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Howell was born near Trenton, New Jersey, a son of William and Abigail Howell, the fifth of seven children. He graduated from Lafayette College and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was ordained in 1846. His first charge was the Presbyterian Church of East Whiteland, Pennsylvania. He Married Isabella Grant in 1846.
In 1853 he was called to serve the Presbyterian Church in the small hamlet of Delaware Water Gap in northeastern Pennsylvania. There he was a school teacher as well as a minister.
During the antebellum era, he developed into a devout Unionist and a staunch abolitionist. He experienced what he called the “wickedness” of slavery first-hand while stationed in Elkton, Maryland, convincing him that the institution “would reduce to the condition of brutes those whom God had created in his own image and for whom Christ had died.” He was also influenced by the fiery anti-secession sermons of his mentor, Reverend James Wilson.
Upon the counsel of his mentor, Howell enlisted as the regimental chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry on March 13, 1862, in Philadelphia.
On the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, Confederate forces engaged Union troops to the west of town, out by the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Medical personnel of the I Corps selected the College Lutheran Church at #44 Chambersburg Street as a divisional field hospital (the building is now called Christ Lutheran Church). A Gettysburg civilian recalled that 140 men were laid in the sanctuary around midday, beds being improvised by laying boards on top of the pews. Limbs were being amputated and thrown out of the church windows, piling up on the ground below.
Late in the afternoon, the Confederates began to push the Union troops back through town. Shortly after 4 o’clock, the overwhelmed First Corps soldiers fell back through the streets of Gettysburg to the heights on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill south of town. A chaotic scene ensued as jubilant Confederates followed closely on their heels. As the Union retreat swept toward the College Lutheran Church, Chaplain Howell was assisting members of the medical staff inside the building. After hearing shots outside, Howell turned to a nearby surgeon and said, “I will step outside for a moment and see what the trouble is.”
Sgt. Archibald Snow followed Howell out of the church door. Later, Snow wrote the most detailed account of what happened:
“I had just had my wound dressed and was leaving through the front door just behind Chaplain Howell, at the same time when the advance skirmishers of the Confederates were coming up the street on a run. Howell, in addition to his shoulder straps & uniform, wore the straight dress sword prescribed in Army Regulations for chaplains… The first skirmisher arrived at the foot of the church steps just as the chaplain and I came out. Placing one foot on the first step the soldier called on the chaplain to surrender; but Howell, instead of throwing up his hands promptly and uttering the usual ‘I surrender,’ attempted some dignified explanation to the effect that he was a noncombatant and as such was exempt from capture, when a shot from the skirmisher’s rifle ended the controversy... The man who fired the shot stood on the exact spot where the memorial tablet has since been erected, and Chaplain Howell, fell upon the landing at the top of the steps.”
The courageous chaplain was dead at age 42. In response to charges from nearby Union soldiers that Howell was not a legitimate target, a Confederate lieutenant pointed to Chaplain Howell’s maroon officer’s sash and the sword belted around his body...
Following the battle, Howell’s remains were shipped to Brooklyn, New York and laid to rest in Green-Wood Cemetery.
A monument at the foot of the College Lutheran church steps was dedicated in 1889 to perpetuate the memory of the chaplain slain in battle. It remains there to this day.