Exactly 368 days after he bade “adieu” to his sweetheart, Elizabeth Anne Waite Howard, Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds abruptly headed home to her. He brought with him his younger brother, Charlie Howard — or “Lieutenant Howard” — and he returned to Maine a physically lesser man than when he left Elizabeth at West Point, N.Y. in May 1861.
In spring 1862, casualty lists remained insignificant, especially compared to the slaughter that would occur 24 months later. In Virginia, the Confederate and Union armies had butted heads in minor clashes during the recent winter. Now, though, Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan and the Army of the Potomac were on the move, creeping north along the peninsula that lay between the James and York rivers.
Oliver Otis Howard commanded the 1st Brigade in the 1st Division, which was commanded by Brig. Gen. Israel Richardson. This division belonged to the II Corps under Brig. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner.
When Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston launched a surprise attack on Saturday, May 31 against Union troops occupying the crossroads settlement of Seven Pines — perhaps 6 or 7 miles east of Richmond — Richardson led his 1st Division to help the beleaguered boys in blue. When the battle resumed on Sunday, June 1, Howard led half his brigade — the 61st and 64th New York infantry regiments — in a charge across the Richmond & York River Railroad. During the charge, “I was wounded through the right forearm by a small Mississippi rifle ball,” Howard wrote in his post-war memoirs.
With one horse already shot out beneath him, Howard rode his second horse as his men surged through an abandoned Federal camp and “found a stronger force of Confederates, kneeling and firing.” There “my gray horse had his left foreleg broken,” and “a rifle shot” shattered Howard’s right elbow.
Soon examined by Dr. Gabriel Grant, Howard encountered his brother and aide, Charles, who had been “shot through the thigh,” and both men relocated to a nearby field hospital. There a few surgeons conferred about Oliver’s wounds and decided to amputate his right arm “above the elbow.” The surgeons did so, and the next day “my brother and I set out on leave with surgeon’s certificate of disability,” Howard wrote.
The Howard brothers headed for Maine. Let Oliver Otis Howard describe the poignant homecoming that he experienced:
“From New York we went directly to Lewiston, Me., meeting on the steamer and the [railroad] cars, in the cities and villages wherever we passed, every demonstration of sympathy and affection. Our condition suggest to other hearts what had happened or might happen to some beloved relative or friend still on the field of strife.
“At last, arriving at Lewiston station, the whole population appeared to have turned out to greet us. We were not suffered to cross the [Androscoggin] river into Auburn, and meet my little family after more than a year’s separation (italics added), til words of welcome and appreciation had been spoken and acknowledged.
“Then the desired relief from such patriotic love came and we hastened to the hotel in Auburn where my wife and children were.
“Sweet, indeed, was the rest of a few subsequent days when we enjoyed the nursing and comforts of home.”
Howard returned to war some 80 days after losing his arm during the Battle of Seven Pines. Of such physical and spiritual strength were Maine soldiers made.