By age 26, Henry Ossian Flipper’s place in history was already assured. In 1877, he became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his race was a fact his fellow students never let him forget. As the first African-American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, Flipper eventually commanded the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American cavalry who previously had only ever been led by white officers.
But a terrible twist in his story forced Flipper to seek the assistance of the House of Representatives in resolving charges against him that cut short his promising start.
Despite its auspicious beginning, Flipper’s military career ended after only five years. While serving with the 10th United States Cavalry stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, Flipper was accused of embezzling funds from the commissary of which he was in charge. The exact version of the events leading to the charge remained a case of Flipper’s word against his commanding officer’s. Flipper claimed funds went missing or were stolen by someone else. Knowing that his race made him more vulnerable to accusation and reprisal, he maintained, led Flipper to conceal the fact of the lost money, hoping to replace it with his own before it was discovered. His commanding officer considered it a straightforward case of theft and cover-up by Flipper and charged him with committing a crime. Although the court martial acquitted him of embezzlement, it found him guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for lying and falsifying documents, and dismissed him from the U.S. Army. The judge advocate general of the U.S. Army recommended leniency, but President Chester Arthur, as Commander in Chief, affirmed the conviction on June 14, 1882, ending any hope of appeal through military channels. The repercussions of his dismissal remained with Flipper, who maintained his innocence for the rest of his life.
In 1898, 16 years after his discharge, Flipper, still wanting to clear his name, asked Congress for help. In fact, at the time, an act of Congress was the only source of relief available to overturn a court martial. He claimed he waited 16 years to petition Congress because “I was thoroughly humiliated, discouraged, and heartbroken at the time. . . . I preferred to go forth into the world and by my subsequent conduct as an honorable man and by my character disprove the charges.” Through his efforts, Representative Michael Griffin of Wisconsin introduced H.R. 9849, a bill to restore Flipper's duty, rank, and status in the U.S. Army. Flipper sent his plaintive letter to Representative John A. T. Hull of Iowa, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, in support of the bill. Although a Senate version of the bill included a request for back pay, the House version did not. Flipper wrote,
“[Y]ou will readily be convinced that the crime of being a Negro was, in my case, far more heinous than deceiving the commanding officer. . . . I ask nothing because I am a Negro, yet that fact must press itself upon your consideration as a strong motive for the wrong done me as well as a powerful reason for righting that wrong.”
The files also included an unprinted draft report on H.R. 9849 recommending its passage: “Considering all the circumstances, your Committee are satisfied that a great injustice has been done a meritorious soldier. . . . Your committee, therefore, believing this to be a case of great injustice . . . recommend that the bill do pass.” Although H.R. 9849 died in committee, the same bill was introduced in the 56th Congress (1899–1901) by Representative George Pearre of Maryland as H.R. 3598. Despite its apparent willingness to support passage of the bill during the previous Congress, and claiming “careful consideration . . . to be sure that the dismissal was not caused by prejudice,” the Military Affairs Committee issued a strongly worded adverse report on the bill. It’s unclear what transpired to shift the committee’s opinion from one Congress to the next. There were no changes to committee or party leadership; however, by the turn of the century, Congress was an inhospitable place for black political participation. The report (No. 2981) stated: “Public policy demands the utmost care that legislation should not interfere with the army discipline that demands honor and truth in all its officers, an honor and truth that were admittedly absent in this case.” According to the Congressional Record, between 1900 and 1924, nine similar bills were introduced in both the House and Senate on Flipper’s behalf; all died in committee.
After his dismissal from the Army, Flipper continued to work as a civil engineer in public and private positions, primarily in the American Southwest. He died in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1940. The U.S. Army reviewed the case in 1976 and determined that although Flipper had made false statements, his dismissal was an extreme punishment for the crime, and he was granted an honorable discharge backdated to June 30, 1882. In 1999, 59 years after his death, President Bill Clinton gave Flipper a full presidential pardon, the first posthumous presidential pardon ever issued—the last first in the story of his remarkable life.
Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Military Affairs, 56th Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; H.R. 9849, 55th Cong., 2nd Sess. (13 April 1898); H.R. 3598, 56th Cong., 1st Sess. (11 December 1899); Committee on Military Affairs Report No. 2981, Second Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, 56th Congress, 2nd Sess. (1 March 1901); Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008); Center of Military History, United States Army, Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper, U.S. Army, 1856-1940, https://history.army.mil/html/topics/afam/flipper.html; New York Times, 20 February 1999.Follow @USHouseHistory