American Portraits

Oliver Otis Howard: Crusader for Justice

In this lesson, students will learn how Oliver Otis Howard fought for justice for recently freed African-Americans following the Civil War. They will also discuss ways that they can promote justice in their lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


Following the end of the Civil War, O.O. Howard was named commissioner of the new Freedmen’s Bureau, whose mission was to provide aid and justice to former slaves and to help rebuild the American republic. It would become, in Howard’s words, “A struggle for what I have called the manhood of the black man in labor, justice, suffrage, and the schools.” Howard’s quest for justice sprung from his faith, but also from his belief in the American Founding as the best chance for man to see justice on Earth. He recognized that in 1865, the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution had not yet been realized, but their goals gave him hope and optimism….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you follow Oliver Otis Howard’s example and pursue justice in your life?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how Oliver Otis Howard fought for justice for recently freed African-Americans following the Civil War. They will also discuss ways that they can promote justice in their lives.


  • Students will analyze the actions of Oliver Otis Howard and how he promoted justice.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice to their own lives and determine ways that they can promote justice.


Oliver Otis (O.O.) Howard was born in Leeds, Maine in 1830. The man who civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Dubois once referred to as, “an honest and sincere man,” lived a life marked by a quest for justice, especially for those who routinely faced injustice. His idea of justice came from a strong faith in God and God’s justice.

Howard studied at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating fourth in his class in 1854. He was an earnest young man who did not drink, swear, or smoke. He was influenced by the speeches of William Seward and came to believe, even as a young man, that slavery was wrong. However, the cadets were very much divided over slavery, as many of them came from the South. Thus, Howard kept his views to himself to avoid controversy.

Howard’s faith was important to him throughout his life. While stationed in Tampa, Florida during the Third Seminole War, Howard underwent a religious awakening. While attending a Methodist tent meeting, he decided to answer the altar call after observing some young men mocking a disabled woman who had taken the call. He later recalled, “I asked myself, which would you rather be, on the side of those who were trying to do God’s will, or on the side of the scoffers?”

His increased faith led to a strong belief that the institution of slavery was unjust. Howard would refer to slavery as a “gigantic evil” and could not understand how anyone could support it. He believed it was impossible to reconcile Christianity and slavery, stating, “I do not learn in any of the Commandments or in the Gospel of Christ, that black men are excepted…As Christians our first duty towards them is to recognize their manhood.”

Upon his return from Florida, he considered the ministry but instead took a position teaching math at West Point. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Howard accepted a commission as a colonel in a Maine militia and saw a great deal of action. He was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, leading to the loss of his right arm. His valor in that battle would be recognized some thirty years later with the Medal of Honor. When later reflecting on the loss of his arm, he believed it to be a worthy sacrifice, stating, “Whenever I feel a returning throb from an old wound, I thank God I lost what I did in procurement of practical liberty. I thank God it was done in opening up a chance for the colored people.”

After a three-month recuperation, he was promoted to Brigadier General in the fall of 1861. Howard went on to serve in many of the major battles of the war and in all three major theatres. During the Atlanta, Georgia, and Carolinas campaigns, Howard became part of General William T. Sherman’s inner circle. Sherman valued his expertise as an administrator and organizer for the Army. It was while in Georgia that Howard first observed what would come to define his postwar life, the attempt to educate former slaves.


  • Sincere
  • Quest
  • Cadets
  • Altar
  • Institution
  • Commission
  • Colonel
  • Militia
  • Valor
  • Recuperation
  • Crusade
  • Reputation
  • Humanitarian
  • Herculean
  • Singular
  • Grapple
  • Genuine
  • Testimony
  • Opposition
  • Lamented
  • Vocational
  • Tirelessly
  • Advocate

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Oliver Otis Howard? Why is his life significant?
  • What was Howard’s purpose?
  • What did Howard do to accomplish his purpose?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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