Union soldier murders Otis Howard’s black servant

A vicious Union soldier fatally shot a black servant employed at Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s headquarters — and literally got away with murder in winter 1863.

Many Union officers hired black servants during the Civil War. Other officers (particularly generals) assigned a white soldier to serve as what the British called a “batman,” an officer’s personal servant.

Maj. Luzerne Todd of the 23rd New York Infantry stands beside the young black civilian he employs as his servant. The practice of hiring black servants was widespread among Union officers. (Library of Congress)

In the weeks immediately after Fredericksburg, Howard (known to his family and friends as “Otis”) commanded the 2nd Division in II Corps. The position gave the Leeds, Maine native some social status within the army, several aides, a staff, and guests, often generals calling from other units.

So Howard had social obligations to meet, and paid black servants helped him do so.

According to an aide writing from Howard’s headquarters near Falmouth, Va. on January 13, 1863, two black youths rode to “Falmouth on horseback, to get clothes which we had sent there to be washed.” The letter indirectly identifies Monday, January 12, as the day the incident happened.

One paid servant was “Andrew, who worked for Lieut. Steel, Ord.[nance] Officer, and who waited on all of us at table every day,” Otis Howard told Elizabeth in a January 15 letter. Andrew “was sent by Mr Steel to get a washing at Falmouth.”

The other black servant, Charles, “was riding in advance” when he and Andrew passed “some soldiers of the Irish brigade who were marching with great irregularity, returning from picket” duty, the aide wrote. One Irish soldier shouted at Charles to dismount “and let him ride,” but “Charles rode on pretending not to hear him.”

Howard’s aide identified the other servant as “Jackson,” not Andrew, and he possibly was named Andrew Jackson.

According to Howard, the soldier told Andrew (Jackson), “Dismount and give me your horse.”

I cannot,” Andrew replied. “I am taking clothes to Gen. Howard.”

The man cursed him & told him, he’d fix him,” Howard informed Elizabeth.

According to the aide, Charles heard the soldier exclaim, “I’ll fix you!” Charles simultaneously “heard the clicking of the lock” as the soldier prepared to fire.

Charles “then heard the report of a discharge, and hearing the bullet whistle past him, and almost at the same instant hearing (Andrew) Jackson cry out, he looked behind and saw him throw up his arm,” the aide reported.

On January 15, 1863, Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds wrote his wife about the black servant who was shot and mortally wounded by an Irish Brigade soldier. (Maine State Archives)

The Irishman “immediately ran up over the hill” as the other soldiers yelled at him to return. Swaying in the saddle, Andrew held on, but “dropped his bundle, for which Charles returned and picked it up,” the aide wrote.

The servants rode to Howard’s headquarters, where Andrew detailed what had happened as soldiers eased him from the saddle “and carried him into the tent,” the aide noted.

A surgeon discovered that “the ball and buckshot” struck Andrew in the back, “just below the shoulder.” The ball busted the shoulder joint and emerged on Andrew’s front side while “making a terribly ragged wound.”

Now “delirious and insensible,” Andrew “suffered most intensely, and soon began to fail in strength,” the aide wrote.

Hospitalized on January 12, Andrew rallied sufficiently the next morning so surgeons could operate. They amputated “his arm at the shoulder” and “also took away portions of the collar bone and shoulder blade,” wrote the aide.

Andrew coughed up “blood from his lungs from the first, indicating these vital organs were pierced,” the aide reported.

Andrew died either January 14 or January 15, sometime before Howard wrote Elizabeth. “He was a good boy, kind and thoughtful at all times & I believe a follower of Christ. He was very much beloved at these Head Quarters by every-body.

He has gone to his God, but the murderer has not yet been found,” Howard observed.

The aide, who may have been Steel, described Andrew (Jackson) as “a well-meaning and well-behaved boy, at all times giving a respectful answer when spoken to.” He “was a most exemplary boy, remarkable for his good manners and strict integrity of character.

He was also a praying boy,” the aide noted.

Investigators had not yet found the murderer, and Howard’s aide doubted the man would be found. “All this is known is, that he belongs to the Irish Brigade, famous abroad for fighting, but here famous for rowdyism and villainy more than anything else [italicized in the original].”

“In the Irish brigade they are so clannish that they will screen each other from all deserved punishment,” Howard commented. “The good boy[‘]s blood is upon them, and God will require it at their hands.”

Sources: Murder of a Negro Servant of Gen. Howard’s Staff, Portland Daily Press, Saturday, January 24, 1863; Oliver Otis Howard letter to Elizabeth Howard, January 15, 1863, Oliver Otis Howard Papers, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.