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Chapter 61: Court of inquiry; president of Howard University

Early in 1872 I had a brief change from my Bureau work, though no relief from its responsibilities. Under the last Bureau Act, that of August 4, 1868, I was engaged in finding and paying the colored soldiers and sailors in different States who had not as yet been reached by our limited agencies. I had been ardently pushing forward the educational division, and was also performing the administrative functions of Howard University, which now had in operation eight departments. The Young Men's Christian Association of Washington, very active under the efficient secretaryship of Mr. George A. Hall, had for some years kept me as its president, and our Congregational Church under its new and able pastor, Rev. J. E. Rankin, D. D., still claimed some of my time. Indeed, there was as yet no leisure; and all friends believed that I was laden about as heavily as one man ought to be, when one day I received a note from the Secretary of the.Interior, Columbus Delano, inviting me to call at his office. Not a little curious at such an unusual invitation, I went at once. He asked me as soon as we were face to face if I were willing to go to Arizona and New Mexico as a “Peace commissioner.” General Grant's administration, he said, in pursuance of his peace policy with the Indians had succeeded in making [446] peace with every tribe that was on the war path except one; that one was the Apache tribe of the notorious chieftain Cochise.

Finding that my selection was at the wish of the President, I accepted, and left Washington March 7th, leaving General Whittlesey as acting. commissioner. The Indian work given me was very absorbing, so that for the year 1872, after the first two months, I was practically detached from my Bureau.1 During the spring a strong desire appeared on the part of the politicians in control, many of whom had been stanch friends of the freedmen, to eliminate the Bureau completely from the future political issues of the day. On questions concerning which they, who were members of the Senate and House of Representatives, would naturally have consulted me, they advised during my absence with the Secretary of War. He advised them, and particularly the appropriation committee of the House, to make at once an ostensible close of the Freedmen's Bureau, putting directly into his office the bounty division and that part of the medical and hospital department which could not in the interest of humanity be shut off.

Though General Grant himself had sent me to Arizona and New Mexico, endued with extraordinary powers, still in military circles greit irritation naturally sprang from my going in the capacity of a peace commissioner, and the action which I was obliged to take to accomplish the desired results found severe [447] criticism and complaint not only among frontiersmen and their newspapers, but among army officers of different ranks in bivouac and garrison, and at district, department, and even military division headquarters.

General Sheridan from Chicago, commanding the large central military division, had had his jurisdiction extended to New Mexico. On receiving such criticisms and complaints, he gave me such comment in his indorsements that I remonstrated. He happened to be in Washington soon after my return from Arizona in November, and I had an interview with him. I said: “General Sheridan, did you never know that General Grant himself sent me to the Southwest to do just what I did!”

He answered: “No, Howard, no 1 did Grant really do that!” I replied: “Indeed he did, and I never in the whole expedition went beyond my instructions.”

Sheridan then assured me that he would try to rectify the mischief that he and others had done me by a too hasty judgment and action. From the criticism and complaint that thus came into the War Department, and from the personal hostility of W. W. Belknap, then Secretary of War, I was made to feel that the department was against me, and that during my absence there had been unfriendly planning and action against my late Bureau.

The legislative action, however, was just what I desired, except that I would have preferred to close out my own Bureau and not have another do it for me in an unfriendly manner in my absence. The legislation was embraced in an Appropriation Act (June 10, 1872). After giving one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) for the expenses of the payment of bounties, it was provided: “That the Bureau of Refugees, [448] Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands shall be discontinued from and after June 30, 1872, and that all agents, clerks, and other employees then on duty shall be discharged, except such as may be retained by the Secretary of War for the purposes of this proviso; and all Acts and parts of Acts pertaining to the collection and payment of bounties, or other moneys due to colored soldiers, sailors, and marines, or their heirs, shall remain in force until otherwise ordered by Congress, the same to be carried into effect by the Secretary of War, who may employ such clerical force as may be necessary for the purpose.”

The Freedmen's Hospital and Asylum at Washington, by the same Act, given to sustain them an appropriation of seventy-four thousand dollars ($74,000), was placed directly under the Secretary of War, requiring him to make all estimates and pass upon all accounts, and be responsible to the Treasury of the United States for all expenditures.

At the time of the transfer from my office at Howard University to the War Department of all books, documents, and papers, my entire office establishment was at the university, where I held by rental part of its main structure. The distance to carry the records was two miles. The majority of my clerks were educated colored men, or bright colored youths, attending the night courses of university study, and were suddenly discharged-this created consternation. Confusion was produced in the transfer itself. Belknap's assistant adjutant general sent wagons, messengers, laborers, and clerks to take away the archives. My few clerks were disappointed and irritated, having been suddenly cut off from all employment, and it seemed to them treated as if in disgrace, though they [449] were as able and upright as their successors. Books and papers were taken with little regard to order, and tumbled into the wagons. Important papers were picked up en route to the new office, and record books were found on the stairs of the university and on the grounds.

After the apparent close of the Freedmen's Bureau and after the completion of my Indian peace expedition, I was still detained at Washington. Events which rapidly followed each other show that what was called the “confusion of records” of the late Bureau was the actual cause of my detention. General Vincent, who was placed over the records, and who undertook to systematize a part for complete files, and to rectify others for further use, advised Mr. Belknap to work out through General Howard not only the rectification of the records in his office, but the gathering of all missing books and accounts from Maryland to Texas. I was, notwithstanding this demand upon me, denied access to my own books. The officer in charge constantly wrote me asking explanation of apparent discrepancies to be found only in papers, many of which his clerks had thought of no value and had burned in the basement of the War Department before they were properly arranged after the transfer. Others, though ordered to Washington, had not yet come from inaccessible points of operation in the South.

This lengthy correspondence began as soon as I returned from the Southwest. Out of that correspondence came misconceptions; some reasonable on their face and some imaginary. Finally, as the friction became intense, formal accusations in two letters of the Secretary of War were addressed to the Speaker of the [450] House of Representatives, dated respectively December 4, 1873, and January 5, 1874.

As soon as the first letter appeared (which it did before I saw it elsewhere) in the public journals, and before its receipt by the Speaker, I wrote to Generals Grant and Sherman, and to Secretary Belknap, and demanded a hearing of some kind for all the charges, before any court or tribunal the Government might elect. The secretary's letters suggested that I might be court-martialed were it not for the statute of limitation; so I at once waived that as far as I could. I did not wish, however, a court of inquiry of three officers selected by the secretary, who was hostile to the negro and unfriendly to me. After much delay and discussion in Congress, a special court of inquiry of seven army officers of high rank was created by law. General Grant, the President, appointed the court. It first assembled March 3, 1874, in rooms of a dwelling house, No. 1816 F Street. After two adjournments, the members of the court, seven in number, were all present, to wit:

Major Asa Bird Gardner was appointed judge advocate of the court and, as prosecutor, represented the Secretary of War.

The charges were in substance that General Howard [451] had failed to establish and enforce a proper system of payments to colored soldiers, involving great loss; that he was responsible for some minor defalcations of officers who had already been punished; that he had misapplied public funds; that he had transferred confused and incomplete records, and failed to report the state of the same.

The investigation of all the items of charge and complaint went on from day to day till the fortysecond session of the court had been had, May 9, 1874. After the review and advice of the judge advocate general upon all the proceedings and findings, General Grant affixed his approval July 2, 1874. It lacked but one day of four months that I was under the most careful and searching investigation, and I am proud to insert the findings of this celebrated court of inquiry as follows:

First.-The court is of the opinion that, in the matters referred to it for investigation, General O. O. Howard has not, with knowledge and intent, violated any law of Congress, regulation of the army, or rule of morals, and that he is “not guilty,” upon legal, technical, or moral responsibility, in any of the offenses charged.

Second.-The court finds that General Howard, when charged by his superiors with a great work arising out of the war, devoted his whole time and all his faculties and energies to the execution of that work. In this he employed hundreds of assistants and dealt with hundreds of thousands of men. In regard to the expenditure of money, it appears that his accounts are closed and settled to the satisfaction of the accounting officers of the Treasury, whose decisions in such matters are by law the highest authority, “final and conclusive upon the Executive branch of the Government and subject to revision only by Congress or the proper courts.”

Third.-In relation to the investment of certain public moneys [452] in United States bonds, while the court does not hold that such investments were justified by existing laws, yet in view of the fact that these investments were made only under the opinion and advice of the Second Comptroller, the court attaches no blame to General Howard therefor. The investment of portions of a similar fund, viz.: the “irregular bounty fund,” had previously been authorized by express law.

Fourth.-Some questions arising out of the sudden termination of the operations and organization of the Freedmen's Bureau yet remain to be settled, with those who were formerly subordinates and assistants to the Commissioner. Some few erroneous payments made by honest subordinates, and some others made, or not made, by officers now dead or cashiered for fraud, remain to be adjusted. The adjustment of these matters belongs properly to the successors of General Howard in the Bureau; and in these matters, as in all others brought to the notice of the court during thirty-seven days of careful and laborious investigation, the court finds that General Oliver O. Howard did his whole duty, and believes that he deserves well of his country.

(Signed) W. T. Sherman, General, President of the Court.
The finding of the Court of Inquiry is approved. July 2, 1874. (Signed) U. S. Grant.

As the primary objects for which the Freedmen's Bureau was created, to wit, the relief of the destitute, the reorganization of labor upon a free basis, the securing to the freedmen the rights and privileges of free men in the courts and in the schools, had been gradually accomplished, until at last the schools alone remained under my charge, I gave my time more and more to Howard University. Almost from its inception I regarded that institution as of the first importance as an object lesson — a complete exhibit in its organization and in its operation of the higher grade [453] of school work. Here I tried to foster its life in the social as well as in the literary scale, recognizing as far as it could be done the manhood of the negro scholar, teacher, and professor. My own efforts were reasonably successful in securing-first, the careful supervision and management of the estate purchased so as to give a fair endowment fund; second, the securing of a large subscription for the professorships; third, the providing of professors, teachers, and frugal professional students with houses, or tenements, building them within the university reserve, or constructing them for individuals on outside lots. I built a house for myself near the university on a lot I purchased from it in order to enhance the value of the property the university had for sale; but owing to the hard times which followed, I had some troublesome financial reverses before I left Washington.

I had previously acted in one capacity and another for the institution till I was chosen president April 5, 1869. I accepted the office with the express condition that its demands should not interfere with my military duties. After that, I habitually performed every day the executive functions of the institution. I was exofficio chairman of the executive committee, chairman of the board of trustees, and of each separate faculty. The morning exercises at the chapel were opened by me when in Washington, and in some instances during the temporary absence of a professor I taught the classes. I also prepared and delivered to the students lectures on conduct, discipline, and other subjects. This office I held for five years and four months.

In the summer of 1873, the trustees, independently of me, fixed upon their own method of settlement of money accounts, very properly desiring to return to [454] me, as far as possible, all extraordinary outlays, and to compensate me for my time and labor expended for the institution over and above that reckoned as officially due to the Government.

In the statement which they prepared, called “General Howard's account,” of date July 4, 1873, they put down receipts and expenditures and attached a summary which exhibited on the debtor side $17,583, and on the credit side $16,906.18, showing that I had received a balance of only $676.82 in money.

The trustees then remarked:

The amount General Howard has actually received over and above what he has given to the university and to destitute students for seven years service is six hundred and seventy-six dollars and eighty-two cents ($676.82).

If we recall the investment he made to enhance the realty of the university, the amount of rental in the way of interest has been $2,000 yearly in excess of the rental of his former city house, making in five years of occupancy $10,000. For this interest there is no return except in the increased value of his lot, viz.: $4,434, estimated; deducting this from $10,000 gives $5,566, a forced expenditure for the benefit of the university. This shows that he virtually contributed more than he has received in the sum of $4,889.18.

Later, in 1883, by the help of a friend who desired to be anonymous I paid a subscription of $10,000 for the Law Department, and have since been the channel of aid to the amount of $1,500 more. I have been thus particular because it has been claimed by some critics that I made money out of my connection with the university. I did not, however. The day I took my departure from Washington, I was not nearly so well off pecuniarily as when I went there in 1865. [455]

One very plausible criticism which for years was reiterated in the newspapers, was, in substance, that General Howard ought not to have received any compensation, remuneration, or salary from Howard University, while he was an agent or president, because the Government so largely helped that institution. The answer I made to my own conscience was that the circumstances were unusual, and that my course was necessary, legal, and right. That course after long investigation was approved by my Government and by the board of trustees of the university.

I took some compensation and remuneration because I was lawfully entitled to it, and as the success of the institution was very near to my heart I spent money for it in ways which I thought would do the university the most good.

The fight for my reputation and honorable name having been finished by the action of the President in approval of the proceedings of the court, I was assigned to the command of the Department of the Columbia. I gladly left Washington, after nine years of incessant labor, with frequent and painful struggles, through all of which the comfort of a wise and devoted wife, and a strong belief in the goodness of God, were my principal reliance. At times there was a seeming success of the machinations of wicked men, whose personal hatred or bad politics would make me a sacrifice to their venomous persistency. But to-day they were; to-morrow they were not I [456]

1 I successfully adjusted the differences among the Indians and whites in Arizona and New Mexico; and with only my aide, Captain Sladen, and a guide, Jeffords, I succeeded in reaching Cochise in his own stronghold amid the Dragoon Mountains, Arizona. We there concluded a lasting peace. For detailed accounts see My life and experience among our hostile Indians. O. O. H.

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