Born November 8, 1830, in Leeds, Maine, Oliver O. Howard graduated from Bowdoin College Maine in 1850 and the US Military Academy in 1854. Commissioned in Ordnance, Howard served for a year as Assistant Ordnance Officer at Watervliet Arsenal, New York. Then he served as Commander of the Kennebec Arsenal in Maine and subsequently as Chief Ordnance Officer, Department of Florida, during the Third Seminole Indian War. In 1857, he was reassigned to the US Military Academy as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics. He resigned his regular Army commission in June 1861 to serve in the Civil War as a Colonel of Volunteers for the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment.
Howard commanded a hastily formed brigade in the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861. He was promoted to Brigadier General in September 1861 and given command of a brigade in II Corps. Howard had his right arm shattered while leading a charge at the Battle of Fair Oaks in June 1862. His arm had to be amputated, and he received a Medal of Honor in 1893 for his conspicuous gallantry at Fair Oaks.
In August 1862, Howard returned to brigade command in the Second Division of II Corps and fought at the Battle of Second Manassas and then at the Battle of Antietam, where he took command when his division commander was wounded. Howard retained command of the division and was promoted to Major General of Volunteers in November 1862. He stepped up to command of XI Corps in April 1863. Howard's Corps was driven from the field in the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, the victim of Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson's famous flank attack. Howard displayed his usual bravery, exposing himself to enemy fire as he rallied his troops.
Howard's XI Corps was again severely handled in the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, but he assumed command of the field that day, rallied the retreating troops on Cemetery Hill, and organized a defense that would hold for the rest of the battle. Howard received the thanks of Congress in a Joint Resolution in 1864 for his actions at Gettysburg.
The XI Corps was sent west in September 1863, where Howard served as a Corps Commander and then as Commander of the Army of the Tennessee in General William T. Sherman's campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas. Following the war, Howard was appointed Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, serving until 1874. A deeply religious and honest man, Howard strove to improve the economic and educational status of the freed slaves. He was one of the founders of Howard University, serving as its president from 1869 to 1874.
Howard returned to Army service as a Brigadier General in 1874, taking command of the Department of the Columbia, where he conducted campaigns against the Nez Perce Indians in 1877 and the Bannocks and Piutes in 1878. In 1881, Howard was appointed Superintendent of West Point. From 1882 to 1886, he commanded the Department of the Platte. In 1886, Howard was promoted to Major General and took command of the Division of the Pacific and Department of California until 1888. From 1888 to 1894, he served as Commander, Division of the Atlantic and Department of the East. In 1894, he retired to Burlington, Vermont, where he remained active in religious and educational activities, lecturing and writing ten books. He died in 1909 at the age of 79, ending a distinguished lifetime of service as a Soldier, administrator, and educator.