Incidents, Humor, Etc. – Henry Flipper

It may not be inappropriate to give in this place a few as many as I can recall of the incidents, more or less humorous, in which I myself have taken part or have noticed at the various times of their occurrence. First, then, an adventure on “Flirtation.”

During the encampment of 1873 I think it was in July Smith and myself had the for us rare enjoyment of a visit made us by some friends. We had taken them around the place and shown and explained to them every thing of interest. We at length took seats on “Flirtation,” and gave ourselves up to pure enjoyment such as is found in woman s presence only. The day was exceedingly beautiful; all nature seemed loveliest just at that time, and our lone, peculiar life, with all its trials and cares, was quite forgotten. We chatted merrily, and as ever in such company were really happy. It was so seldom we had visitors and even then they were mostly males that we were delighted to have some one with whom we could converse on other topics than official ones and studies. While we sat there not a few strangers, visitors also, passed us, and almost invariably manifested surprise at seeing us.

I do think uncultivated white people are unapproachable in downright rudeness, and yet, alas! they are our superiors. Will prejudice ever be obliterated from the minds of the people? Will man ever cease to prejudge his fellow being for color s sake alone? Grant, O merciful God, that he may!

But au fait! Anon a cadet, whose perfectly fitting uniform of matchless gray and immaculate white revealed the symmetry of his form in all its manly beauty, saunters leisurely by, his head erect, shoulders back, step quick and elastic, and those glorious buttons glittering at their brilliant points like so many orbs of a distant stellar world. Next a plebe strolls wearily along, his drooping shoulders, hanging head, and careless gait bespeaking the need of more squad drill. Then a dozen or more “picnicers,” all females, laden with baskets, boxes, and other et ceteras, laughing and playing, unconscious of our proximity, draw near. The younger ones tripping playfully in front catch sight of us. Instantly they are hushed, and with hands over their mouths retrace their steps to disclose to those in rear their astounding discovery. In a few moments all appear, and silently and slowly pass by, eyeing us as if we were the greatest natural wonder in existence. They pass on till out of sight, face about and “continue the motion,” passing back and forth as many as five times. Wearied at length of this performance, Smith rose and said, “Come, let s end this farce,” or something to that effect. We arose, left the place, and were surprised to find a moment after that they were actually following us.

The “Picnickers,” as they are called in the corps, begin their excursions early in May, and continue them till near the end of September. They manage to arrive at West Point at all possible hours of the day, and stay as late as they conveniently can. In May and September, when we have battalion drills, they are a great nuisance, a great annoyance to me especially. The vicinity of that flank of the battalion in which I was, was where they “most did congregate.” It was always amusing, though most embarrassing, to see them pointing me out to each other, and to hear their verbal accompaniments, “There he is, the first” or such “man from the right” “or left.” “Who?” “The colored cadet.” “Haven’t you seen him? Here, I’ll show him to you,” and so on ad libitum.

All through this encampment being ” young; a novice in the trade,” I seldom took advantage of Old Guard privileges, or any other, for the reason that I was not accustomed to such barbarous rudeness, and did not care to be the object of it.

It has always been a wonder to me why people visiting at West Point should gaze at me so persistently for no other reason than curiosity. What there was curious or uncommon about me I never knew. I was not better formed, nor more military in my bearing than all the other cadets. My uniform did not fit better, was not of better material, nor did it cost more than that of the others. Yet for four years, by each and every visitor at West Point who saw me, it was done. I know not why, unless it was because I was in it.

There is an old man at Highland Falls, N. Y., who is permitted to peddle newspapers at West Point. He comes up every Sabbath, and all are made aware of his presence by his familiar cry, “Sunday news! Sunday news!” Indeed, he is generally known and called by the soubriquet, “Sunday News.”

He was approaching my tent one Sunday afternoon but was stopped by a cadet who called out to him from across the company street, “Don t sell your papers to them niggers!” This kind advice was not heeded.

This and subsequent acts of a totally different character lead me to believe that there is not so much prejudice in the corps as is at first apparent. A general dislike for the Negro had doubtless grown up in this cadet s mind from causes which are known to everybody at all acquainted with affairs at West Point about that time, summer of 1873. On several occasions during my second and third years I was the grateful recipient of several kindnesses at the hands of this same cadet, thus proving most conclusively that it was rather a cringing disposition, a dread of what others might say, or this dislike of the Negro which I have mentioned, that caused him to utter those words, and not a prejudiced dislike of “them niggers,” for verily I had won his esteem.

Just after returning from this encampment to our winter quarters, I had another adventure with Smith, my chum, and Williams, which cost me dearly.

It was just after “evening call to quarters.” I knew Smith and Williams were in our room. I had been out for some purpose, and was returning when it occurred to me to have some fun at their expense. I accordingly walked up to the door our “house” was at the head of the stairs and on the third floor and knocked, endeavoring to imitate as much as possible an officer inspecting. They sprang to their feet instantly, assumed the position of the soldier, and quietly awaited my entrance. I entered laughing. They resumed their seats with a promise to repay me, and they did, for alas! I was “hived.” Some cadet reported me for “imitating a tactical officer inspecting.” For this I was required to walk three tours of extra guard duty on three consecutive Saturdays, and to serve, besides, a week s confinement in my quarters. The “laugh” was thus, of course, turned on me.

During the summer of 74, in my “yearling camp,” I made another effort at amusement, which was as complete a failure as the attempt with Smith and Williams. I had been reported by an officer for some trifling offence. It was most unexpected to me, and least of all from this particular officer. I considered the report altogether uncalled for, but was careful to say nothing to that effect. I received for the offence one or two demerits. A short while afterwards, being on guard, I happened to be posted near his tent. Determined on a bit of revenge, and fun too, at half-past eleven o clock at night I placed myself near his tent, and called off in the loudest tone I could command, “No. half-past eleven o clock, and allll s wellll!” It woke him. He arose, came to the front of his tent, and called me back to him. I went, and he ordered me to call the corporal. I did so. When the corporal came he told him to “report the sentinel on No. for calling off improperly.” If I mistake not, I was also reported for not calling off at 12 P.M. loud enough to be heard by the next sentinel. Thus my bit of revenge recoiled twofold upon myself, and I soon discovered that I had been paying too dear for my whistle.

On another occasion during the same camp I heard a cadet say he would submit to no order or command of, nor permit himself to be marched anywhere by “the nigger,” meaning myself. We were in the same company, and it so happened at one time that we were on guard the same day, and that I was the senior member of our company detail. When we marched off the next day the officer of the guard formed the company details to the front, and directed the senior member of each fifteen to march it to its company street and dismiss it. I instantly stepped to front and assumed command. I marched it as far as the color line at “support arms;” brought them to a “carry” there and saluted the colors. When we were in the company street, I commanded in loud and distinct tone, “Trail arms! Break ranks! March!” A cadet in a tent near by recognized my voice, and hurried out into the company street. Meeting the cadet first mentioned above, he thus asked of him:

“Did that nigger march you in?”

“Yes-es, the nigger marched us in,” speaking slowly and drawling it out as if he had quite lost the power of speech.

At the following semi-annual examination (January, 75), the gentleman was put on the “retired list,” or rather on the list of “blasted hopes.” I took occasion to record the event in the following manner, changing of course the names:


Scene. Hall of Cadet Barracks at West Point. Characters: Ransom and Mars, both Cadets. Ransom, who has been “found” at recent semiannual examination, meets his more successful chum, MARS, on the stoop. After a moment s conversation, they enter the hall.

Mars (as they enter). Ah! how! what say? Found! Art going away? Unfortunate rather I’m sorry! but stay! Who hadst thou? How didst thou? Badly, I’m sure. Hadst done well they had not treated thee so.

Ransom (sadly). Thou sayest aright. I did do my best, Which was but poorly I can but confess. The subject was hard. I could no better Unless I d memorized to the letter.

Mars. Art unfortunate! but tho twere amiss Me half thinks e en that were better than this. Thou couldst have stood the trial, if no more Than to come out low. That were better, m sure.

Ransom. But tis too late. Twas but an afterthought, Which now methinks at most is worth me naught; Le sort en est jetté, they say, you know; Twere idle to dream and still think of woe.

Mars. Thou sayest well! Yield not to one rebuff. Thou rt a man, show thyself of manly stuff. The bugle calls! I must away! Adieu! May Fortune grant, comrade, good luck to you!

They shake hands, Mars hurries out to answer the bugle call. Ransom prepares for immediate departure for home.)

“O dear! it is hawid to have this cullud cadet perfectly dreadful. I should die to see my Geawge standing next to him.” Thus did one of your models of womankind, one of the Negro s superiors, who annually visit West Point to flirt, give vent to her opinion of the “cullud cadet,” an opinion thought out doubtless with her eyes, and for which she could assign no reason other than that some of her acquaintances, manifestly cadets, concurred in it, having perhaps so stated to her. And the cadets, with their accustomed gallantry, have ever striven to evade “standing next to him.” No little amusement for such it was to me has been afforded me by the many ruses they have adopted to prevent it. Some of them have been extremely ridiculous, and in many cases highly unbecoming a cadet and a gentleman.

While I was a plebe, I invariably fell in in the rear rank along with the other plebes. This is a necessary and established custom. As soon as I became a third-classman, and had a right to fall in in the front rank whenever necessary or convenient, they became uneasy, and began their plans for keeping me from that rank. The first sergeant of my company did me the honor of visiting me at my quarters and politely requested me not order me, for he had no possible authority for such an act to fall in invariably on the right of the rear rank. To keep down trouble and to avoid any show of presumption or forwardness on my part, as I had been advised by an officer, I did as he requested, taking my place on the right of the rear rank at every formation of the company for another whole year. But with all this condescension on my part I was still the object of solicitous care. My falling in there did not preclude the possibility of my own classmates, now also risen to the dignity of third-classmen, falling in next to me. To perfect his plan, then, the first sergeant had the senior plebe in the company call at his “house,” and take from the roster an alphabetical list of all the plebes in the company. With this he (the senior plebe) was to keep a special roster, detailing one of his own classmates to fall in next to me. Each one detailed for such duty was to serve one week from Sunday morning breakfast to Sunday morning breakfast. The keeper of the roster was not of course to be detailed.

It is astonishing how little care was taken to conceal this fact from me. The plan, etc., was formed in my hearing, and there seems to have been no effort or even desire to hide it from me. Returning from supper one evening, I distinctly heard this plebe tell the sergeant that “Mr. refused to serve.” “You tell him,” said the sergeant, “I want to see him at my house after supper. If he doesn’t serve I’ll make it so hot for him he’ll wish he d never heard of West Point.”

Is it not strange how these models of mankind, these our superiors, strive to thrust upon each other what they do not want themselves? It is a meanness, a baseness, an unworthiness from which I should shrink. It would be equally astonishing that men ever submit to it, were it not that they are plebes, and therefore thus easily imposed upon. The plebe in this case at length submitted.

When I became a second-classman, no difference was made by the cadets in their manner of falling in, whether because their scruples were overcome or because no fitting means presented themselves for avoiding it, I know not. If they happened to be near me when it was time to fall in, they fell in next to me.

In the spring of 76, our then first sergeant ordered us to fall in at all formations as nearly according to size as possible. As soon as this order was given, for some unknown reason, the old régime was readopted. If I happened to fall in next to a first-classman, and he discovered it, or if a first-classman fell in next to me, and afterward found it out, he would fall out and go to the rear. The second and third-classmen, for no other reason than that first-classmen did it, “got upon their dignity, and refused to stand next to me. We see here a good illustration of that cringing, “bone-popularity” spirit which I have mentioned elsewhere.

The means of prevention adopted now were somewhat different from those of a year before. A file closer would watch and follow me closely, and when I fell in would put a plebe on each side of me. It was really amusing sometimes to see his eagerness, and quite as amusing, I may add, to see his dismay when I would deliberately leave the place thus hemmed in by plebes and fall in elsewhere.

We see here again that cringing disposition to which I believe the whole of the ill treatment of colored cadets has been due. The file closers are usually second-class sergeants and third-class corporals. By way of “boning popularity” with the upper classmen, they stoop to almost any thing. In this case they hedged me in between the two plebes to prevent upper classmen from falling in next to me.

But it may be asked why I objected to having plebes next to me. I would answer, for several reasons. Under existing circumstances of prejudice, it was of the utmost importance to me to keep them away from me. First and by no means the least important reason to put them in the front rank was violating a necessary and established custom. The plebes are put in the rear rank because of their inexperience and general ignorance of the principles of marching, dressing, etc. If they are in the front rank, it would simply be absurd to expect good marching of them. A second reason, and by far the most important, results directly from this one. Being between two plebes, who would not, could not keep dressed, it would be impossible for me to do so. The general alignment of the company would be destroyed. There would be crowding and opening out of the ranks, and it would all originate in my immediate vicinity. The file-closers, never over-scrupulous when I was concerned, and especially when they could forward their own “popularity-boning” interests, would report me for these disorders in the company. I would get demerits and punishment for what the plebes next to me were really responsible for. The plebes would not be reported, because if they were their inexperience would plead strongly in their favor, and any reasonable explanation of an offence would suffice to insure its removal. I was never overfond of demerits or punishments, and therefore strenuously opposed any thing that might give me either; for instance, having plebes put next to me in ranks.

Toward the end of the year the plebes, having learned more about me and the way the corps looked upon me, became as eager to avoid me as the others. Not, however, all the plebes, for there were some who, when they saw others trying to avoid falling in next to me, would deliberately come and take their places there. These plebes, or rather yearlings now, were better disciplined, and, of course, my own scruples vanished.

During the last few months of the year no distinction was made, save by one or two high-toned ones.

When the next class of plebes were put in the battalion, the old cadets began to thrust them into the front rank next to me. At first I was indignant, but upon second thought I determined to tolerate it until I should be reported for some offence which was really an offence of the plebes. I intended to then explain the case, à priori, in my written explanation to the commandant. I knew such a course would cause a discontinuance of the practice, which was plainly malicious and contrary to regulations. Fortunately, however, for all concerned, the affair was noticed by an officer, and by him summarily discontinued. I was glad of this, for the other course would have made the cadets more unfriendly, and would have made my condition even worse than it was. Thereafter I had no further trouble with the plebes.

One day, during my yearling camp, when I happened to be on guard, a photographer, wishing a view of the guard, obtained permission to make the necessary negative. As the officer of the day desired to be “took” with the guard, he came down to the guard tents, and the guard was “turned out” for him by the sentinel. He did not wish it then, and accordingly so indicated by saluting. I was sitting on a camp-stool in the shade reading. A few minutes after the officer of the day came. I heard the corporal call out, “Fall in the guard.” I hurried for my gun, and passing near and behind the officer of the day, I heard him say to the corporal:

“Say, can t you get rid of that nigger? We don t want him in the picture.”

The corporal immediately ordered me to fetch a pail of water. As he had a perfect right to thus order me, being for the time my senior officer, I proceeded to obey. While taking the pail the officer of the day approached me and most politely asked: “Going for water, Mr. Flipper?”

I told him I was.

“That s right,” continued he; “do hurry. I’m nearly dead of thirst.”

It is simply astonishing to see how these young men can stoop when they want any thing. A cadet of the second class when I was in the third class was once arrested for a certain offence, and, from the nature of the charge, was likely to be court-martialed. His friends made preparation for his defense. As I was not ten feet from him at the time specified in the charge, my evidence would be required in the event of a trial. I was therefore visited by one of his friends. He brought paper and pencil and made a memorandum of what I had to say. The cadet himself had the limits of his arrest extended and then visited me in person. We conversed quite a while on the subject, and, as my evidence would be in his favor, I promised to give it in case he was tried. He thanked me very cordially, asked how I was getting along in my studies, expressed much regret at my being ostracized, wished me all sorts of success, and again thanking me took his leave.

There is an article in the academic regulations which provides or declares that no citizen who has been a cadet at the Military Academy can receive a commission in the regular army before the class of which he was a member graduates, unless he can get the written consent of his former classmates.

A classmate of mine resigned in the summer of 75, and about a year after endeavored to get a commission. A friend and former classmate drew up the approval, and invited the class to his “house” to sign it. When half a dozen or more had signed it, it was sent to the guard-house, and the corporal of the guard came and notified me it was there for my consideration. I went to the guard- house at once. A number of cadets were sitting or standing around in the room. As soon as I entered they became silent and remained so, expecting, no doubt, I d refuse to sign it, because of the treatment I had received at their hands. They certainly had little cause to expect that I would add my signature. Nevertheless I read the paper over and signed it without hesitation. Their anxiety was raised to the highest possible pitch, and scarcely had I left the room ere they seized the paper as if they would devour it. I heard some one who came in as I went out ask, “Did he sign it?”

Another case of condescension on the part of an upper classman occurred in the early part of my third year at the Academy, and this time in the mess hall. We were then seated at the tables by classes. Each table had a commandant, who was a cadet captain, lieutenant or sergeant, and in a few instances a corporal. At each table there was also a carver, who was generally a corporal, occasionally a sergeant or private. The other seats were occupied by privates, and usually in this order: first-classmen had first and second seats, second-classmen second and third seats, third-classmen third and fourth seats, and fourth-classmen fourth and fifth seats, which were at the foot of the table. I had a first seat, although a second-classman. For some reason a first-classman, who had a first seat at another table, desired to change seats with me. He accordingly sent a cadet for me. I went over to his room. I agreed to make the change, provided he himself obtained permission of the proper authorities. It was distinctly understood that he was to take my seat, a first seat, and I was to take his seat, also a first seat. He obtained permission of the superintendent of the mess hall, and also a written permit from the commandant. The change was made, but lo and behold! Instead of a first seat I got a third. The agreement was thus violated by him, my superior (?), and I was dissatisfied. The whole affair was explained to the commandant, not, however, by myself, but by my consent, the permit revoked, and I gained my former first seat. A tactical officer asked me, “Why did you exchange with him? Has he ever done any thing for you?”

I told him he had not, and that I did it merely to oblige him. It was immaterial to me at what table I sat, provided I had a seat consistent with the dignity of my class.

The baseness of character displayed by the gentleman, the reflection on myself and class would have evoked a complaint from me had not a classmate anticipated me by doing so himself.

This gentleman (?) was practically “cut” by the whole corps. He was spoken to, and that was about all that made his status in the corps better than mine.

Just after the semiannual examination following this adventure, another, more ridiculous still, occurred, of which I was the innocent cause. The dismissal of a number of deficient plebes and others made necessary a rearrangement of seats. The commandant saw fit to have it made according to class rank. It changed completely the former arrangement, and gave me a third seat. A classmate, who was senior to me, had the second seat. He did not choose to take it, and for two or more weeks refused to do so. I had the second seat during all this time, while he was fed in his quarters by his chum. He had a set of miniature cooking utensils in his own room, and frequently cooked there, using the gas as a source of heat. These were at last “hived,” and he was ordered to ” turn them in. He went to dinner one day when I was absent on guard. At supper he appeared again. Some one asked him how it was he was there, glancing at the same time at me. He laughed it was plainly forced and replied, “I forgot to fall out.”

He came to his meals the next day, the next, and every succeeding day regularly. Thus were his scruples overcome. His refusing to go to his meals because he had to sit next to me was strongly disapproved by the corps for two reasons, viz., that he ought to be man enough not to thrust on others what he himself disliked; and that as others for two years had had seats by me, he ought not to complain because it now fell to his lot to have one there too.

Just after my return, in September, 1875, from a furlough of two months, an incident occurred which, explained, will give some idea of the low, unprincipled manner in which some of the cadets have acted toward me. It was at cavalry drill. I was riding a horse that was by no means a favorite with us. He happened to fall to my lot that day, and I rather liked him. His greatest faults were a propensity for kicking and slight inequality in the length of his legs. We were marching in a column of fours, and at a slow walk. I turned my head for some purpose, and almost simultaneously my horse plunged headlong into the fours in front of me. It was with difficulty that I retained my seat. I supposed that when I turned my head I had accidentally spurred him, thus causing him to plunge forward. I regained my proper place in ranks.

None of this was seen by the instructor, who was riding at the head of the column. Shortly after this I noticed that those near me were laughing. I turned my head to observe the cause and caught the trooper on my left in the act of spurring my horse. I looked at him long and fiercely, while he desisted and hung his head. Not long afterwards the same thing was repeated, and this time was seen by the instructor, who happened to wheel about as my horse rushed forward. He immediately halted the column, and, approaching, asked me, “What is the matter with that horse, Mr. F.?” To which I replied, “The trooper on my left persists in kicking and spurring him, so that I can do nothing with him.”

He then caused another trooper in another set of fours to change places with me, and thereafter all went well.



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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