SS Sultana: Mystery at Sea

Blog1I often wonder why some historical events are well remembered, while others are all but forgotten. Is it the magnitude of the event, like the destruction of the Twin Towers? Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.  Or perhaps it’s the personal stories that accompany an event, as in the sinking of the Titanic? I’ve been pondering this and it seems to me that, when it comes to reserving a place in the history books, timing is important. In short, if you want to make sure an event is remembered, it helps if it happens during a slow news cycle.

Today we’re going to talk about an oft forgotten historical event that had an impressive magnitude. It had plenty of mystery and intrigue. The personal stories are captivating. It also had the misfortune of occurring during one of the busiest news cycles this country has ever known. We’re talking about the sinking of the SS Sultana, which happened in April of 1865, in what was one whale of a busy news month! General Lee had surrendered. President Lincoln was assassinated. John Wilkes Booth was killed. The nation was desperately seeking balance and normality. But the story of the Sultana is far too big for us to simply let it go down with the ship!

Time Keeps Flowing Like a River

Blog2What a difference a half hour can make! At 1:30am on April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana was cruising down the Mississippi River, near Memphis, Tennessee. The estimated 2,400 people aboard consisted of recently released Union Army prisoners of war, other Union soldiers, some civilian passengers who had traveled to accompany their family members home, and the ship’s crew.

When you’re on your way home after having been a prisoner of war, it’s probably easy to be lulled into believing your worst days are behind you. But, a lot can change in a half hour! By 2:00am on the same day, the passengers of the Sultana were flying through the air, clinging to life on stray pieces of debris, or sinking to the bottom of Ol’ Man River like a bag of rocks.

Approximately 1,800 people lost their lives in the disaster, which is widely recognized as the worst accident in U.S. maritime history.  That’s close to 300 more casualties than the Titanic can claim, but oddly, the story didn’t even make front-page news. No one was ever held responsible for the wreck and the mystery behind the sinking of the Sultana was never definitively solved, though there are some interesting theories.

Boiler Alert!

Blog5One thing is for sure; there was an explosion of explosive proportions in the boiler room. Though it was primarily carrying soldiers, the Sultana was not owned by the U.S. military. It was privately owned and had been contracted by the War Department to transport POWs home. Now, a boat filled with soldiers doesn’t simply explode without some investigation being launched. While survivors were still being dragged out of the river on hunks of driftwood, representatives of the War Department were on the scene questioning eyewitnesses.

The explosion, by some eyewitness accounts, created a gaping hole in the wooden deck. Without the boilers to support the smokestacks, the smokestacks fell. One fell smack-dab through the newly created hole in the deck. But, why did at least one of the four boilers explode?

A crack in one of the boilers had been hastily repaired before the Sultana picked up passengers. The man doing the patch job had been ordered to do the impossible—to perform a 72-hour repair in less than a day.  You may be thinking that’s the end of the story. And you might have been right if not for the reason behind rushing the repair work. Greed!

Keeping a Head Above Water

Blog6The government was paying a fare of $5 per man for passage on the Sultana. And steamboat captains were offering a kickback of $1.15 per passenger to any corrupt army officer willing to fill their boats. The Sultana was approved to carry 376 passengers. Hmm… $1.15 x 376 = $432.40. That’s not a bad profit, but, as I’ve already mentioned, there were about 2,400 people aboard the Sultana. Even subtracting the crewmembers, that equaled a lot more profit for a corrupt officer!

People were crammed onto the boat like sardines! The newly reinforced Hurricane deck was no match for the weight of the passengers. The deck sagged like a hammock with an overweight occupant. Did all of the sagging cause a sort of collapse into the boiler room? Possibly. But that’s still not the end of the theories.

Drop a Bombshell

Blog3Other people believed the explosion was the result of something far more sinister than a faulty boiler. There was talk of a bomb placed by a Confederate spy. At least one survivor felt a Confederate sympathizer had placed a torpedo in the coal in order to kill a boatload of Union soldiers before Johnny could go marching home again. That idea actually isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

The boat had arrived in Memphis on April 26th, where it had crossed the river to Hopefield, Arkansas. In Hopefield, the crew of the Sultana loaded 1,000 bushels of coal onto the steamship from midnight to about 1:00am on the 27th. That would have been a prime opportunity for a Confederate boat burner to sabotage the steamboat. Is this simply a crazy conspiracy theory? Maybe not.

According to Union documents, boat burners destroyed over 60 steamboats during the Civil War. With the help of small torpedoes disguised to look like pieces of coal, the wooden boats went up like kindling at a bomb fire.Blog3a

Enter, stage left: A Confederate spy named Robert Louden. Louden had escaped from a Union prison in 1864, after being found guilty by a military tribunal of burning the steamboat Ruthland, and causing the death of 26 passengers. Louden was still at large in 1865. Twenty-three years after the Sultana burned, an article was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat claiming that in 1867, a drunken Robert Louden had bragged about sabotaging the Sultana. If true, it was the largest act of terrorism in the U.S. until the events of September 11, 2001.

The Rest is History

So, what caused the explosion of the Sultana? Was it the result of an improperly patched boiler? Was it because of the severe overcrowding on the boat? Or was it the sabotage of someone who wasn’t ready to embrace a Confederate surrender? The truth is, we may never know. But it’s worth contemplating… On a slow news day.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia


The WPA Murals: State of the Art

Blog1Cue the theme song to “The Waltons” because we’re traveling back to1935. Allow me to set the stage for you: In Walton’s Mountain terms, those quaint old moonshine making spinsters, the Baldwin ladies, were busy churning out jar after jar of the recipe. On and off of Walton’s Mountain, the U.S. had been smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression of 1929. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had been going strong since 1933 and his “alphabet soup” of recovery programs was continually being stirred to reveal more noodle letters.

Blog1aThe government’s previous attempts at providing relief to starving artists had fallen flat. There had been the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which lasted from 1933-34, and the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture (TDSPS), which was created in late1934. After the they flopped, there was doubt as to whether or not the government should be involved in the creation of art, on any level. But some U.S. politicians still had the vision of merging art and patriotism. So in the spring of 1935, President Roosevelt started yet another alphabet program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which funded a division called the Federal Art Program (FAP), with the goal of creating jobs for unemployed artists to beautify the country and to inspire Americans with patriotic works of art. Yes, while John Boy Walton was sitting up in his room writing in his notebooks about his family and contemplating that giant mole on his cheek, some fortunate artists were being put to work.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Blog2It only took a few months before more than 1,100 artists were working for the Mural Division of the Federal Art Program. While the WPA’s Arts Programs employed more than 40,000 artists, including painters, writers, dancers, musicians, actors, and photographers, it is the Mural Division we’re going to focus on today.

Blog3In order for artists to be considered for the Mural Division, they had to confirm they were impoverished. It was lucky for the American public that future notable artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Thomas Hart Benton could be confirmed as impoverished! After they were officially declared starving, the artists then had to submit samples of their work. Approved artists received a stipend of $24 per week. So they packed up their brushes and oil paints and set off to paint the towns and cities of the U.S.A.

Blog4According to the guidelines set forth, qualified workers were not to be discriminated against for any reason. That meant there were women and minority artists. Shocking! There were also artists whose political views were more progressive than most of the folks living on Walton’s Mountain and in real life locations across the country. That was even more shocking!

Art History

Here are a few odd and end bits of art history surrounding the Federal Arts Program:Blog5

  • It was the work of Diego Rivera, and the Mexican Muralist Movement, which first provided inspiration for Roosevelt’s program. Diego Rivera was one of the leaders of the Mexican labor movement of the 1920s. He was a member of the Communist party whose murals often included a tax on the church and capitalism. Though his political views didn’t scream, “red, white and blue,” he was commissioned to paint a mural of monumental proportions for Henry Ford. The Rockefellers also commissioned him to paint a mural for the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center.Blog6
  • Surprisingly, even though the Federal Art Project was about providing work for down and out Americans, not all of the artists were Americans. It wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that the government announced all WPA workers had to be U.S. citizens. It was that declaration that prompted Armenian born Arshile Gorky to become as American as Uncle Sam.
  • Even though some of the world’s greatest abstract artists painted murals for the WPA, the project favored a realistic, representational style. So, don’t expect to find a Pollock mural in the classic drip-style gracing some Post Office wall in Idaho.

Workers in Progress

Blog7WPA murals went up in a variety of federal buildings, including libraries, schools, hospitals, courthouses, and post offices.  Many WPA artists paid tribute to the American worker and the grandeur of the nation’s landscape. After all, it was their job to lift the spirits of citizens who were feeling the effects of the Great Depression. And while some probably were not as uplifting as Ma Baldwin’s apple pie recipe, that was because they told the truth about America. Some were uncomfortably factual and realistic, and some told a story that was politically charged and idealistic, garnering criticism by conservatives who didn’t think the government had any business funding such programs.

Blog8In 1934, when muralists at San Francisco’s Coit Tower featured images of the Russian newspaper, The Daily Worker, and Karl Marx’s book, Das Kapital, it did not fare at all well with the locals. There was one mural that featured an impoverished family panning for gold as an affluent family watched them from the sidelines. People were so outraged that Coit Tower was kept closed for weeks.

State of the Art

Of the 2,500 murals created by the WPA, approximately one third of them have been lost. How do you lose a mural? Well, many of them were simply painted over. While many of the murals were painted directly onto walls, others were painted on canvas, which were then attached to walls. In short, any missing canvas murals, which have survived, could be absolutely anywhere.Blog9

In a cringe-worthy turn of events, the government auctioned off thousands of WPA-funded paintings in December of 1943. At a warehouse in Queens, New York, paintings were sold by the pound. My word! Can you imagine waving your auction paddle to purchase three pounds of Jackson Pollock’s? A New York plumber purchased a wad of the canvas paintings to wrap his pipes for insulation. One can only imagine what treasures were lost.

Job Well Done

Blog10Besides the 2,500 murals, WPA artists completed 1,700 sculptures, 108,000 easel paintings, and 240,000 art prints and posters in the program’s eight-year existence. In 1939, the project began scaling back, laying off some of its artists. By 1943, employment was on an upswing, thanks to WWII. There no longer seemed to be a need for a program designed for the purpose of providing employment opportunities to artists, and the WPA and its Federal Arts Project ended.

Postscript/Good Night, John Boy

Blog11In a noteworthy postscript, a 1975 agreement between the U.S. Postal Service and the Smithsonian Institution made provisions to protect all existing WPA murals: They were to be relocated to the museum when a post office closed or moved, but the works of art would still remain federal property. Cue the ending music. Good night, John Boy. Good night, Mary Ellen. Good night, Grandpa. Good night, Federal Arts Program. Fade to black.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: Taking The City By Storm

Blog1As news arrives of Hurricane Joachim making landfall on the East coast, there is no denying that hurricane season is upon us again, and I am reminded of hurricanes past. It’s hard to believe it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Louisiana. Thinking back on Katrina made me wonder about some of the other most damaging U.S. hurricanes. And by “wonder,” I mean it made me type, “most damaging U.S. hurricanes,” into Google. That’s when I discovered that Katrina isn’t the only hurricane with a recent anniversary. It has been just a smidge more than 115 years since the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, one of the worst natural disasters in American History.

In honor of Mother Nature and her wrath, we’re going to take a look back at the destructive path left by the 1900 Galveston Hurricane—a storm that is so old it didn’t even get a decent name, like future potential storms, Fiona, Shary, and Igor. As a matter of fact, most Galvestonians who survived the storm simply referred to it as just that: The Storm.

Take the City by Storm

Blog10In 1900, the coastal city of Galveston, Texas wasn’t much smaller than it is today. With close to 37,000 residents, the city located on Galveston Island was a booming town and a desirable tourist destination. The beach, which was level with the surf, allowed the wealthy that flocked to the shallow waters to enjoy easy access to “therapeutic bathing” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Blog11Galveston was also the most important seaport in the state. While most people may not have realized it, Galveston was very important to the national economy. More than 70% of the country’s cotton crops traveled through the port of Galveston. It was one of the wealthiest cities in the nation and the first city in Texas to have electricity and telephones. By all appearances, Galveston was the goose that laid golden egg, but folks were about to discover it was also a sitting duck!

Blog1bIt’s not that some residents hadn’t recommended that Galveston should build a seawall to protect the city. But, hey, they had never faced any serious damage from high tides and hurricanes before 1900. Even Galveston’s chief meteorologist, Isaac Cline, was on record as saying that the thought of a hurricane seriously damaging Galveston was “a crazy idea.” So, Galvestonians continued basking in the sun and counting their money.

Isaac’s Storm

Blog14Isaac Cline must have thought he had the world by the tail when he landed his job with the U.S. Weather Service station in Galveston. He was living the good life in one of the most important cities in the country. But he may have started doubting his choice on at 5am on Sept. 8th, when he observed water from the Gulf inching over the low areas of the island. From his vantage point, he took note as the winds increased, the barometer dropped and the storm swells rose. He hopped on his horse and began riding up and down the beach like some primitive National Weather Service alert. He warned visitors to go home and asked beach residents to get to higher ground. The highest ground available was only about nine feet higher than the lowest ground. But, any port in a storm!

Blog8Cline kept in contact with the Weather Service’s Washington D.C. office until telegraph lines went down in the afternoon. He estimated that winds exceeded 120 mph, though it is believed he underestimated the speed by at least 10-20 mph.  Having done all he could do, he slogged through the rising water to his home.

Blog15The weather expert was not immune to the destruction that was unfolding around him . . . a trolley trestle broke and crashed into Cline’s house. He managed to save himself and his six-year-old daughter. His brother Joseph saved Isaac’s other two daughters. But Cline watched as his pregnant wife drowned in the turbulent waters.

Come Hell or High Water


Blog1aMeanwhile, many of Galveston’s residents were facing similar fates. They might have wanted to batten down the hatches, but there were no hatches to batten down! The city’s infrastructure and architecture had never been built to accommodate the frightful storm that was upon them. There was no way to ever have anticipated the power of this storm. The worst of the storm lasted from 8 pm until midnight, when a 15.5-foot storm surge swept across the island. Houses and other buildings collapsed. A giant wall of debris, standing at least two stories high pushed its way from one end of the island to the other. As the wall moved, it grew like a snowball rolling downhill—gaining force and momentum.

Blog2Those fancy, new-fangled electric lights that normally illuminated the town were of no use. They were the first to fail, and the city was plunged into darkness. Aside from an occasional lightning flash, Galveston was pitch-black. Ironically, the same wall of debris that destroyed so many buildings protected others. When the wall stopped moving, it protected the buildings on the other side of the island from being tossed about like Popsicle stick structures. It is said, however, that no building in Galveston was without damage.

Blog3Hollywood film director King Vidor, a Galveston native, whose debut film in 1913 was “Hurricane in Galveston,” recalled the storm years later. “I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as telephone poles. Higher. My mother didn’t speak as we watched three or four waves. I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea. … I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.”

Blog18The home of George Sealy, a successful banker, railroad executive and philanthropist, stood at Broadway and 25th Street in the city’s Strand District, at the highest elevation in the city. It became a place of refuge for some 400 storm-tossed refugees who gathered there during the height of the storm, as water poured into its basement. Some refugees tied their boats to fences that surrounded the Sealy home and swam to the house, and ultimately to safety.

Blog19St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, which was situated directly on the Gulf, received the heaviest blow. Ten nuns and ninety children lived there, and as the storm tide rose the nuns prepared the children for the worst. The nuns cut clothes line into sections and tied the children to them, and as the main tidal surge hit, they tried to calm the children by singing the hymn “Queen of the Waves.” All but three boys were killed. Hours after the flood receded, the three boys awoke in a tree, 20 blocks from shore.Blog17

The death toll estimates from the hurricane ranged from 6,000-12,000. Most sources quoted 8,000 is a fairly accurate estimate. Everyone in Galveston lost someone they loved on that night.

The Aftermath

Blog5The aftermath of The Storm is often thought to be Galveston’s finest hour. Even as they buried their dead, for most residents, there was no question as to whether or not they would rebuild. The Red Cross was a fledgling organization at the time, but volunteers swooped in under the leadership of their 78-year-old founder, Clara Barton. Volunteers, working alongside residents, began a massive reconstruction of the city.

Blog9That seawall, which the experts had discouraged, was finally built. The city was raised to an elevation of about sixteen feet at its highest point. Many buildings were raised on jacks. Canals were dug. Catwalks were built to connect houses and buildings. They did everything they could to prepare for the next storm, which was a certainty. Residents had the opportunity to test out their preventative measures when the Galveston Hurricane of 1915 hit. While the damage was extensive, the loss of life was limited to 275.

Maybe it’s just as well the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 didn’t have a cutesy name. The survivors could say they had weathered The Storm and came out battered but stronger.Blog13

Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, traveled to Galveston to film the aftermath. Here is the remarkable documentary footage.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Marriage In The Old West: Love, Honor And Obey

B1If random Facebook memes are to be believed, everything about years past was good. That’s what makes them the “good old days”, right? Marriages were stronger. Kids were heartier. Parents were wiser. And advice was just plain better. But was it really?

Some of the people posting those memes on Facebook might want to check out this book of advice for men, written by Rev. George W. Hudson in 1883—The Marriage Guide for Young Men: A Manual of Courtship and Marriage. Today, I would like to share some of Hudson’s “wisdom” along with some of my favorite funny quotes on marriage.

Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here, Today

“By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” ~ Socrates”

B3When you’re all gathering together, pay special attention to the folks who are sitting on the bride’s side of the church. Hudson understood that when you married a woman, you married her family. He understood that because his wife’s no account brother once hid from the law in Hudson’s cabin. That unfortunate incident is probably what led Hudson to write:

If they are of such character as to shame you, it will be very unpleasant for you. You might move away from them and have no intercourse with them. You might get so far away from them that the people about you would not know anything of the family into which you had married.

That was way easier before the internet! Now, try as you might, those pesky in-laws can hunt you down!

To Join This Couple In Holy Matrimony

“I love being married. It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” ~Rita Rudner

B4Rita Rudner may love annoying her spouse, but Hudson had no desire to be annoyed by some irritating female. He wrote:

Shun as you would shun death the woman who never agrees with anybody, and who never has a good word for anybody. … True, you cannot always tell by appearances, for Satan often “appears as an angel of light”; but with a little care you can usually determine pretty accurately.

Hmm… Methinks the good minister had been burned before.

To Have and To Hold

“Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl.” ~Stephen Leacock.

B5Beauty may be only skin deep, but Hudson still believed it was beneficial to select a bride with certain physical characteristics. He wrote:

Choose for your wife a woman with a full bust and good round limbs, as well as a good, large, well-proportioned head—one who can run and walk and lift a good load. …What if her waist be a little large and her hands too? This is a good fault in a woman who is to become a mother.

Does your woman have giant, man hands? No problem! The better for hauling things and pulling a plow, my dear! And, what was that bit about having a large, well-proportioned head? Hudson had a special theory about that.

B5aWhenever you see a woman with a good, full, round back head, combined with a good front, you may be sure that she is capable of giving a good degree of energy and pluck to her children; and better still, that full back head denotes that she is well sexed, capable of loving husband and children devotedly, and capable of giving her children a good sexual endowment.

Well, alrighty then! It’s not like Hudson instructed men that a well-formed body was the only thing to look for in a woman. But he seemed to think it was one of the more important things. Intelligence was important, but it wasn’t a deal breaker! After all, it really didn’t matter if she was incapable of forming a complete sentence, as long as she had a nice bulbous head and she could haul a load with those man-hands of hers!

For Better, For Worse. For Richer, For Poorer

“Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, go live with a car battery.” ~Erma Bombeck

B6There are no guarantees in marriage, but, for the love of all that is good and holy, a man should marry a good cook! If Hudson’s words are to be believed, the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach:

You will find many who say they can learn to cook: you may be inclined to try one of them. But suppose she should not learn! It is running considerable risk. Think of that fearful period of learning, during which your stomach must be made the receptacle for all sorts of messes, and your home remain in a chaotic state! You may die of dyspepsia, or go mad before she succeeds.

Am I the only one who thinks Hudson was a bit of a drama queen? Hey, at least he didn’t die of dyspepsia!

In Sickness and In Health

“Research has shown that married men live longer than single men. But married men are a lot more willing to die.” ~Johnny Carson

B7Hudson had some special thoughts on the subject of health. It’s not like he was an irrational ogre who felt the sickly had no right to marry. He just thought they should marry each other and not gunk up the more superior bloodlines:

Why should men with good mental endowment, good physique, good lungs and sound in every part, marry poor, sickly, weak-minded, consumptive, scrofulous women, and bring into the world families of children either doomed to sink into premature graves or drag out a sickly, whining existence?

What a humanitarian!

To Love, Honor, and ObeyB10

“Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” ~Mae West

I don’t even want to try to analyze this little gem from Hudson’s book:

It is a fact that woman is largely in your power.

Yeah, I’m going to leave that one alone.

‘Til Death Do Us Part

A wedding anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance and tenacity. The order varies for any given year.” ~Paul Sweeney

B9Let’s get real. Marriage isn’t always a bed of roses, even if you find a healthy woman who is good cook with a bulbous head. Hudson allowed for that possibility. Paraphrased, his advice might be summed up as: Suck it up, Buttercup! In his own words, he wrote:

Command your affections steadfastly to their lawful object; you can if you will, no matter how unfortunate your married life may prove. Better that you do so, and live in a perfect purgatory, than that you incur the awful disgrace and ruin resulting from the desertion of your wife.

Who wouldn’t want to live in holy purgatory? To quote one more wise man from the good old days, the great Henny Youngman, “The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.”

But we’ve come a long way since 1883! Watch this short video with some hilarious advice on how to choose a wife, from sociologist Craig Henley, a the man who developed the Universal Hot-Crazy Matrix.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Henry O. Flipper, The First African-American Military Officer

Blog1ARemember back in the 1990s, when we didn’t have cell phones that talked to us and gave us directions? We didn’t have GPS units to direct our paths either. Well, some rental cars had GPS units, but family cars didn’t. If you wanted to arrive at a specific destination, you were forced to rely on your keen sense of direction, if you had one, directions from strangers if you didn’t, or maps if you didn’t have a keen sense of direction and refused to ask for help.

It was during those golden-oldie days of the 1990s when I decided that if rental cars could have GPS units, my car could too! I started calling rental car companies to find out how to get one. One company directed me to a small, private airport that could install a fabulous global positioning system in my decidedly non-fabulous car. So, I scheduled an appointment to drop off my average car and have it equipped with a system that looked like it belonged to NASA. Do you remember how awfully big early cell phones were? I can tell you definitively that they had nothing on early GPS units!

The best part about that wooly mammoth of a GPS was that when I got lost due to unforeseen obstacles, the nice “lady in the box” wouldn’t yell at me. She would sweetly say, “Calculating new route.” Today’s Campfire Chronicle is dedicated to Henry O. Flipper—a man who encountered many unforeseen obstacles in his life. He could have spent the rest of his life feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he just calculated a new route. . .a route that took him from slavery, to a university education, to being the first African American to ever graduate from West Point, to being the first African American commissioned military officer in U.S. history, and beyond!

Ready to Navigate

Blog7Henry O. Flipper was born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, on March 21, 1856. The next detail I can find about his life is that he attended the American Missionary Association Schools in Georgia, following the Civil War. The American Missionary Schools educated freedmen, Native Americans, and Asians, but they could only teach a small fraction of those groups. The odds of a young former slave receiving any type of formal education were mighty slim, but, as you’re about to learn, Flipper had a way of defying the odds.

Blog1 Flipper went on to attend Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) during The Reconstruction. As long as he was there, he figured he might as well defy some more odds. So he did when he was appointed to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He wasn’t the first black man to attend, but he did round out the handful by becoming the fifth.

Blog8Things were about as difficult for the group of black cadets as you might imagine. It was like a real life, more tragic version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” People laughed and called them names and didn’t let them join in the cadet games. All right, so I don’t know that there were any cadet games, but I do know the rest of the students ostracized the group. It couldn’t have been a warm and fuzzy atmosphere. The black cadets were harassed, isolated, and insulted. Most people wouldn’t have been able to take it. But Henry O. Flipper had a destination in mind. In 1877, he became the first African American to graduate from the West Point, earning a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. One year later, Flipper published his experiences in his book, The Colored Cadet at West Point.

Keep Right at the Fork in the Road

Blog2The first African American commissioned officer in the regular U.S. Army became an officer over Buffalo Soldiers in the Tenth Cavalry. He was first stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and later at Fort Elliott, For Concho, Fort Quitman, Fort Sill, and Fort Davis in Texas. Flipper fought Apache Indians during the Victorio campaign in 1880. He also served as a signal officer and quartermaster. He installed telegraph lines and supervised the building of roads. While at Fort Sill, he oversaw the construction of a drainage ditch to prevent the spread of malaria. “Flipper’s Ditch” is now a National Historic Landmark.

Flipper proved himself to be a dedicated soldier, but he was about to encounter some gargantuan obstacles.

Make a Legal U-Turn

Capt. Nicholas Nolan

Flipper’s military career wasn’t all glitz and glamour of drainage ditches and telegraph lines. There were still prejudices at play and the road Flipper was traveling was full of dangerous twists and turns. There had been warning signs from early on that trouble was on the horizon. When Captain Nicholas M. Nolan allowed Flipper into his quarters for dinner, while his daughter, Kate, was present, Nolan was censured. At the time, Nolan stated that Flipper was an “officer and a gentleman.”

If this were a movie, that “officer and gentleman” line would appear in a few flashback scenes. When Captain Nolan’s sister-in-law, Mollie, came to live in his household at Fort Elliott, Mollie Dwyer and Flipper became friends. They went riding together and exchanged numerous letters. Flipper had always received high marks from Nolan, but when rumors started swirling about Flipper and Mollie, other officers were outraged.

Blog11By 1881, Flipper was stationed at Fort Davis with Colonel William Shafter as commanding officer.  Shafter didn’t take kindly to seeing a black officer.  Shafter asked Flipper to keep the quartermaster’s safe in his quarters. When money was missing, Shafter accused him of embezzling $3,791.77.  Court-martial proceedings found Flipper not guilty of embezzlement, but get this… The letters he had exchanged with Mollie Dwyer were admitted into evidence and he was convicted of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”

Calculating New Route

Blog10The first commissioned black officer in the U.S. Army found himself with a dishonorable discharge. It was not the road he had planned on taking. For the rest of his life, he fought clear his name. He wanted the charges dismissed and his rank restored. In 1898, a bill was introduced to Congress, which would have done just that. It did not pass. Several similar bills were later tabled.  Henry O. Flipper died in 1940, having never been vindicated.

If the best revenge is a life well lived, it’s safe to say Flipper accomplished that when he had to calculate a new route for his life. He worked as a civil engineer. He worked as a special agent for the U.S. government on land claims in the southwest. He worked in Mexico as a mining engineer and translated texts on Mexican tax, mining, and land laws. Later, Flipper worked as an engineer with a Venezuelan petroleum company. He even served as assistant to the Secretary of the Interior.

Blog12The memoirs he wrote in 1916 were finally published in 1963 as Negro Frontiersmen: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper.

You Have Arrived at Your Final Destination

Blog3The fight to clear Flipper’s name didn’t die with him. His descendants picked up the cause. In 1976, the Department of the Army finally granted Henry O. Flipper an honorable discharge, though they said they didn’t have the authority to overturn his court-martial conviction. That same year, West Point unveiled a bust of Flipper. In 1999, 117 years following Flipper’s dismissal from the Army, President Bill Clinton granted him a full pardon.  West Point now presents an annual Henry O. Flipper Award to graduating cadets who exhibit “leadership, self-disciple, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties.” You might say that Henry O. Flipper finally arrived at his final destination!

I think that you’ll enjoy this short video about the many accomplishments of Henry O. Flipper.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia