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West Point graduate 2nd Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, die army's only black officer, was officially severed from the service under sentence ofcourt-martial in 1882. For the rest ofhis life Flipper claimed the dismissal was racially motivated. Courtesy FortDavis Anhives. Don't Ruin a Good Story with the Facts: An Analysis ofHenry Flipper's Account of His Court-Martial in Black Frontiersman Charles M. Robinson III* At noon June 30, 1882, 2nd Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, the army's x~V only black officer, was officially severed from the service under sentence of court-martial.1 In a lengthy trial at Fort Davis, Texas, the preceding autumn, he had been acquitted of embezzlement but convicted of five specifications on the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. The court had sentenced him to dismissal, which in modern parlance would be equivalent to a general discharge.2 He was free to reenter government service in any other capacity, which he subsequently did, with great success. Nevertheless, the sentence removed him from his lifetime ambition to be a soldier. Flipper spent the remaining six months *Charles M. Robinson III is a history instructor at Soudi Texas Community College in McAllen. He is the author ofmany books, primarily on die American West, including Bad Hand: A Biography ofGeneralRanaldS. Mackenzie, which won die Texas Historical Commission's T. R. Fehrenbach Book Award. 1 Headquarters, United StatesArmy, Office oftheAdjutant General, General Court-Martial Orders No. 30,June 17, 1882, United States Department of War, Office of die Judge Advocate General, "Records Relating to the Army Career of Henry Ossian Flipper," T-1027 (microfilm: National Archives ). Hereafter referred to as Flipper File. There are several examinations of the Flipper affair. The most diorough are Barry C.Johnson, Flipper's Dismissed: The Ruin ofLt. Henry 0. Flipper, U.S.A. First Coloured Graduate ofWest Point (London: Privately printed, 1980), and Charles M. Robinson III, The Court-MartialofLieutenant Henry Flipper (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1gg4>. Odiers are Bruce Dinges, The Court-Martial ofLieutenantHenry O. FlippenAn Example ofBlack-White Relationships in die Army, 1881," TheAmerican West, 9 (Jan., 1972), 12-17, 19, 21; Donald R, McClung, "Second Lieutenant Henry O. Flippen A Negro Officer on the West Texas Frontier," West Texas Historical Association Yearbook, 48 ( 197 1), 20-31 ; Lowell D. and Sara H. Black, An Officer and a Gentleman: The MUitary CareerofLieutenantHenry O. Flipper(Dayton: Lora Co., ig85), andJane Eppinga, Henry Ossian Flipper: West Point's First Black Graduate (Piano: Republic ofTexas Press, 1996). 2Record ofTrial, 605, Flipper File. Hereafter referred to as Record ofTrial. There is a misconception mat "dismissal" was die nineteenth-century equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. In fact, a dishonorable discharge was known as cashiering, and Francis B. Heitman drew diat distinction in his work HistoricalRegister and Dictionary ofthe United States Army, From its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (2 vols.; Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903). In dismissing an officer without any additional penalties, the government was saying his services as a soldier were neidier needed nor desired. In some cases, dismissed officers were later reinstated. Vol. CXI, No. 1 Southwestern Historical QuarterlyJuly, 2007 52Southwestern Historical QuarterlyJuly of his military career on detached duty at Fort Quitman, as the paperwork made its way through the government bureaucracy toward final approval of the verdict and sentence. There was no other verdict or sentence that the court-martial board could have reached without completely ignoring the facts ofthe case. This is borne out by a careful examination ofthe trial record, with its substantial body of evidence, together with army regulations, the articles ofwar, and primary sources, official and otherwise, surrounding the Flipper affair. The embezzlement charge was based on the disappearance of$3,791 .77 in government funds for which he, as acting commissary of subsistence, had been responsible.3 Although the funds were missing, and Flipper was culpable, he was acquitted because his commanding officer, Col. William R. Shafter, had filed an erroneous charge. At that time, the articles ofwar recognized two forms ofembezzlement. Actual embezzlement involved the deliberate misappropriation ofgovernmentfunds.4 Constructive embezzlement meant that the responsible person—for whatever reason—failed to deliver or to account...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9560
Print ISSN
0038-478X
Pages
pp. 50-71
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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