Graduation in the Army – Henry Flipper

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

My four years were drawing to a close. They had been years of patient endurance and hard and persistent work, interspersed with bright oases of happiness and gladness and joy, as well as weary barren wastes of loneliness, isolation, unhappiness, and melancholy. I believe I have discharged I know I have tried to do so every duty faithfully and conscientiously. It had been a sort of bittersweet experience, this experimental life of mine at West Point. It was almost over, and whatever of pure sweetness, whatever of happiness, or whatever reward fortune had in store for me, was soon to become known.

“Speaking of the Military Academy, we understand that the only colored cadet now at West Point will not only graduate at the coming June commencement, but that his character, acquirements, and standing on the merit roll are such as will insure his graduation among the highest of his class.” Harper s Weekly, April 28th, 1877.

All recitations of the graduating class were discontinued on the last scholar day of May. On June 1st examination began. The class was first examined in mineralogy and geology. In this particular subject I “maxed it,” made a thorough recitation. I was required to discuss the subject of “Mesozoic Time.” After I had been examined in this subject Bishop Quintard, of Tennessee, a member of the Board of Visitors, sent for me, and personally congratulated me on my recitation of that day, as well as for my conduct during the whole four years. My hopes never were higher; I knew I would graduate. I felt it, and I made one last effort for rank. I wanted to graduate as high up as possible. I was not without success, as will subsequently appear. The New York Herald was pleased to speak as follows of my recitation in mineralogy and geology:

“Today the examination of the first class in mineralogy and geology was completed, and the first section was partially examined in engineering. In the former studies the class acquitted themselves in a highly creditable manner, and several members have shown themselves possessed of abilities far above the average. The class has in its ranks a son of General B. F. Butler, Hon. John Bigelow s son, and sons of two ex-Confederate officers. Flipper, the colored cadet, was examined today, and produced a highly favorable impression upon the board not less by his ready and intelligent recitation than by his modest, unassuming, and gentlemanly manner. There is no doubt that he will pass, and he is said to have already ordered a cavalry uniform, showing that he has a predilection for that branch of the service.”

The class was next examined in law. In this, also, I exceeded my most sanguine expectations, again “maxing it” on a thorough recitation. My subject was “Domicile.” Senator Maxey, of the Board of Visitors, questioned me closely. The Bishop of Tennessee left his seat in the board, came outside when the section was dismissed, and shook my hand in hearty congratulation. These were the proudest moments of my life. Even some of my own classmates congratulated me on this recitation. All that loneliness, dreariness, and melancholy of the four years gone was forgotten. I lived only in the time being and was happy. I was succeeding, and was meeting with that success which humble effort never fails to attain.

The New York Tribune joins in with its good words as follows:

Lieutenant Flipper, The Colored Graduate Of West Point.
“The examination of the first class in law will be completed tomorrow. The sections thus far called up have done very well. The colored cadet, Flipper, passed uncommonly well this morning, showing a practical knowledge of the subject very satisfactory to Senator Maxey, who questioned him closely, and to the rest of the board. He has a good command of plain and precise English, and his voice is full and pleasant. Mr. Flipper will be graduated next week with the respect of his instructors, and not the less of his fellows, who have carefully avoided intercourse with him. The quiet dignity which he has shown during this long isolation of four years has been really remarkable. Until another of his race, now in one of the lower classes, arrived, Flipper scarcely heard the sound of his own voice except in recitation, and it is to be feared that unless he is detailed at Howard University, which has been mentioned as possible, his trials have only begun.”The class was next examined in civil and military engineering. In this also I did as well as in either of the other studies. I made a thorough recitation. I was required to explain what is meant by an “order of battle,” and to illustrate by the battles of Zama, Pharsalia, and Leuctra.

The Colored Cadet.

“Flipper, the colored cadet from South Carolina, was up this afternoon and acquitted himself remarkably well. Some time since he was recommended for a higher grade than the one he holds, and his performance today gained him a still higher standing in the class.”

In ordnance and gunnery the class was next examined. In this I was less successful. I was to assume one of Captain Didion s equations of the trajectory in air, and determine the angle of projection represented by phi, and the range represented by x in the following equation:

y = x tan. phi – gx2/2V2 B, and to explain the construction and use of certain tables used in connection with it. I made a fair recitation, but one by no means satisfactory to myself. I lost four files on it at least. A good recitation in ordnance and gunnery would have brought me out forty-five or six instead of fifty. I did not make it, and it was too late to better it. This was the last of our examination. It ended on the 11th day of June. On the 14th we were graduated and received our diplomas.

During the examination I received letters of congratulation in every mail. Some of them may not be uninteresting. I give a few of them:

Post-Office Department, Room 48,
Washington, D.C., June 3, 1877.

My Dear Mr. Flipper: It has been four years since I last addressed you. Then you had just entered the Academy with other young colored men, who have since dropped by the way. I was at that time the editor of the Era in this city, and wrote an article on West Point and snobocracy which you may remember reading.

I felt a thrill of pleasure here the other day when I read your name as the first graduate from the Academy. I take this opportunity of writing you again to extend my hearty congratulations, and trust your future career may be as successful as your academic one. “My boy,” Whittaker, has, I am told, been rooming with you, and I trust has been getting much benefit from the association.

I am, your friend and well wisher,
Richard T. Greener.

42 Broad Street, New York, June 4, 1877.

Cadet Henry O. Flipper,
West Point, N. Y.:

Dear Sir: I have been much pleased reading the complimentary references to your approaching graduation which have appeared in the New York papers the past week. I beg to congratulate you most heartily, and I sincerely trust that the same intelligence and pluck which has enabled you to successfully complete your academic course may be shown in a still higher degree in the new sphere of duty soon to be entered upon.

I enclose an editorial from todays Tribune.

Department Of The Interior
United States Patent Office, Washington, D.C., June 5, 1877.

Henry O. Flipper, Esq.,
U. S. Military Academy, West Point, N. Y.

Dear Sir: Having noticed in the daily papers of this city an account of the successful termination of your course at the Military Academy, we hasten to tender you our sincere congratulations.

We are prompted to this act by an experimental knowledge of the social ostracism and treacherous duplicity to which you must have been made the unhappy victim during the long years of faithful study through which you have just passed.

We congratulate you upon the moral courage and untiring energy which must have been yours, to enable you to successfully battle against the immeasurable influence of the prejudice shown to all of us at both of our national schools. We hail your success as a national acknowledgment, in a new way, of the mental and moral worth of our race; and we feel amply repaid for the many privations we have undergone in the naval branch of our service, in noting the fact that one of us has been permitted to successfully stand the trying ordeal.

Trusting that the same firmness of purpose and untiring energy, which have characterized your stay there, may ever be true of your future career on the field and at the hearth side,

We remain, very truly yours,

Post-Office, New York City, N. Y. Office Of The Postmaster, Wednesday, June 7, 1877.

My Dear Friend: Let me extend to you my full gratitude upon your success at West Point. I was overjoyed when I saw it. My friends are delighted with you, and they desire to see you when you come down. Let me know when you think you will leave West Point, and I will look out for you.

Very truly yours,

Henry O. Flipper, Esq.,
West Point Military Academy.

Washington, D. C., June 13, 1877.

Henry O. Flipper, Esq.,
West Point, N. Y.:

My Dear Friend: I wish to congratulate you upon passing successfully your final examination, and salute you as the first young colored man who has had the manhood and courage to struggle through and overcome every obstacle. So many of our young men had failed that I wondered if you would be able to withstand all the opposition you met with, whether you could endure the kind of life they mete out to our young men at our national Military Academy. I rejoice to know that you have won this important victory over prejudice and caste. This will serve you in good stead through many a conflict in life. Your path will not be all strewn with roses; something of that caste and prejudice will still pursue you as you enter the broader arena of military life, but you must make up your mind to live it down, and your first victory will greatly aid you in this direction. One thing, allow me to impress upon you: you are not fighting your own battle, but you are fighting the battle of a struggling people; and for this reason, my dear Flipper, resolve now in your deepest soul that come what may you will never surrender; that you will never succumb. Others may leave the service for more lucrative pursuits; your duty to your people and to yourself demand that you remain.

Be assured that whatever you do, wherever you may go, you always have my deepest sympathy and best wishes.

I return to Europe in a few weeks.
Cordially yours,

Even the cadets and other persons connected with the Academy congratulated me. Oh how happy I was! I prized these good words of the cadets above all others. They knew me thoroughly. They meant what they said, and I felt I was in some sense deserving of all I received from them by way of congratulation. Several visited my quarters. They did not hesitate to speak to me or shake hands with me before each other or any one else. All signs of ostracism were gone. All felt as if I was worthy of some regard, and did not fail to extend it to me.

At length, on June 14th, I received the reward of my labors, my “sheepskin,” the United States Military Academy Diploma, that glorious passport to honor and distinction, if the bearer do never disgrace it.

Here is the manner of ceremony we had on that day, as reported in the New York Times:

“The concluding ceremony in the graduation exercises at the West Point Academy took place this morning, when the diplomas were awarded to the graduates. The ceremony took place in the open air under the shadow of the maple trees, which form almost a grove in front of the Academy building. Seats had been arranged here for the spectators, so as to leave a hollow square, on one side of which, behind a long table, sat the various dignitaries who were to take part in the proceedings. In front of them, seats were arranged for the graduating class. The cadets formed line in front of the barracks at 10.30, and, preceded by the band playing a stirring air, marched to the front of the Academy building. The first class came without their arms; the other classes formed a sort of escort of honor to them. The graduating class having taken their seats, the other classes stacked arms and remained standing in line around the square. The proceedings were opened by an address from Professor Thompson, of the School of Technology, Worcester Mass., who is the Chairman of the Board of Visitors.”

And thus after four years of constant work amid many difficulties did I obtain my reward.

“Lieutenant H. O. Flipper was the only cadet who received the cheers of the assembled multitude at West Point upon receiving his parchment. How the fellows felt who couldn’t associate with him we do not know; but as the old Christian woman said, they couldn’t a been on the mountain top. ” Christian Recorder.

Victor Hugo says somewhere in his works that he who drains a marsh must necessarily expect to hear the frogs croak. I had graduated, and of course the newspapers had to have a say about it. Some of the articles are really amusing. I couldn’t help laughing at them when I read them. Here is something from the New York Herald which is literally true:

Mr. Blaine And The Colored Cadet.

“Senator James G. Blaine, with his wife and daughter and Miss Dodge ( Gail Hamilton ) left at noon yesterday in anticipation of the rush. Before going the Senator did a very gracious and kindly deed in an unostentatious way. Sending for Flipper, the colored cadet, he said:

“I don t know that you have any political friends in your own State, Mr. Flipper, and you may find it necessary to have an intermediary in Congress to help you out of your difficulties. I want you to consider me your friend, and call upon me for aid when you need it.

“With that he shook the lad s hand and bade him good-by.

“Bishop Quintard, of Tennessee, and Senator Maxey, of Texas, also complimented the pioneer graduate of the colored race upon his conduct throughout the four years of his training, and proffered their sympathy and assistance. With these encouragements from prominent men of both political parties the young man seemed deeply touched, and thanking them suitably he returned with a light heart to his quarters.”

It was so very kind of the distinguished senators and bishop. I valued these congratulations almost as much as my diploma. They were worth working and enduring for.

The New York Herald again speaks, and that about not hearing my voice, etc., made me “larf.” Here is the article:

The Colored Cadet S Experience And Prospects
“Flipper, the colored cadet, who graduates pretty well up in his class, said to me today that he is determined to get into either the Ninth or Tenth colored cavalry regiment if possible. He seems to be very happy in view of the honorable close of his academic career, and entertains little doubt that he can procure the appointment he wishes. When asked whether he was not aware that there was a law providing that even colored troops must be officered by white men, he replied that he had heard something of that years ago, but did not think it was true. If there is such a law, he said emphatically, but with good humor, it is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. He added that several weeks ago he wrote to a prominent gentleman in Alabama to inquire what the existing law on the subject was, and had not yet received an answer. I questioned him about his experience in the Academy, And he said that he had suffered but little on account of his race. The first year was very hard, as the class all made their dislike manifest in a variety of ways. That, he said, was in a great measure caused by the bad conduct of Smith, the colored cadet who preceded me. When the class found out that I was not like him, they treated me well. The professors act toward me in every respect as toward the others, and the cadets, I think, do not dislike me. But they don t associate with me. I don t care for that. If they don t want to speak to me I don t want them to, I m sure. Save in the recitation room Flipper never heard the sound of his own voice for months and months at a time; but he was kept so hard at work all the time that he did not mind it. If he should join a regiment, however, he would be more alone even than he has been here, for the association with other officers in the line of duty would not be so close as it has been with the cadets. He would be isolated ostracized and he would feel it more keenly, because he would have more leisure for social intercourse, and his mind would not be so occupied as it has been here with studies.”Senator Blaine, in the course of a conversation last night, thought the career of Flipper would be to go South and become a leader of his race. He could in that way become famous, and could accomplish much good for the country.”When I entered the Academy I saw in a paper something about colored officers being put in white regiments, etc. It purported to be a conversation with the then Secretary of War, who said there was such a law, and that it would be enforced. The then Secretary of War has since told me he was sure there was such a law, until to satisfy himself he searched the Revised Statutes, when he found he was mistaken.

I have mentioned elsewhere the untruthfulness of the statement that I never heard my own voice except in The recitation room. Every one must know that could not be true. The statement is hardly worth a passing remark.

“If he should join a regiment, however,” etc. Ah! well, I have joined my regiment long ago. Let me say, before I go further, I am putting this manuscript in shape for the press, and doing it in my quarters at Fort Sill, I. T. These remarks are inserted apropos of this article. From the moment I reached Sill I haven t experienced any thing but happiness. I am not isolated. I am not ostracized by a single officer. I do not “feel it more keenly,” because what the Herald said is not true. The Herald, like other papers, forgets that the army is officered by men who are presumably officers and gentlemen. Those who are will treat me as become gentlemen, as they do, and those who are not I will thank if they will “ostracize” me, for if they don t I will certainly “ostracize” them.

“But to get into a cavalry regiment is the highest ambition of most cadets, and failing in that it is almost a toss up between the infantry and the artillery. Flipper, the South Carolina colored cadet, wants to get into the cavalry, and as there is a black regiment of that character he will, it is thought, be assigned to that. There is in existence a law specifying that even black regiments shall be officered by white men, and it is thought there will be some trouble in assigning Flipper. As any such law is in opposition to the constitutional amendments, of course it will be easily rescinded. From the disposition shown by most of the enlisted men with whom I have conversed at odd times upon this subject, I fancy that if Flipper were appointed to the command of white soldiers they would be restive, and would, if out upon a scout, take the first opportunity to shoot him; and this feeling exists even among men here who have learned to respect him for what he is.”

Now that is laughable, isn’t it? What he says about the soldiers at West Point is all “bosh.” Nobody will believe it. I don t. I wish the Herald reporter who wrote the above would visit Fort Sill and ask some of the white soldiers there what they think of me. I am afraid the Herald didn’t get its “gift of prophecy” I from the right place. Such blunders are wholly inexcusable. The Herald reporter deserves an “extra” (vide Cant Terms, etc.) for that. I wish he could get one at any rate. Perhaps, however, the following will excuse him. It is true.

“He is spoken of by all the officers as a hard student and a gentleman. To a very great extent he has conquered the prejudices of his fellows, and although they still decline to associate with him it is evident that they respect him. Said one of his class this morning: Flipper has certainly shown pluck and gentlemanly qualities, and I shall certainly shake his “flipper” when we say “Good by.” We have no feeling against him at all, but we could not associate with him. You see we are so crowded together here that we are just like one family, possessing every thing in common and borrowing every thing, even to a pair of white trousers, and we could not hold such intimate fellowship with him. It may be prejudice, but we could not do it; so we simply let him alone, and he has lived to himself, except when we drill with him. Feel bad about it? Well, I suppose he did at first, but he has got used to it now. The boys were rather afraid that when he should come to hold the position as officer of the guard that he would swagger over them, but he showed good sense and taste, merely assuming the rank formally and leaving his junior to carry out the duty.”

That glorious day of graduation marked a new epoch in my military life. Then my fellow cadets and myself forgot the past. Then they atoned for past conduct and welcomed me as one of them as well as one among them.

I must revert to that Herald s article just to show how absurd it is to say I never heard the sound of my own voice except in the section room. I heard it at reveille, at breakfast, dinner, and supper roll calls, at the table, at taps, and at every parade I attended during the day in all no less than ten or twelve times every single day during the four years. Of course I heard it in other places, as I have explained elsewhere. I always had somebody to talk to every single day I was at the Academy. Why, I was the happiest man in the institution, except when I d get brooding over my loneliness, etc. Such moments would come, when it would seem nothing would interest me. When they were gone I was again as cheerful and as happy as ever. I learned to hate holidays. At those times the other cadets would go off skating, rowing, or visiting. I had no where to go except to walk around the grounds, which I sometimes did. I more often remained in my quarters. At these times barracks would be deserted and I would get so lonely and melancholy I wouldn’t know what to do. It was on an occasion like this Thanksgiving Day I wrote the words given in another place, beginning,

“Oh! tis hard this lonely living, to be
In the midst of life so solitary,” etc.

Here is something from Harper s Weekly. The northern press generally speak in the same tenor of my graduation.

“Inman Edward Page, a colored student at Brown University, has succeeded in every respect better than his brother Flipper at West Point. While a rigid non-intercourse law was for four years maintained between Flipper and the nascent warriors at the Military Academy, Page has lived in the largest leaved clover at Brown, and in the Senior year just closed was chosen Class day Orator a position so much coveted among students ambitious for class honors that it is ranked by many even higher than the Salutatory or the Valedictory. Page has throughout been treated by his classmates as one of themselves. He is a good writer and speaker, though not noticeably better than some of his classmates. His conduct has been uniformly modest but self respectful, and he had won the esteem of professors as well as students. The deportment of his class toward him is in high and honorable contrast with that pursued by the less manly students supported by the government at West Point, who may have already learned that the plain people of the country are with Flipper.”

Here is something of a slightly different kind from a Georgia paper Augusta Chronicle and Constitutionalist. Its tone betrays the locality of its birth.

“Benjamin F. Butler, Jr., who graduated at West Point last summer in the same class with the colored cadet from Georgia, Flipper, has been assigned for duty to the Ninth Cavalry, the same regiment to which Flipper is attached. The enlisted men in this regiment are all Negroes. Ben, senior, doubtless engineered the assignment in order to make himself solid with the colored voters of the South. Ben, like old Joe Bagstock, is devilish sly.”It is in error as to my assignment. Lieutenant Butler (whose name, by the way, is not Benjamin F., Jr.) was assigned to the Ninth Cavalry. Here is the truth about my assignment, given in the Sing Sing (N. Y.) Republican:”Cadet Flipper has been appointed to the Tenth U. S. Cavalry (colored), now in Texas. Secretary of State Bigelow s son has also been assigned to the same regiment. We wonder if the non intercourse between the two at West Point will be continued in the army. Both have the same rank and are entitled to the same privileges. Possibly a campaign among the Indians, or a brush with the Greasers on the Rio Grande, will equalize the complexion of the two.”

The National Monitor, of Brooklyn (N. Y.), has this much to say. It may be worth some study by the cadets now at the Academy.

“Lieutenant Flipper, colored, a recent graduate from West Point, is a modest gentleman, and no grumbler. He says that privately he was treated by fellow cadets with proper consideration, but reluctantly admits that he was publicly slighted. He can afford to be untroubled and magnanimous. How is it with his fellows? Will not shame ere long mantle their cheeks at the recollection of this lack of moral courage on their part? A quality far more to be desired than any amount of physical heroism they may ever exhibit.”

Here is something extra good from the Hudson River Chronicle, of Sing Sing. To all who want to know the truth about me physically, I refer them to this article. I refer particularly to the editor of a certain New Orleans paper, who described me as a “little bow legged grif of the most darkly coppery hue.”

“For a few days past Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, the colored cadet who graduated from West Point Academy last week, has been the guest of Professor John W. Hoffman, of this place. Lieutenant Flipper is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, whence General Sherman commenced that glorious march to the sea which proved what a hollow shell the Southern Confederacy really was. The lieutenant evidently has a large strain of white blood in his veins, and could probably, if so disposed, trace descent from the F. F s. He stands six feet, is well proportioned, has a keen, quick eye, a gentlemanly address, and a soldierly bearing. He goes from here to his home in Georgia, on a leave of absence which extends to the first of November, when he will join the Tenth Cavalry, to which he has been assigned as Second Lieutenant. This assignment shows that Lieutenant Flipper stood above the average of the graduating class, as the cavalry is the next to the highest grade in the service only the Engineer Corps taking precedence of the cavalry arm.

“For four long years Cadet Flipper has led an isolated life at the Point without one social companion, being absolutely ostracized by his white classmates. As much as any mortal, he can say:

“In the crowd They would not deem me one of such; I stood Among them, but not of them; in a shroud Of thoughts which were not their thoughts.
“There must have been much of inherent manhood in a boy that could stand that long ordeal, and so bear himself at the close that, when his name was pronounced among the graduates, the fair women and brave men who had gathered to witness the going out into the world of the nation s wards, with one accord greeted the lone student with a round of applause that welcomed none others of the class, and that could call from Speaker Blaine the strong assurance that if he ever needed a friend he might trustingly call on him.

“The path of glory leads but to the grave, but we venture the prediction that Lieutenant Flipper will tread that path as fearlessly and as promptly as any of his comrades of the Class of 77. “



Flipper, Henry Ossian. The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, first graduate of color from the U. S. Military Academy.

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