Henry Ossian Flipper

I had never heard of Henry Ossian Flipper until a Black Studies professor I know introduced me to The Trial of the Moke, a 1978 movie that includes one of Samuel L. Jackson’s earlier appearances.

Flipper was a former slave who became the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877. Flipper was court martialed and drummed out of the military in a situation that appeared to many to have been set up to provide a pretext to dismiss him.

According to Wikipedia,

Colonel William Rufus Shafter assumed command at Fort Davis in March 1881. He had been the commander of the First Infantry Regiment at Fort Davis. Shafter had a reputation as harassing officers he disliked. While he tolerated black Buffalo Soldiers, he hated seeing a black officer. Flipper was dismissed without cause as quartermaster within days. Then Shafter “asked” Flipper to keep the quartermaster’s safe in his quarters. Being “asked” by a superior officer was a de facto order and Flipper complied. In July 1881, Flipper found a shortage of over $2,000.00. Realizing this could be used against him by officers intent on forcing him out of the army, he attempted to hide the discrepancy, which was later discovered, then he lied about it when confronted. In August, he was arrested by Shafter for embezzling government funds. Word quickly spread about the missing money. Many felt it was a setup and soldiers and the community came up with the money to replace what was missing within four days. Shafter accepted the money, then convened a court martial on September 17, 1881.

In December 1881, the court martial found Flipper innocent of the main charge, but another charge was added during the trial, and he was found guilty “of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman”, and sentenced to be “dismissed from the service of the United States”. It was more than a harsh sentence. In two prior situations involving white officers who were found guilty of embezzlement, neither officer was dismissed nor dishonored. The letters exchanged between Mollie Dwyer (Nolan’s sister-in-law) and Flipper were used against Flipper. Relationships between whites and blacks were strictly forbidden in the viewpoint of the white officers on the board. Despite appeals, and denial of a lighter sentence from President Chester A. Arthur, Flipper was drummed out of the army with a dismissal, the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, on June 30, 1882. For the rest of his life, Flipper contested the charges and fought to regain his commission.

. . .

In 1976, descendants and supporters applied to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records on behalf of Flipper. The board, after stating it did not have the authority to overturn his court-martial conviction, concluded the conviction and punishment were “unduly harsh and unjust” and recommended that Flipper’s dismissal be changed to a good conduct discharge. The Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) and the Adjutant General approved the board’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations, and directed the Department of the Army to issue Flipper a Certificate of Honorable Discharge, dated June 30, 1882, in lieu of his dismissal on the same date. On October 21, 1997, a private law firm, Arnold & Porter, filed an application of pardon with the Secretary of the Army on Flipper’s behalf. Seven months later, the application was forwarded by the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice with a recommendation that the pardon be approved. Many pardon applications had been rejected in the past – as a matter of policy – because the intended recipients were deceased. However, President Bill Clinton pardoned Flipper on February 19, 1999.

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One thought on “Henry Ossian Flipper”

  1. I recently (Oct 1, 2018) read your piece on Henry O. Flipper. I have been researching elements of his career–especially his court-martial and dismissal) and have found to references/documents relating to “letters” between Flipper and a white female, Moillie Dwyer.
    Would you please direct me to your sources (primary and or secondary) for this claim.
    Thank you
    Tom Phillips


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