Company, commonly known as the Freedman’s Savings Bank. Their mission was a radical one at the time—to teach newly freed blacks about entrepreneurship, business, and managing their money.

When Lincoln was assassinated, many of his ideas for Reconstruction fell to his vice-president, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was a hard-core Southern segregationist and a slave owner. He was quoted as saying “As long as I’m President, this nation will be white run.”

I’ve begun reading Weil’s book and it’s intriguing. Oliver Otis Howard was deeply committed to racial equality and equal opportunities for all Americans. It was revolutionary in the 19th century, and it’s still pretty damn revolutionary today.

What’s interesting to me, with all my bad experiences with Xiantiy, is that it was Howard’s faith that drove him to adopt his positions on blacks and freedom. Certainly different than much of the evangelical Xian church in America. In fact, I came face-to-face with racism on numerous occasions during my time involved with Baptists, Presbyterians, and the Vineyard denomination. While that’s my own experience, the recent case of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and subsequent polling revealed an American church that still has a long way to go on race and equality.

I’m looking forward to completing my reading of Weil’s book. It’s very well-written and Howard’s beliefs regarding blacks and how they should have been better prepared economically after being freed, fits perfectly with Bryant’s ideas about capitalism and the poor.

Imagine that!

3 thoughts on “Dentists and Civil War Generals

  1. I consider myself well-versed in U.S. history, yet, I didn’t realize how much the assassination of Lincoln negatively impacted blacks. Reconstruction under President Johnson was a disaster.

    Actually, there are plenty of history books that take a close look at this, and I guess I’ll need to scout them out and spend a little time brushing up on that subject matter.

    Bryant’s book, along with this one by Weil make a strong historical case that blacks in America never had the same opportunity as whites did. The same could be said for the Natives.

    That’s not to say that poor whites had the same opportunities as the Boston Brahmins and other elites that were the Founders of our country, either.

  2. One of my customers once told me “human beings are defective and you’ll find them everywhere.” I think that is true in any collaboration of people, including but not limited to Christianity. Some of the most compelling and constructive aspects of Christianity, (forgiveness, confession, and humility) aren’t exciting topics for reality Tee Vee shows. Nevertheless, defective human beings are still striving toward a more Christ-like perfection, stumbling…stumbling.

    That’s a great picture of General Howard and it sounds like an interesting book. Thank you for telling us about a bearded man who does not run a duck dynasty.

  3. JAB,

    I believe that many less-than-perfect human beings are working toward a more meaningful existence, one stumble at a time—even some of us coming at it from a post-Xian framework. 🙂

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