The First African American Graduate of West Point

At age 21, Henry Flipper became the first African American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. His assignment in July 1877 to the 10th United States Cavalry, one of two African American cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War, was the realization of a personal dream.

Flipper's four years as a cadet were characterized by above average grades, earned in an environment of almost total social isolation from his classmates.

Photo of Henry Flipper in his U.S. Military Academy cadet's uniform
Henry Flipper as a cadet at the United States Military Academy

Library of Congress

The future cavalry officer's military journey began with being born into slavery at Thomasville, Georgia on March 21, 1856. He later attended schools that were operated by the American Missionary Association, as well as being one of the first to attend Atlanta University when it was established in 1869.

In January of 1873 Flipper wrote to James Freeman, a newly-elected Congressman from Georgia, requesting an appointment to West Point. Freeman responded that he would recommend Flipper if he proved "worthy and qualified." A series of letters exchanged between the two ultimately resulted in Freeman nominating Flipper to the Academy. Flipper passed the required examinations and officially entered the U.S. Military Acadmey on July 1, 1873.

Flipper's four years as a cadet were characterized by above average grades, earned in an environment of almost total social isolation from his classmates. When he graduated in 1877, he ranked 50th in a class of 76. He was assigned, along with four other graduates, to the 10th U.S. Cavalry and soon found himself stationed on the frontier with Company A at Fort Sill, Indian Territory.

Military Career

Photo of 2nd Lieutenant Flipper in full dress uniform of the United States Cavalry.
2nd Lieutenant Flipper in full dress uniform of the United States Cavalry

National Archives and Records Administration

Over the course of the next four years the young lieutenant acted in a variety of different capacities, from briefly serving as commander of Company G, to pursuing the elusive Apache leader Victorio. Flipper was even detailed as Fort Sill's engineer and was ordered to survey and supervise the construction of a drainage system to eliminate a number of stagnant ponds blamed for causing malaria. His efforts were successful and in 1977, what became known as "Flipper's Ditch," was designated a Black Military Heritage Site.

On November 29, 1880 Flipper arrived at Fort Davis and soon was assigned the duties of Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Acting Commissary of Subsistence. He temporarily served as quartermaster until the regimental headquarters of the 1st U. S. Infantry, with its commander Colonel William R. Shafter, arrived in March 1881.

Court Martial

All seemed to be going well for the only African American officer in the United States Army, until some commissary funds he was responsible for turned up missing. Stalling for time and fearing Colonel Shafter, who had the reputation as a strict disciplinarian, Flipper tried to conceal the loss.

In the fall of 1881, Lieutenant Flipper was court-martialed under the 1806 Articles of War for embezzlement of commissary funds and for "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." Flipper pleaded not guilty to both charges. The trial was held in the post chapel at Fort Davis. Flipper was ably defended by Captain Merritt Barber, 16th U.S. Infantry, who volunteered to serve as counsel.

Although found not guilty of embezzlement, he was convicted of the second charge for making a false statement, for signing financial records he knew to be incorrect, and for writing a check on a nonexistent bank account. By regulations, this conviction carried an automatic sentence of dismissal from the army. In reviewing the trial, the Judge Advocate General, the army's chief legal officer, recommended a punishment other than dismissal. President Chester Arthur, however, approved the court's sentence and Flipper was dismissed from the United States Army.

Civilian Accomplishments

Following his dismissal from the army, Flipper attained recognition and respect in a multitude of different careers. In 1887 he established a civil engineering office in Nogales, Arizona, and from 1893 to 1901 he worked for the U. S. Department of Justice as a special agent for the Court of Private Land Claims. In addition to his primary job of translating Spanish documents, he also surveyed land grants and often appeared as a government witness in court cases.

Flipper was next employed as a resident engineer with a mining company in Mexico until the company ordered its employees out of the country following the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1912. He then moved to El Paso, where he served as the local representative of the Sierra Consolidated Mines Company. Due to his fluent Spanish, in 1919 Flipper became an interpreter and translator for a Senate subcommittee on foreign relations, and in 1921, was hired as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior working in the Alaskan Engineering Commission. In 1923, William F. Buckley hired Flipper as an engineer for his newly formed Pantepec Oil Company in Venezuela. He remained in that capacity until July 1930 when he sailed for New York.

However despite all of these achievements following his dismissal from the army, Flipper always maintained his innocence of the charges that destroyed his military career. He sought to clear his name through the only avenue open to him, the passage of a bill by Congress.

His first attempt to restore his former army rank and status occurred in 1898. His final effort resulted in legislation introduced into the Senate in 1924. None of the bills gained enough support or interest; all died quietly in committees. Henry Flipper died in 1940 at the age of 84, not knowing that his rank would someday be restored.

The Court-Martial: Another Look

It was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, along with a concerted effort by historians to tell the story of all Americans, that brought attention to the circumstances surrounding Flipper's dismissal.

In late 1976, the case was reviewed by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. While acknowledging that Flipper had falsified reports and lied to his commanding officer, the board concluded that "the continuance of the stigma from a dismissal, which characterizes his entire service as dishonorable, is unduly harsh, and therefore unjust."

The board, therefore, recommended that all Flipper's army records "be corrected to show that he was separated from the Army of the United States on a Certificate of Honorable Discharge on 30 June 1882."

On February 19, 1999 President William J. Clinton posthumously granted "a full and unconditional pardon to Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper." The event came 59 years after his death and 117 years after the young lieutenant had been dismissed from the United States Army.

Last updated: August 15, 2017