Bowdoin’s O. O. Howard Papers Provide Window into the Civil War

O. O. HowardNext week Bowdoin will host “The Afterlife of the American Civil War,” an Alumni College weekend of events inspired by the war’s sesquicentennial anniversary. One of Bowdoin’s many ties to this historical period is its renowned collection of General Oliver Otis Howard’s correspondence. The O. O. Howard papers comprise the Bowdoin College Library’s most heavily used collection, used by twice as many researchers as any other collection held in the library.

A Maine native, Howard attended Bowdoin and graduated in 1850, two years before fellow Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Howard went on to become a Union general and was awarded a Medal of Honor for his service in the war (during which he lost his right arm). When the war ended he became head of the Freedman’s Bureau, served as superintendent of West Point, and participated in Indian wars in the western United States. He helped to found Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, and served for many years on Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees.

O. O. Howard's 1854 commission as an officer, signed by then-Secretary of State Jefferson Davis

O. O. Howard’s 1854 commission as an officer, signed by then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis

Over the course of his life Howard exchanged letters with more than 14,000 people, including notables involved in social reformation, the military, politics, law, religion, education, literature, journalism, and the arts. The many luminaries with whom he corresponded included Henry Ward Beecher, Andrew Carnegie, Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, James A. Garfield, Sojourner Truth, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Christmas letter written by Howard to his son, Guy, in 1861

Christmas letter written by Howard to his son, Guy, in 1861

Incoming correspondence makes up the majority of the extensive collection, which also includes items such as newspaper clippings, photographs, and correspondence written by Howard himself (including the charmingly illustrated letter below, addressed to his young son). Besides providing insight into the events of Howard’s varied career, the documents also reflect his personal life as a member of a distinguished Maine family, his active social involvement, and his progressive ideas on topics such as African-American welfare and education for disadvantaged populations.

Recognizing the immense value of the Howard papers to scholars of many disciplines, the Bowdoin College Library recently applied for a grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission to digitize the entire collection over the course of the next three years. The proposed digitization project would tie into a 2015 symposium on the Reconstruction Period organized by Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English Tess Chakkalakal, who is also the organizer for next weekend’s Alumni College.

O. O. Howard on horseback

Bowdoin also holds collections for Howard’s brothers, Charles Henry Howard and Rowland Bailey Howard. Next Saturday, August 10, all three of these collections will be put to use in an Alumni College event led by David K. Thomson ’08 and Director of Special Collections Richard Lindemann. Visiting alumni will practice viewing the documents with a detective’s eye to deduce information from small details such as a creased page or a shift in handwriting, all while learning about the legacy of the Howard family.

The public is invited to attend the 2013 Bowdoin Alumni College’s keynote lecture by Nina Silber (Boston University professor of history) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 9, in Kresge Auditorium in the Visual Arts Center.

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