Henry O. Flipper, The First African-American Military Officer
Remember 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
Henry 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.
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.
Things 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
The 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
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.
By 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
The 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.
You Have Arrived at Your Final Destination
The 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.