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Black Cadet in a White Bastion

Charles Young at West Point

Brian G. Shellum

Publication Year: 2006

Born in slavery, Charles Young (1864–1922) was the third black graduate of West Point, the first black U.S. military attaché, and the highest-ranking black officer in the Regular Army until his death. Unlike the two black graduates before him, Young went on to a long military career, eventually achieving the rank of colonel. After Young, racial intolerance closed the door to blacks at the academy, and forty-seven years passed before another African American graduated from West Point.

Brian G. Shellum’s biography of Young’s years at West Point chronicles the enormous challenges that Young faced and provides a valuable window into life at West Point in the 1880s. Academic difficulties, hazing, and social ostracism dogged him throughout his academy years. He succeeded through a combination of focused intellect, hard work, and a sense of humor. By graduation, he had made white friends, and his motivation and determination had won him the grudging respect of many of his classmates and professors.

Until now, scholars of African American and military history have neglected this important U.S. Army trailblazer. Young’s experiences at the U.S. Military Academy, his triumph over adversity, and his commitment to success forged the mold for his future achievements as an Army officer, even as the United States slipped further into the degradation and waste of racial intolerance.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. viii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

The annals of American history are filled with the names of our nation's greatest heroes, yet the name Charles Young is known by remarkably few Americans. Brian Shellum knows the name, and he reveals it—and the stories associated with it—to us all. In doing so he presents...

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pp. xiii-xvi

This book is about a forgotten hero. Charles Young was a mentor, leader, and trailblazer for African Americans in the military a century ago. Jim Crow and neglect are to blame for his anonymity today. I first read about Young's exploits as a military attaché in my initial year serving...


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pp. xvii-xix

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Prologue: From the Jungles of Liberia

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pp. 1-2

In 1915, more than twenty-five years after graduating from West Point, Maj. Charles Young, Ninth U.S. Cavalry, reflected on his time there in a letter to a former classmate. The world was at war when Young wrote from Monrovia, Liberia, where he was posted as the military attaché. ...

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1. Enslaved in Kentucky

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pp. 3-15

Charles Young was born in 1864 in the slave quarters of a small farm in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. His parents were still living in bondage when Charles was born, which made him a slave as well. But while Charles's parents were born and raised in slavery, Charles would grow...

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2. Freedom in Ohio [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 16-35

After escaping slavery in Kentucky as an infant, Charles Young grew up in Ohio in two African American communities populated mainly by former slaves from Kentucky. Young was fortunate that his parents eventually settled in Ripley, Ohio. Ripley was a one-of-a-kind community...

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3. Beast Barracks and Plebe Year [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 36-56

After making the long journey to New York City in June 1884, Charles continued by rail north along the east side of the Hudson River to the port of Garrison. This picturesque town in the Hudson Highlands was a short ferry trip across the river from West Point. ...

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4. Plebe Year Again

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pp. 57-76

In the summer of 1885, Charles Young faced the grim prospect of another Beast Barracks. Ironically, his classmates from the previous year now served as part of the leadership cadre, deviling the candidates and helping the senior class run the tent city on the Plain. As he joined...

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5. Yearling Upperclassman [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 77-93

Young's third year at West Point had a far different significance for Young than it did for his white classmates. He had survived two long, lonely years as a plebe. Unlike his classmates, who began the academic year as newly recognized and accepted members of the Corps of Cadets...

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6. Cow Year Alone

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pp. 94-110

Charles Young's second-class year, which began the summer of 1887, was most likely his loneliest. This was the first year he was not able to share a tent or barracks room with another African American cadet. Alexander graduated with the class of 1887, and no new black cadets...

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7. Firstie Year and Graduation [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 111-130

Charles Young probably had mixed feelings about his senior year, which began in the summer of 1888. He faced his last year at West Point as the only African American at the academy. Although he had begun to win the grudging acceptance of some of his classmates, many...

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Epilogue: Reflections

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pp. 131-138

In 1915, more than a quarter of a century after he graduated from West Point, Col. Charles Young reflected on his time there in a letter to a friend and classmate, Col. Delamere Skerrett. He wrote the letter from Monrovia, Liberia, where he was posted as the military attaché. ...

Appendix: Class of 1889

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pp. 139-145


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pp. 147-163


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pp. 165-169


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pp. 171-175

E-ISBN-13: 9780803256415
E-ISBN-10: 0803256418

Page Count: 258
Illustrations: Illus.
Publication Year: 2006