James Webster Smith – Henry Flipper

James Webster Smith, a native of South Carolina, was appointed to a cadetship at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1870, by the Hon. S. L. Hoge. He reported, as instructed, at the Military Academy in the early summer of 1870, and succeeded in passing the physical and intellectual examination prescribed, and was received as a “conditional cadet.” At the same time one Howard reported, but unfortunately did not succeed in “getting in.”

In complexion Smith was rather light, possibly an octoroon. Howard, on the contrary, was black. Howard had been a student at Howard University, as also had been Smith. Smith, before entering the Academy, had graduated at the Hartford High School, and was well prepared to enter upon the new course of studies at West Point.

In studies he went through the first year s course without any difficulty, but unfortunately an affaire d’honneur a “dipper fight” caused him to be put back one year in his studies. In going over this course again he stood very high in his class, but when it was finished he began going down gradually until he became a member of the last section of his class, an “immortal,” as we say, and in constant danger of being “found.”

He continued his course in this part of his class till the end of his second class year, when he was declared deficient in natural and experimental philosophy, and dismissed. At this time he had been in the Academy four years, but had been over only a three-years course, and would not have graduated until the end of the next year, June, 1875.

As to his trials and experiences while a cadet, I shall permit him to speak. The following articles embrace a series of letters written by him, after his dismissal, to the New National Era and Citizen, the political organ of the colored people, published at Washington, D. C.:

The Colored Cadet Again

Pertinent Or Impertinent Card From Cadet Smith.

“Columbia, S.C., July 27,1874.
To the Editor of the National Republican:

“Sir: I saw an article yesterday in one of our local papers, copied from the Brooklyn Argus, concerning my dismissal from the Military Academy. The article referred to closes as follows: Though he has written letters to his friends, and is quite sanguine about returning and finally graduating, the professors and cadets say there is not the slightest chance. Said a professor to a friend, the other day: “It will be a long time before any one belonging to the colored race can graduate at West Point.”

“Now, Sir, I would like to ask a few questions through the columns of your paper concerning these statements, and would be glad to have them answered by some of the knowing ones.

“In the first place, what do the professors and cadets know of my chances for getting back, and if they know any thing, how did they find it out? At an interview which I had with the Secretary of War, on the 17th instant, he stated that he went to West Point this year for a purpose, and that he was there both before and after my examination, and conversed with some of the professors concerning me. Now, did that visit and those conversations have any thing to do with the finding of the Academic Board? Did they have any thing to do with that wonderful wisdom and foresight displayed by the professors and cadets in commenting upon my chances for getting back? Why should the Secretary of War go to West Point this year for a purpose, and converse with the professors about me both before and after the examination? Besides, he spoke of an interview he had had with Colonel Ruger, Superintendent of the Academy, in New York, on Sunday, the 12th instant, in reference to me; during which Colonel Ruger had said that the Academic Board would not recommend me to return. Is it very wonderful that the Academic Board should refuse such recommendation after those very interesting conversations which were held both before and after the recommendation? Why was the secretary away from West Point at the time of the examination.

“In the next place, by what divine power does that learned oracle, a professor, prophesy that it will be a long time before any one belonging to the colored race can graduate at West Point? It seems that he must have a wonderful knowledge of the Negro that he can tell the abilities of all the colored boys in America. But it is possible that he is one of the younger professors, perhaps the professor of philosophy, and therefore expects to live and preside over that department for a long time, though to the unsophisticated mind it looks very much as though he would examine a colored cadet on the color of his face.

“I think he could express himself better and come much nearer the truth by substituting shall for can in that sentence. Of course, while affairs remain at West Point as they have always been, and are now, no colored boy will graduate there; but there are some of us who are sanguine about seeing a change, even if we can t get back.

“J. W. Smith, “Late Cadet U.S.M.A.”

The Dipper Difficulty

“Columbia, S.C., July 30, 1874.
To the Editor of the New National Era:

As I told you in my last communication, I shall now proceed to give you an account of my four years stay at West Point.

“I reported there on the 31st of May, 1870, and had not been there an hour before I had been reminded by several thoughtful cadets that I was nothing but a d d nigger. Another colored boy, Howard, of Mississippi, reported on the same day, and we were put in the same room, where we stayed until the preliminary examination was over, and Howard was sent away, as he failed to pass.

“While we were there we could not meet a cadet anywhere without having the most opprobrious epithets applied to us; but after complaining two or three times, we concluded to pay no attention to such things, for, as we did not know these cadets, we could get no satisfaction.

“One night about twelve o clock some one came into our room, and threw the contents of his slop pail over us while we were asleep. We got to our door just in time to hear the gentleman go into his room on the floor above us. This affair reported itself the next morning at Police Inspection, and the inspector ordered us to search among the tobacco quids, and other rubbish on the floor, for something by which we might identify the perpetrator of the affair. The search resulted in the finding of an old envelope, addressed to one McCord, of Kentucky. That young gentleman was questioned in reference, but succeeded in convincing the authorities that he had nothing to do with the affair and knew nothing of it.

“A few days after that, Howard was struck in the face by that young gentleman, because, as he says, the d d nigger didn t get out of the way when I was going into the boot black s shop. For that offence Mr. McCord was confined to his room, but was never punished, as in a few days thereafter he failed at the preliminary examination, and was sent away with all the other unfortunates, including Howard.

“On the 28th of June, 1870, those of us who had succeeded in passing the preliminary examination were taken in plebe camp, and there I got my taste of military discipline, as the petty persecutions of about two hundred cadets were called. Left alone as I was, by Howard s failure, I had to take every insult that was offered, without saying any thing, for I had complained several times to the Commandant of Cadets, and, after investigating the matter, he invariably came to the conclusion, from the evidence deduced, that I was in the wrong, and I was cautioned that I had better be very particular about any statements that I might make, as the regulations were very strict on the subject of veracity.

“Whenever the plebes (new cadets) were turned out to police camp, as they were each day at 5 A.M. and 4 P.M., certain cadets would come into the company street and spit out quids of tobacco which they would call for me to pick up. I would get a broom and shovel for the purpose, but they would immediately begin swearing at and abusing me for not using my fingers, and then the corporal of police would order me to put down that broom and shovel, and not to try to play the gentleman here, for my fingers were made for that purpose. Finding there was no redress to be had there, I wrote my friend Mr. David Clark, of Hartford, Ct., to do something for me. He had my letter published, and that drew the attention of Congress to the matter, and a board was sent to West Point to inquire into the matter and report thereon. That board found out that several cadets were guilty of conduct unbecoming a cadet and a gentleman and recommended that they be court-martialled, but the Secretary of War thought a reprimand would be sufficient. Among those reprimanded were Q. O M. Gillmore, son of General Gillmore; Alex. B. Dyer, son of General Dyer; and James H. Reid, nephew of the Secretary of War (it is said). I was also reprimanded for writing letters for publication.

“Instead of doing good, these reprimands seemed only to increase the enmity of the cadets, and they redoubled their energies to get me into difficulty, and they went on from bad to worse, until from words they came to blows, and then occurred that little unpleasantness known as the dipper fight. On the 13th of August, 1870, I, being on guard, was sent to the tank for a pail of water. I had to go a distance of about one hundred and fifty yards, fill the pail by drawing water from the faucet in a dipper (the faucet was too low to permit the pail to stand under it), and return to the guard tent in ten minutes. When I reached the tank, one of my classmates, J. W. Wilson, was standing in front of the faucet drinking water from a dipper. He didn’t seem inclined to move, so I asked him to stand aside as I wanted to get water for the guard. He said: I d like to see any d d nigger get water before I get through. I said: I’m on duty, and I’ve got no time to fool with you, and I pushed the pail toward the faucet. He kicked the pail over, and I set it up and stooped down to draw the water, and then he struck at me with his dipper, but hit the brass plate on the front of my hat and broke his dipper. I was stooping down at the time, but I stood up and struck him in the face with my left fist; but in getting up I did not think of a tent fly that was spread over the tank, and that pulled my hat down over my eyes. He then struck me in the face with the handle of his dipper (he broke his dipper at the first blow), and then I struck him two or three times with my dipper, battering it, and cutting him very severely on the left side of his head near the temple. He bled very profusely, and fell on the ground near the tank.

“The alarm soon spread through the camp, and all the cadets came running to the tank and swearing vengeance on the d d nigger.

“An officer who was in his tent near by came out and ordered me to be put under guard in one of the guard tents, where I was kept until next morning, when I was put in arrest. Wilson was taken to the hospital, where he stayed two or three weeks, and as soon as he returned to duty he was also placed in arrest. This was made the subject for a court-martial, and that court-martial will form the subject of my next communication.

Yours respectfully,
“J. W. Smith,
“Late Cadet U.S.M.A.”

The Injustice At West Point

“Columbia, S.C., August 7, 1874.
To the Editor of the New National Era:

“Sir: In my last communication I related the circumstances of the dipper fight, and now we come to the court-martial which resulted there from.

“But there was another charge upon which I was tried at the same time, the circumstances of which I will detail.

“On the 15th of August, 1870, just two days after the dipper fight, Cadet Corporal Beacom made a report against me for replying in a disrespectful manner to a file closer when spoken to at drill, P.M. For this alleged offence I wrote an explanation denying the charge; but Cadet Beacom found three cadets who swore that they heard me make a disrespectful reply in ranks when Cadet Beacom, as a file closer on duty, spoke to me, and the Commandant of Cadets, Lieutenant Colonel Upton, preferred charges against me for making false statements.

“The court to try me sat in September, with General O. O. Howard as President. I plead not guilty to the charge of assault on Cadet Wilson, and also to the charge of making false statements.

“The court found both Cadet Wilson and myself guilty of assault, and sentenced us to be confined for two or three weeks, with some other light punishment in the form of extra duty.

The finding of the court was approved by President Grant in the case of Cadet Wilson, but disapproved in my case, on the ground that the punishment was not severe enough. Therefore, Cadet W. served his punishment and I did not serve mine, as there was no authority vested in the President to increase it.

“On the second charge I was acquitted, for I proved, by means of the order book of the Academy that there was no company drill on that day the 15th of August that there was skirmish drill, and by the guard reports of the same date, that Cadet Beacom and two of his three witnesses were on guard that day, and could not have been at drill, even if there had been one. To some it might appear that the slight inconsistencies existing between the sworn testimony of those cadets and the official record of the Academy, savored somewhat of perjury, but they succeeded in explaining the matter by saying that Cadet Beacom only made a mistake in date. Of course he did; how could it be otherwise? It was necessary to explain it in some way so that I might be proved a liar to the corps of cadets, even if they failed to accomplish that object to the satisfaction of the court.

“I was released in November, after the proceedings and findings of the court had been returned from Washington, where they had been sent for the approval of the President, having been in arrest for three months. But I was not destined to enjoy my liberty for any length of time, for on the 13th of December, same year, I was in the ranks of the guard, and was stepped on two or three times by Cadet Anderson, one of my classmates, who was marching beside me.

“As I had had some trouble with the same cadet some time before, on account of the same thing I believed that he was doing it intentionally, and as it was very annoying, I spoke to him about it, saying: “I wish you would not tread on my toes. He answered: Keep your d d toes out of the way. Cadet Birney, who was standing near by, then made some invidious remarks about me, to which I did not condescend to reply. One of the Cadet Corporals, Bailey, reported me for inattention in ranks, and in my written explanation of the offence, I detailed the circumstances, but both Birney and Anderson denied them, and the Commandant of Cadets took their statement in preference to mine, and preferred charges against me for falsehood.

“I was court martialled in January, 1871, Captain Piper, Third Artillery, being President of the court. By this court I was found I guilty, as I had no witnesses, and had nothing to expect from the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution. Cadet Corporal Bailey, who made the report, Cadets Birney and Anderson were the witnesses who convicted me; in fact they were the only witnesses summoned to testify in the case. The sentence of the court was that I should be dismissed, but it was changed to one year s suspension, or, since the year was almost gone before the finding of the court was returned from Washington, where it was sent for the approval of President Grant, I was put back one year.

“I had no counsel at this trial, as I knew it would be useless, considering the one sided condition of affairs. I was allowed to make the following written statement of the affair to be placed among the records of the proceedings of the court:

” May it please the court: I stand here today charged with a most disgraceful act one which not only affects my character, but will, if I am found guilty, affect it during my whole life and I shall attempt, in as few words as possible, to show that I am as innocent as any person in this room. I was reported on the 18th of December, 1870, for a very trivial offence. For this offence I submitted an explanation to the Commandant of Cadets. In explanation I stated the real cause of committing the offence for which I was reported. But this cause, as stated, involved another cadet, who, finding himself charged with an act for which he was liable to punishment, denies all knowledge of it. He tries to establish his denial by giving evidence which I shall attempt to prove absurd. On the morning of the 13th of December, 1870, at guard mounting, after the new guard had marched past the old guard, and the command of “Twos left, halt!” had been given, the new guard was about two or three yards to the front and right of the old guard. Then the command of “Left backward, dress,” was given to the new guard, “Order arms, in place rest.” I then turned around to Cadet Anderson, and said to him, “I wish you would not tread on my toes.” This was said in a moderate tone, quite loud enough for him to hear. He replied, as I understood, ” Keep your d-d toes out of the way.” I said nothing more, and he said nothing more. I then heard Cadet Birney say to another cadet I don t know who it was standing by his side, “It (or the thing) is speaking to Mr. Anderson. If he were to speak to me I would knock him down.” I heard him distinctly, but as I knew that he was interfering in an affair that did not concern him, I took no further notice of him, but turned around to my original position in the ranks. What was said subsequently I do not know, for I paid no further attention to either party. I heard nothing said at any time about taking my eyes away, or of Cadet Anderson compromising his dignity. Having thus reviewed the circumstances which gave rise to the charge, may it please the court, I wish to say a word as to the witnesses. Each of these cadets testifies to the fact that they have discussed the case in every particular, both with each other and with other cadets. That is, they have found out each other s views and feelings in respect to it, compared the evidence which each should give, the probable result of the trial; and one has even testified that he has expressed a desire as to the result. Think you that Cadet Birney, with such a desire in his breast, influencing his every thought and word, with such an end in view, could give evidence unbiassed, unprejudiced, and free from that desire that “Cadet Smith might be sent away and proved a liar?” Think you that he could give evidence which should be “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God?” It seems impossible for me to have justice done me by the evidence of such witnesses, but I will leave that for the court to decide. There is another question here which must be answered by the finding of the court. It is this: “Shall Cadet Smith be allowed to complain to the Commandant of Cadets when he considers himself unjustly dealt with?” When the court takes notice of the fact that this charge and these specifications are the result of a complaint made by me, it will agree with me as to the importance its findings will have in answering that question. As to what the finding will be, I can say nothing; but if the court is convinced that I have lied, then I shall expect a finding and sentence in accordance with such conviction. A lie is as disgraceful to one man as another, be he white or black, and I say here, as I said to the Commandant of Cadets, “If I were guilty of falsehood, I should merit and expect the same punishment as any other cadet;” but, as I said before, I am as innocent of this charge as any person in this room. The verdict of an infallible judge conscience is, “Not guilty,” and that is the finding I ask of this court.

“Respectfully submitted.
(Signed) ” J. W. Smith,
” Cadet U.S.M.A.

Thus ended my second and last court martial.

Yours respectfully,
J. W. Smith,
“Late Cadet U.S.M.A.”

The Honor of a Cadet and Gentleman.To the Editor of the New National Era:

“Sir: In relating the events of my first year at West Point, I omitted one little affair which took place, and I will now relate the circumstances. One Sunday, at dinner, I helped myself to some soup, and one cadet, Clark, of Kentucky, who sat opposite me at table, asked me what I meant by taking soup before he had done so. I told him that I took it because I wished it, and that there was a plenty left. He seemed to be insulted at that, and asked: Do you think I would eat after a d d Nigger? I replied: I have not thought at all on the subject, and, moreover, I don t quite understand you, as I can t find that last word in the dictionary. He then took up a glass and said he would knock my head off. I told him to throw as soon as he pleased, and as soon as he got through I would throw mine. The commandant of the table here interfered and ordered us to stop creating a disturbance at the table, and gave me to understand that thereafter I should not touch any thing on that table until the white cadets were served.

“When we came back from dinner, as I was going into my room, Cadet Clark struck at me from behind. He hit me on the back of my neck, causing me to get into my room with a little more haste than I anticipated, but he did not knock me down. He came into my room, following up his advantage, and attempted to take me by the throat, but he only succeeded in scratching me a little with his nails, as I defended myself as well as possible until I succeeded in getting near my bayonet, which I snatched from the scabbard and then tried to put it through him. But being much larger and stronger than I, he kept me off until he got to the door, but then he couldn’t get out, for some one was holding the door on the outside, for the purpose, I suppose, of preventing my escape, as no doubt they thought I would try to get out. There were a great many cadets outside on the stoop, looking through the window, and cheering their champion, with cries of That s right, Clark; kill the d d nigger, Choke him, Put a head on him, etc., but when they saw him giving way before the bayonet, they cried, Open the door, boys, and the door was opened, and Mr. Clark went forth to rejoice in the bosom of his friends as the hero of the day. The cadet officer of the day happened around just after Clark had left, and wanted to know what did I mean by making all that noise in and around my quarters. I told him what the trouble was about, and soon after I was sent for by the officer in charge, and questioned in reference to the affair. Charges were preferred against Clark for entering my room and assaulting me, but before they were brought to trial he sent two of his friends tome asking if I would withdraw the charges providing he made a written apology. I told these cadets that I would think of the matter and give them a definite answer the next evening.

“I was perfectly well satisfied that he would be convicted by any court that tried him; but the cadets could easily prove (according to their way of giving evidence) that I provoked the assault, and I, besides, was utterly disgusted with so much wrangling, so when the cadets called that evening I told them that if his written apology was satisfactory I would sign it, submit it to the approval of the Commandant of Cadets, and have the charges withdrawn.

“They then showed me the written apology offered by Clark, in which he stated that his offence was caused by passion, because he thought that when I passed him on the steps in going to my room I tried to brush against him. He also expressed his regret for what he had done, and asked forgiveness. I was satisfied with his apology, and signed it, asking that the charges be withdrawn, which was done, of course, and Clark was released from arrest. I will, in justice to Cadet Clark, state that I never had any further trouble with him, for, while he kept aloof from me, as the other cadets did, he always thereafter acted perfectly fair by me whenever I had any official relations with him.

“A few days after the settlement of our dispute I found, on my return from fencing one day, that some one had entered my room and had thrown all my clothes and other property around the floor, and had thrown the water out of my water pail upon my bed. I immediately went to the guard house and reported the affair to the officer of the day, who, with the officer in charge, came to my room to see what had been done. The officer of the day said that he had inspected my quarters soon after I went to the Fencing Academy and found everything in order, and that it must have been done within a half hour. The Commandant of the Cadets made an investigation of the matter, but could not find out what young gentleman did it, for every cadet stated that he knew nothing of it, although the corps of cadets has the reputation of being a truthful set of young men.

” Upon my honor as a cadet and a gentleman, ” is a favorite expression with the West Point cadet; but what kind of honor is that by which a young man can quiet his conscience while telling a base falsehood for the purpose of shielding a fellow student from punishment for a disgraceful act? They boast of the esprit de corps existing among the cadets; but it is merely a cloak for the purpose of covering up their iniquities and silencing those (for there are some) who would, if allowed to act according to the dictates of their own consciences, be above such disgraceful acts. Some persons might attribute to me the same motives that actuated the fox in crying sour grapes, and to such I will say that I never asked for social equality at West Point. I never visited the quarters of any professor, official, or cadet except on duty, for I did not wish any one to think that I was in any way desirous of social recognition by those who felt themselves superior to me on account of color. As I was never recognized as a cadet and a gentleman, I could not enjoy that blessed privilege of swearing upon my honor, boasting of my share in the esprit de corps, nor of concealing my sins by taking advantage of them. Still, I hope that what I lost (?) by being deprived of these little benefits will be compensated for the still small voice, which tells me that I have done my best.

“Yours respectfully,

“J. W. Smith,
“Late Cadet U.S.M.A.”




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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