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Chapter 5: graduation from the United States Military Academy, 1854; brevet Second Lieutenant in Ordnance Department, 1855-56

After a term of hard study away from home there is probably no more real enjoyment for a student than the vacation. Each vacation has its specialty. There are relaxations and rests which in themselves are refreshing. The constant call to duty, the constant pressure of mental work, and the exactions of instructors are by no means without their rewards, but such things always need the relief of a vacation. Then there is the comfort of meeting old friends; the bright welcome in the homes of old neighbors; the parties gotten up especially for you; and the increasing charm of the old homestead where are the father, the mother, the brothers, and the visiting friends, young men and young women. All these things had been mine and were delightfully reminiscent. What was called my cadet furlough at the close of the first two years of West Point life had been indeed the richest of all my vacations, so that when I returned to the severe discipline and confinement of the Military Academy I was for some time discontented and inclined to tender my resignation and return to my people, but no vacation was equal to that which came at the close of the West Point course.

The continued hardship of unremitting study; the freedom of action fettered; the orders and requirements [60] which could never be evaded were now over forever. With the graduation a commission had followed the diploma, not a high one, but that of a brevet second lieutenant in the Army of the United States. It was something gained, something that looked larger to me then than any of the subsequent commissions which I received. On graduation in June, 1854, our class numbered forty-six members. As I graduated fourth in the class I had the right to choose any arm of the service from that of topographical engineer to the infantry arm inclusive. For several reasons I signified my choice to be that of the Ordnance Department.

Thus I went forth well equipped for enjoyment. The Ordnance Department had in charge all the United States arsenals and armories of the country with a few powder stations, and at every one of these there was a house ready for a married officer, so that as soon as I could get the assent of my fiancee, we could be married and have immediate provision for a home. The Ordnance Department had many other advantages over the line of the army, but this one of a house, which in the army we called quarters, was just then to me of special interest.

On the way to New York on board the old Thomas Powell, I met General Winfield Scott, accompanied by several of his staff and some young officers whom I knew. I had met him before and been presented, but this time his attention was called to me and he said some pleasant things welcoming me to the army. But when one of my classmates indicated that Howard would soon be married, the general shook his head and said, “No, no, don't do that; a lieutenant must never get married.” I was glad enough to have the conversation turned to some other topic. I had no intention of [61] heeding Scott's advice on the subject of marriage, because I knew well enough the limitations of his authority, and the inalienable rights of even a brevet second lieutenant.

New York had never been so delightful, but there were stars in the East which drew me away from even the social life of New York. In Boston and Cambridge and Arlington welcome was extended to the young lieutenant with enough of cheer to turn his head, but the brighter visions were still farther on.

Portland, Me., was at that time the most beautiful of cities, and it had the center of all the attractions of that vacation. It will be impossible, of course, to interest others very much in the two succeeding months after my arrival in Maine; but as I look back and think of the rides into the country, the visit to my home and to friends in the towns round about, I say to myself that those days in the retrospect are genial and cloudless.

My mother had followed me with devoted affection, all the way from the day I left home at eleven years of age to begin my preparation for college at Hallowell, till then. No week had passed without a cheerful letter, and of course at no time did she ever go to rest without a prayer for her son; now imagine the welcome home when the first round of the ladder of his achievements had been reached. I think she had never been so happy as when she had her children together again around her table. I often hear the expression “American” or “That is an expression of our American life.” It covers so much; energy in preparation; fearlessness in undertakings; bravery in action; endurance under every hardship. It involves a healthful and well-developed body; mental powers well in hand; [62] and an upright heart. Now who accomplishes this so much as an American mother, and who would deprive her of the joy of the home welcome which she gives to her sons as they come from or go to their world's work.

The vacation ended, I reported for duty to Major John Symington, commanding Watervliet Arsenal at West Troy, N. Y., in September, 1854.

Major Symington was a typical officer of the old school, already not far from the age of retirement. He was from Maryland and had married a sister of General Joseph E. Johnston. He was a tall man, very modest and retiring, but one who always stood up to his convictions of duty. After talking with me a few minaltes in a kind and manly way he said that if I wished to go beyond the arsenal grounds all I would have to do was to put my name on a certain book, recording my departure and my return. Every day I was to have certain duties which would be easily performed, but twice a week I would be detailed as officer of the day. When officer of the day I would inspect the barracks, which then contained about forty enlisted men, and be responsible for the marching on of the guard and for the location of the sentinels, two being on duty at a time. I would further go through all the arsenal shops at least twice during my tour and note everything that .was taking place.

So much freedom when on duty I had never had before since entering West Point, and never had afterwards till I came in command of a department.

I have already spoken of my strong leaning toward a paternal government as against that of a martinet. Here with Major Symington I realized the full blessing of the paternal; a man extraordinarily observant and [63] conscientious, but always kind and considerate in his requirements.

Mrs. Symington was a strong character. She was of large size and rather stout, a woman of unusual accomplishments. The major's quarters were ample and commodious. He had a family consisting of his wife and five children, two daughters and three sons. The family was always hospitable. Nieces and nephews from Virginia and Maryland were generally part of the household. The large parlor gave a reception nearly every evening to the young officers, where there were music, innocent games, and delightful social converse. At that time there was but one other married officer, Major Laidley. He was a first lieutenant who had been in the Mexican War and was brevetted major for gallantry in action. He and his wife and child occupied a set of stone quarters. The other set under the same roof contained the unmarried officers' mess and rooms.

Ellen McCarty, who could do everything in the line of housework, was a treasure to them. Her husband worked in the shops and her children aided her when she needed any assistance. I think Ellen became well known throughout the entire Ordnance Department. Our quarters were always as neat as they could be made from garret to cellar, and everything was done by her for us young men to make the entire house as homelike as possible.

Lieutenant W. R. Boggs, of Georgia, who, it will be remembered, was at times my drill master when at West Point and who afterwards became a general in the Confederate service, was now my constant companion. Lieutenant F. J. Shunk, of Pennsylvania, whom I had known as a cadet captain, was a choice comrade [64] to Boggs and myself. He was full of humor and oddities and entertained us often by his violin and by the anecdotes that he picked up from his abundant reading and daily observations. We three seldom were at table without a guest from outside, and in those days young gentlemen from Troy were frequent visitors.

One evening we were introduced at Mrs. Symington's reception to Miss Jennie Pickett. She was sister to Captain George E. Pickett of the Ninth Infantry, who became celebrated at Gettysburg. She was a beautiful girl, a niece of Mrs. Symington's, and soon captured all our hearts, especially by her exquisite singing. I never had heard before, and only once or twice since, such a voice. Every time she sang she thrilled and delighted all present.

Miss Carrie Symington, the major's niece from Baltimore, was with us in that garrison for at least two months. She was as remarkable for her personal beauty as Miss Jennie was for her music. Dignified in deportment, tall and commanding, she always had around her many admirers.

One can imagine, then, something of the manner in which we spent the fall and winter of 1854 at Watervliet. The outer high wall inclosed an immense space which included not only the buildings which I have named and also the warehouses of great length that contained gun carriages and every sort of artillery equipment, but small groves of trees, gardens always well kept, and roads and paths which were a delight. Our outdoor parties in pleasant weather are kaleidoscopic in my recollection.

The young officers did much reading at that time, each choosing books according to his taste. Major Symington, on one occasion, introduced to us a young [65] Frenchman, Eugene de Courcillon, who had met with some singular misfortune and was seeking employment. I was somewhat fascinated by him and hoped that my intercourse with him would improve my French, but he soon proposed to write a book revealing some of the customs of the part of France from which he came, interesting especially to Protestant minds. As he knew very little English I aided him in the translation of his book. This took all my leisure time for months. The book was published in New York. I aided him in its publication and was to receive a return for my advances whenever he disposed of his manuscript. Without my knowledge he managed to sell his work out and out and then disappeared without communicating with me, rewarding me only with this singular dedication:

To Lieutenant Oliver O. Howard, my friend in adversity.

My comrades laughed and wondered at the double meaning of the dedication, that is, as to which was really in adversity, de Courcillon or myself.

In those days, in addition to the commissioned officers, we had an official called the military storekeeper. Accounts of the material in this arsenal of construction were carefully kept upon his books. He took care to receive everything coming in and to issue everything going out from the arsenal, making careful storage and record. An elderly man, Mr. Lansing, occupied that place. He and his wife, not much younger than himself, lived nearer to the arsenal entrance than any of us. For really charming hospitality Mr. and Mrs. Lansing excelled and very often entertained the young officers, among whom I was a welcome guest. Frequently Mr. Lansing, who was fond of fishing, [66] would take me in his carriage and spend an entire day going to different fishing grounds. A favorite place was near Waterford in the upper waters of the Hudson. We caught there several varieties, but the favorite was the bass. Mr. Lansing declared that the bass was of better flesh and flavor than any other fish.

While these days were passing I kept up a constant correspondence with my friends, and the time for the long-anticipated wedding was at last fixed for February 14, 1855. It was necessary for me to have a leave of absence, so I applied to the head of our Ordnance Department at Washington, Colonel Craig, who very kindly gave me twenty days, and, of course, those twenty days embraced the principal event of that year.

Mrs. A. B. Waite had a comfortable home on Chatham Street in Portland, Me., where she and her daughter, Elizabeth, were then living. Every necessary arrangement was made for a private wedding, but as the relatives on both sides were numerous and intimate friends were not wanting, Mrs. Waite's apartments were soon filled by a happy company. All agreed then and thereafter that no more charming bride and none more appropriately dressed ever went to the altar. The only criticism came from the bride's mother, and that was with reference to the bridegroomdressed in full uniform with sash and belt. She said “it seemed too much like war.”

An event occurred the night of the wedding which, at least, was remarkable in the history and development of Portland. The large theater took fire and burned to the ground. It was difficult to keep down the fire and preserve the houses in the neighborhood. In those days the young mep worked at the brakes of the [67] engine, among whom the bridegroom very properly performed his part.

Before the expiration of the twenty days Lieutenant Howard and his bride appeared at Watervliet and began their social and domestic careers, which have now been continued beyond the golden wedding.

I remember that Mr. Hillhouse, who had been a graduate of West Point and resigned, lived not far from Watervliet Arsenal; he with his wife had been a constant visitor in the families of the officers. Hearing that I was to be married, Mrs. Hillhouse entreated me to give a description of the lady who was to be my wife. Out of mischief I gave her a description, naming every particular the exact opposite. For example, I said tall, with reddish hair, bright blue eyes, etc. Very soon after our arrival Mrs. Hillhouse came in her carriage to pay her respects to Mrs. Howard. As soon as she saw her she cried out with amazement, “Oh, Mr. Howard, how could you have sold me that way?” I know that she and the many others who promptly paid us visits were better satisfied with the actuality than with the imaginary figure which I had painted.

During the first few months after we had become settled in the north quarters we had a visit from Colonel Craig, the Chief of Ordnance, and I think we won his heart from the start. The result of it, however, seemed to be this: Captain Callender, in command of the Kennebec Arsenal at Augusta, Me., was to go to another post in the Far West, and there was no ranking ordnance officer available to fill his place; so I was selected and sent to Augusta to relieve him.

It was a favor for a second lieutenant to have an independent command, and it was indeed a promotion; but after you have furnished your quarters, planted [68] your garden, provided yourself with a horse and buggy, and settled down to real life, it is not so easy to conform to a sudden change, and I would have been inclined to have said, “Let me remain here with my comforts for a while as a subordinate,” but the army principle was: “Never decline promotion.”

The Kennebec Arsenal was beautiful; large grounds; fine quarters, both for officers and men; a garden five times as large as the one we left; perfect roads, well shaded, and fruit trees in abundance. Only five or six enlisted men were allowed, but at the head of them was Sergeant McGregor, a Scotchman of great native talent, who not only knew how to put before you in perfect order all the papers that pertained to the commanding officer, the quartermaster, commissary, and the surgeon, but could refresh you at any time with the most apt quotations from Burns. McGregor had but one drawback. It may be stated in this way: That he was fond of preparing fireworks to properly celebrate the Fourth of July, and it was exceedingly difficult for him to use the alcohol essential to that operation without some of it getting into his mouth. The wounds without cause that afterwards marked his face and the humility that came into his heart were consequent. When I forgave him out and out, only subjecting him to a brief sermon, his gratitude reached the highest water mark. I did not stay at Augusta long enough for a second trial of Independence Day.

It was while on duty at this arsenal that I became acquainted with James G. Blaine, then editor of the Kennebec Journal, a Republican paper. The day I first saw him he had a controversy with the editor of the Argus of opposite politics. I had never before heard a man who had a better command of language [69] than he; but his rejoinders to the other editor, a young man of about his age, were incisive and extremely forcible.

Blaine soon after that became a member of the Maine Legislature and later the Speaker of the House. While doing his part in this capacity I went to him with an important request to the effect that the children within the arsenal grounds should have the privileges of the common schools. He saw to it at once, and the proper bill was drafted and went through both Houses without opposition. From that time on we became very warm personal friends and remained such all his life.

On December 16, 1855, our first child was born. We named him Guy. The incidents of his career will appear here and there in connection with my own. His was an ideal life from his babyhood to his death in the service in the Philippines.

One of the most intimate friends that I had had when preparing for college was Charles H. Mulliken, of Augusta. He was now married and had a small family. He and I renewed our intimacy and our families enjoyed the social life of Augusta together. It was very much to me personally then and for many years afterwards to have such a friend. He was healthful, hearty, and always congenial.

The father and mother of Captain Seth Williams opened their hospitality to the commander of the arsenal and his wife, and various other members of the Williams family gave us their fellowship and the entree into their homes. The Fullers, the Lamberts (Allen and Thomas), the Morrills, the Childs, the Tappans, the Manleys, Governor Coney, and many others afforded an entrance into society which has [70] always been gratefully recalled by Mrs. Howard and myself.

Here we first became acquainted with the Rev. E. B. Webb, D. D., pastor of the Congregational church, who was perhaps Mr. Blaine's strongest friend, and, if I may say so, he and his were even more intimate with my family and always unselfishly devoted to my best interests.

We sometimes, while in Augusta, attended the Episcopal church. Rev. Mr. Armitage, then a young man, made a strong impression upon us. He was an able and efficient minister, who subsequently became the Bishop of Ohio.

It was while at Augusta that I spent much of my leisure in training horses. I had brought on with me from Watervliet a beautiful Arabian called Mallach, and it was a great pleasure, on his back, to gallop over the country. Pure white, with silver mane and tail, rather tall, with slender limbs and small feet, Mallach in his best days was ideal.

Two army officers during their first vacation from instructing cadets at West Point made a trip to Canada. One of them was Lieutenant A. J. Perry, who afterwards became a brigadier general and quartermaster of high order, and another was Lieutenant George B. Cosby, of Kentucky, who became a general in the Confederate Army. The third was Lieutenant William Silvey, then an assistant professor at the Military Academy. They had gone to Canada by rail and steamer, but concluded to purchase horses and ride across the country from Quebec to Augusta, Me. Mrs. Howard and myself entertained them at the arsenal, and Lieutenant Perry sold me his horse, which I called a “Canuck.” He was jet black, fat and [71] round, and very swift in his motions. Being taught entirely in the French language, it was for some time difficult for me to manage him. If I said whoa! and drew the reins taut, he would go fast, and if I drew them more or with a view to checking his speed, he would go faster.

Later I purchased an unbroken colt and trained him.

My brother, R. B. Howard, at the time a college student at Bowdoin, paid us a visit. He took as much interest in the horses as I did, and I remember giving him his first lessons in scientific riding. On one occasion, with some show of pride, he complained that I corrected him too severely in the presence of witnesses, men and women, who were looking on; but I think that the riding lessons did him much subsequent service.

The latter part of July, 1856, after one year's stay, I was relieved by Captain Gorgas, of Georgia, and received orders which sent me back to Watervliet. I left my family behind with my mother at Leeds. Mrs. Waite now formed part of it. They remained there till they could come on with my brother Rowland, who was to live with us at Watervliet and attend the Law School at Albany. I went ahead with our belongings to get everything in order for them.

Very few changes had taken place at Watervliet during my absence, but I saw very soon that the political struggles in the country were having a serious effect upon the relations of our families. The officers themselves were not yet particularly estranged from each other, but differences were becoming very sharp and sometimes chronic. Mrs. Symington was a great leader in all discussions. She could not bear to be beaten at euchre or whist, and she was very pronounced [72] in her expressions of dislike toward any who were inclined to favor the abolition of slavery. Lieutenant Boggs had married the eldest daughter, Miss Mary Symington. He and I had the north stone house, he occupying the south quarters. Boggs, though from Georgia, was always very mild in his statements. I remember that an escaped slave came to the arsenal for assistance. He needed food and money enough to get to Canada. Boggs laughed at him but told him he would give him food as he would anybody that was hungry. He then turned to me and said laughingly, “Howard, it is against my principles to help a slave escape from his master. You can do what you choose.” That poor black man, at any rate, avoided the marshal and succeeded in reaching the Canada line.

I was not yet very pronounced in my sentiments, but my brother, already an ardent Republican, was educating me to a completer expression, especially against the extension of slavery into the new territories.

It was not long before my family came and we established the household anew, thinking that we would be at Watervliet for at least a year.

None of us in the family were at this time members of any church, but I had made up my mind to have family gathering in the morning just before or just after breakfast, at which time a chapter of the Scriptures should be read. My brother, who was then a little inclined to skepticism, said to me, “Otis, why do you do that?” I replied to him that I could not tell him why, but that I had made up my mind to do just that.

The Hon. Ira Harris, afterwards the United States Senator for New York, was the Dean of the Law [73] School at Albany. My brother entered there under his supervision and went through a part of the course. He had a comfortable room with us and immensely enjoyed our home life. He was particularly devoted to our little boy, and as the latter grew they had lively times together. Everything went on smoothly until the latter part of December, 1856, when I was surprised, as I would have been by a clap of thunder from a clear sky, by an order from Washington instructing me to proceed at once to the Department of Florida and report to General W. S. Harney, who was commanding that department-war existed and I was to be “Chief of Ordnance” in the field. It was another promotion, but it cost my family and myself a complete breaking up, for I could not take them with me. It would not be safe for me to do so in any event. I made no ado; did not ask for delay, but hastened every preparation. After the storing of such things as could be retained and the selling of much of our goods at a loss and parting with the carriage and horses, I was ready to obey the orders.

It was the coldest season that I had ever known on the Hudson. I set out from Watervliet on December 23d. It showed how well I had studied up the route, for I wrote home from Brooklyn: “It is by steamer to Savannah; thence by steamboat to Palatka on the St. John's River; thence by stage to Tampa.” Tampa was then a small village near Fort Brooke, and Fort Brooke was at the time the headquarters of the Department of Florida.

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