History records on New Year’s Day 1891 a U.S. Army lieutenant by the name of Robert Lee Howze displayed such bravery in action as to later be presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. After his time in the Indian Wars, Howze went on to a brilliant military career throughout the Spanish-American, Philippine-American, and First World Wars — eventually rising to the rank of a Major General — but his story began on an obscure Civil War-era outpost in a small Rusk County town.
Ranking officer of the 14th Texas Cavalry unit in Overton, Captain James Augustus “Cap’n Gus” Howze had a profitable farm on his family’s land — as well as a popular mercantile business in nearby Henderson — when he joined in the “War of Northern Aggression.” Leaving behind his 19-year-old bride Amanda Delia Brown, who kept both the farm and mercantile fully operational during the war, Howze led his Texas cohorts in 62 documented battles and skirmishes against Union troops from Vicksburg to Atlanta and over to Mobile before returning home in late 1863. On Aug. 22, 1864 their first child was born, and Cap’n Gus named his son in honor of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Robert Lee Howze didn’t take long to distinguish himself, graduating in 1883 at the top of his class at Hubbard College — a now-defunct military prep school in Overton — and earning admission into the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Commissioned a second-lieutenant in 1888 upon his graduation from the military academy, Howze served with the 6th Cavalry Regiment in the waning years of the Indian Wars.
On Jan. 1, 1891, the 6th Cavalry crossed the frozen White River in South Dakota to engage a group of Brulé Sioux. Col. James W. Forsyth reported back to Washington, D.C., that Howze “distinguished himself by showing bravery in action sufficient to be presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor.” While certainly the highest, it was only the first of many such accolades.
Returning home to the family farm in Overton having already reached his father’s highest rank of cavalry captain as well as a decorated military hero, the Rusk County News records “an impromptu parade was held,” out front of the family mercantile in Henderson, “with much relief for young Capt. Howse’s [sic] safe return from Indian country.” Accompanying Howze was his fiancée, Anne Chiffelle Hawkins — daughter of U.S. Army Gen. Hamilton S. Hawkins — who would eventually go from being a general’s daughter to a general’s wife. The two were married Feb. 24, 1897, at the First Presbyterian Church in Overton.
But there was very little time for a honeymoon. In January 1898 the U.S.S. Maine was sunk by an explosive mine, killing 266 American sailors, and the U.S. was at war with Spain.
Howze commanded several units in the Spanish American War in Cuba, the Philippine Insurrection, and in the occupation of Puerto Rico — earning a Silver Star for actions during the Battle of Santiago in Cuba in addition to a Silver Citation for actions in northern Luzon, in the Philippines.
A minor scandal erupted in 1903 when Howze was accused of having “whipped two Filipino prisoners of war to death” while in charge of a garrison in Laoang. The May 29, 1903, edition of the New York Times cited both an absence of eyewitness accounts of the alleged beating in addition to multiple military surgeons’ testifying the men died as a result of injuries “consistent with military conflict” as factors in the clearing of all charges against Howze.
It was also in 1903 when Howze’s father, Cap’n Jack, died while visiting his youngest son, Dr. Joseph Howze in Austin. Howze was unable to make it home for the graveside services in Overton.
Upon his return from the Caribbean, Howze was appointed as Commandant of Cadets at West Point, where he remained until 1909. However, Howze was on the other end of misconduct allegations in 1907, when he threatened to “discharge an entire class” from the Academy over a “hazing” incident. The Sept. 6, 1907 edition of the New York Times reported the silent treatment of a “plebe” at West Point resulted in a clash between Howze and the entire freshmen class.
Reportedly, the hazing ceased right quick.
In 1916 Howze was promoted to Major in the 11th Cavalry during Gen. George Pershing’s expedition into Mexico. Though the expedition was unable to locate Pancho Villa, Pershing commended the “popular” and “aggressive” major for “bravery and military preparedness in commanding the unit which rescued Captain L. H. Morey at Carrizal.”
A year later Howze rose to the rank of Brigadier General, during which time he was able to return home to Texas while being assigned at Fort Bliss. During his time in Texas, he delivered the commencement address to his alma mater in Overton. It was the last graduating class at Hubbard College due to the academy closing its doors upon the United State’s entrance in World War I — as most of the faculty and student body volunteered to serve.
The U.S. Army promoted Howze to Major General of the 38th Division, which fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during October 1918. Howze also commanded the Third Division’s march on the Rhine River, followed by commanding the Third Army of Occupation in Germany in 1919. For his service in command of the Third Army he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor.
After World War I, Howze again returned to Texas — this time as commander of the military district of El Paso. While in El Paso he was appointed the permanent rank of Brigadier General, and then promoted to the permanent rank of Major General. Howze organized and trained the First Cavalry Division, and remained with that unit until 1925.
Howze’s last assignment was to preside over the court-martial of Col. Billy Mitchell, who had made public comments in response to the Navy dirigible USS Shenandoah crashing in a storm. Mitchell later resigned in lieu of accepting the courts’ punishment.
Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Howze was transferred to command the Fifth Corps Area in Columbus, Ohio, where he died on Sept. 19, 1926, and was buried in the U.S. Military Academy Cemetery.
While he never was able to return and settle back home again, Howze’s contributions loom large among military heroes of Rusk County.
Camp Howze, a large World War II training facility near Gainesville, was named in his honor. Two of his sons attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, both went on to serve as generals in the Army: Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Howze Jr., and Gen. Hamilton H. Howze.
The Howze family has a plot in the Overton City Cemetery where “Cap’n Gus” and others of the name are buried.