American History and Genealogy Project


The Man with the Empty Sleeve

Two strong, boyish hands whirled the sled into position at the top of the big hill. A queer old thing, the boys and girls of to-day would call that sled, for in the eighteen-forties steel shoes for runners were unknown and the hand-work was heavy and clumsy. However, those old wooden runners were polished to the smoothness of glass, and the boy at the top of the hill knew that he could shoot down that long slide like an arrow.

"Come, Hannah," he said to a mite of a girl whose sparkling black eyes had been watching his every movement, ''Let's see if we can't beat the whole lot." And the strong hands carefully tucked up his small neighbor on the front of the old sled.

Away they went, many eyes watching them, for the big hill was dotted with coasters. Hannah caught her breath and laughed with delight as the singing wind stung her face. Wouldn't it be fun to ''beat the whole lot of them!"
But alas! near the bottom of the hill was a bend in the road, and the sled was going so fast that the boy lost control of it. Instead of gracefully rounding that curve, the sled shot straight ahead and dashed its nose against the stone wall, tumbling both of its riders into the deep snow.

The boy was on his feet in a moment, looking anxiously around for Hannah, but quick as he was, the mite of a girl was up first. Her hood had come off and every tight, little curl on her head seemed to be dancing with merriment.

"Otis Howard," she teased, "you can't steer a hand-sled more 'n the old cat!"

The future general laughed, too, as he twitched the old sled back into the road.

Anyway, I didn't, did I, Hannah F' he agreed, not that time. But if you're not afraid to try again, I'll show you that I can do it yet."

And before they went home, he had fairly proved that he could steer as well as the best coaster on the hill.
The home of Oliver Otis Howard was on the northern slope of the great hill in Leeds, Maine, and his small neighbor, Hannah, lived not far away. The little girl went home rather sadly, after all her fun.

"Otis is going away to school again," she told her sister, "and he says he is going to be in college by the time he is sixteen, so we shan't see him very often after this. There isn't half so much pleasantness going on when Otis is away."

It was as Hannah had feared. For some years the neighbors saw little of the studious boy who was working hard for an education. They merely heard that he was getting along well at the Wayne and Hallowell schools and at Yarmouth Academy where he finished fitting for college. After he entered Bowdoin, however, an agreeable surprise came to his old neighbors in Leeds. Hannah heard the news first and told her sister about it, as they scrubbed and sanded the snow-white kitchen floor of their home.

"Otis Howard is coming to teach our school," she said, "and I'm so glad I'm not too big to go! Only think, Roxana, what a long time since we've seen him, Oh, look, who's that coming up the road."

It was a young man nicely dressed in a black coat and a pair of light trousers. To the eyes of the two girls he looked a fine figure indeed.

"Now, there's pa shoveling away in the barn-yard," complained Hannah, "and we look like two frights ourselves, sister. Never mind, perhaps that dandified fellow will go right by and not notice."

But the dandified fellow had no idea of going by. He came swinging along the road and, as he caught sight of the man with the shovel, he waved his hat, then took a flying leap over the fence into the barn-yard.

''How are you. Uncle Morgan!" he exclaimed joyfully, wringing the hand that had just dropped the muddy shovel. These old neighbors were almost the same as "own folks" to each other up here in the farming country.

''It's Otis!" cried Hannah, forgetting all about her soiled dress and wet apron as she flew to the barn yard fence.
The future general taught the school successfully and Hannah, grown taller but not so very tall yet, was one of his pupils. After that he went back to college and in due time was graduated and went to West Point, where later he became a teacher of mathematics. Then suddenly the country was swept by the great Civil War and Oliver Otis Howard was among the first to offer his services to the nation.

Before long the neighbors in the quiet, old town of Leeds began to hear of the boy who had gone from the farmhouse over the hill. He had been placed in command of a regiment of volunteers, the Third Maine.

"Otis Howard is a Colonel," said Hannah. "I never can learn to call him that!" But it was not long before she had to learn to say "General" instead of "Colonel," for the young officer was rapidly promoted.

The news of battle after battle came to the neighbors in the home town and they learned to look for the name of General Howard among those officers who were in the thick of the fight. It was said of him in later years that he had been in more engagements than any other man in the army. After the battle of Fair Oaks, the news came that "Otis" was wounded. Hannah's eyes grew dim over the story of her old playmate's part in the battle, and yet she was proud of it, too.

General Howard had been wounded while leading his men into action. We may read about it in his own words in the autobiography he wrote years after. "To encourage my men," he wrote, "I placed myself, mounted, in front of the Sixty-Fourth New York. I ordered 'Forward' and then 'March.' T could hear the echo of these words and, as I started, the Sixty-Fourth followed me with a glad shout up the slope and through the woods."

History tells how the battle of Fair Oaks was won. After it was over, General Howard, his right arm shot away, came to join his family at Auburn and to stay with them while he recovered from his wound. His stay was short, however, and most of the time was spent in working hard to raise more troops from all over Maine to help carry on the war. He was soon back at the front, and the general with the empty sleeve was put in command of a brigade and later of a whole division.

General O. O. Howard

In the dark days of 1863 after the bitter defeat of Chancellorsville, the people of the North began to lose heart. Then came the news that a terrible battle was being fought at Gettysburg. This battle, often called the greatest of the war, began July 1, 1863. On the morning of the third day, neither side had yet gained a victory.

General Howard's batteries were on the slope of Cemetery Hill in the center of the Union line. To take this hill would give the enemy certain victory, therefore Lee determined to throw all his troops against it in one great mass. A Confederate line nearly three miles long came silently out of the woods, their bright flags shimmering in the sun. They meant to break straight through that quiet, waiting line, at the center of which The Man with the Empty Sleeve stood in front of his batteries. He had watched them come nearer and nearer up the slope. Suddenly he gave a quick, sharp command and the thunder of his giant guns answered him. From Little Round Top, too, the cannon boomed. The shots tore great gaps in the Confederate lines, but the ranks closed up and swept on. The battle became a hand-to-hand struggle as the enemy tried to plant their flag on the wall and the Union men barred the way. Overhead the shells screeched; men and horses went down by hundreds.

The Man with the Empty Sleeve had stood firm against that terrible rush at the center. The Con-federate lines were crumpled up and pushed back. At evening the Union men came pouring across the field in front of Little Round Top and the great battle was over.

Looking at the bloody ground heaped with the dead of two brave armies, General Howard said those words which he afterwards set down in his life story for all the world to read. "These dreadful sights," he wrote, "show plainly that war must be avoided except as the last appeal for existence, or for the rights which are more valuable than life itself.''
The war ended at last, and many years had passed, when one day a little, black-eyed woman sat alone in a railway train. She had heard someone outside say that General Howard was traveling somewhere in this section of the State, with a party of notable men. She had not seen him since she was a girl, but the mention of his name had set her thinking of him. How proud the old neighbors had been when they heard of his promotion for gallantry at Bull Run, at the very beginning of the war! How they had thrilled over the story of his bravery at Gettysburg! When he was in command of the right wing of Sherman's Army on the famous March to the Sea, how they had waited for some word and how glad they had been when news of Victory came!

"And ever since the war, too, we've kept on hearing about him," thought the little woman. "We've heard a lot about the good he did when he worked on the Freedmen's Bureau, and all about how he founded Howard University down there in Washington. I guess he hadn't forgotten how hard he had to work for his own education."

Then she looked thoughtfully out of the car window and after a moment she began to laugh.

"I wonder," she said to herself, "if he ever thinks of the time when we slid down hill and ran into the stone wall."
A firm tread sounded in the aisle behind her. A man was coming through from the rear car, followed by other men who seemed to be traveling in a party. The leader had an empty sleeve pinned to his shoulder, and as he passed the little woman's seat, she looked up and spoke to him.

"Hello, Otis," she said, just as she used to say it when he came to the kitchen door of the farmhouse to ask her to go sliding.

The general stopped and looked at her. Her hat was off and he knew those tight curls that clustered all over her head, though they were silvery gray now.

''Hannah Brewster!" he shouted, much to the amusement of the party behind him. Then he dropped into the seat beside her and let them go on without him, while he asked her eager questions about all the old neighbors and talked over all the old times, even to that winter day when they took the long slide and dashed against the stone wall.

''You told me I couldn't steer a hand-sled any more than an old cat," the general reminded his friend.

"Well, you've steered a good many things bigger than a hand-sled since then, Otis," she answered him.

And surely we must agree that Hannah was right when we read in history the whole story of the Man with the Empty Sleeve who began life in the plain little farmhouse on the north slope of the great Maine hill.

Mabel S. Merrill

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

Back to AHGP

Copyright August @2011 - 2024 Copyright ©2000-2006  Founded April 8, 2000. Debbie Axtman,  Jim Powell, Jr., Ginger Cisewski, and  Brenda Hare, for
the exclusive use and benefit of The American History and Genealogy Project. All rights reserved.