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The Fall of a Black Army Officer: Racism and the Myth of Henry O. Flipper

Charles M. Robinson III, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2008, $29.95.

The Trials of Henry Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point

by Don Cusic, McFarland Publishers, Jefferson, N.C., 2008, $35.

Whether they should have or not, key events and figures in the history of the American West evolved readily and swiftly into myth and legend. Historians have been trying to set the record straight ever since. In the case of Henry Ossian Flipper (1856–1940), however, the mythology is a more recent phenomenon. As Charles M. Robinson III discovered in the course of researching the first black graduate from the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Flipper acquired a patina of legend amid the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

On September 17, 1881, 2nd Lt. Flipper, who since his commissioning in 1877 had served with honor in the famed 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment (Colored), faced court-martial for the embezzlement of unit funds at Fort Davis, Texas. In the end, he was acquitted of the embezzlement charge but convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman and dismissed from the Army.

Even at the time, Flipper played the race card at his trial, planting a seed for the myth that would later flower of the railroaded buffalo soldier persecuted by his bigoted commander, Colonel William Shafter. However, after poring over original court documents for his book The Fall of a Black Army Officer, Robinson concludes that Flipper’s trial stood out in a time of widespread prejudice as extraordinarily fair. The “conduct unbecoming” for which he was ultimately convicted was a classic case of the cover-up being worse than whatever he had done. Shafter’s antagonism toward him was founded less on skin color than on the fact that Flipper, covering up for discrepancies in a quartermaster job in which he had found himself over his head, had submitted falsified financial reports that Shafter had signed in good faith.

The consequences, too, could have been worse. Flipper was not dishonorably discharged but “dismissed,” the equivalent of today’s general discharge —a less damning status that allowed him to obtain other government employment. Still, as a man who had struggled to be the first black American to earn a West Point commission, Flipper spent his life seeking exoneration. His cause was revived after his death, but the best he got from President Bill Clinton was a pardon—not an overturning of his conviction. Don Cusic’s The Trials of Henry Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point draws on Robinson’s work amid a comprehensive overview of what remains a remarkable life.

Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.