The Secrecy of Hazing – Henry Flipper

Notwithstanding the secrecy of hazing, and the great care which those who practiced it took to prevent being “hived,” they sometimes overreached themselves and were severely punished. Cases have occurred where cadets have been dismissed for hazing, while others have been less severely punished.

Sometimes, also, the joke, if I may so call it, has been turned upon the perpetrators to their utter discomfort. I will cite an instance.

Quite often in camp two robust plebes are selected and ordered to report at a specified tent just after the battalion returns from supper. When they report each is provided with a pillow. They take their places in the middle of the company street, and at a given signal commence pounding each other. A crowd assembles from all parts of camp to witness the “pillow fight,” as it is called. Sometimes, also, after fighting awhile, the combatants are permitted to rest, and another set continues the fight.

On one of these occasions, after fighting quite a while, a pillow bursted, and one of the antagonists was literally buried in feathers. At this a shout of laughter arose and the fun was complete. But alas for such pleasures! An officer in his tent, disturbed by the noise, came out to find its cause. He saw it at a glance, aided no doubt by vivid recollections of his own experience in his plebe camp. He called an orderly and sent for the cadet captain of the company. When he came he was ordered to send the plebes he said new cadets to their tents, and order them to remain there till permission was given to leave them. He then had every man, not a plebe, who had been present at the pillow fight turned out. When this was done he ordered them to pick up every feather within half an hour, and the captain to inspect at the end of that time and to see that the order was obeyed. Thus, therefore, the plebes got the better part of the joke.

It was rumored in camp one day that the superintendent and commandant were both absent from the post, and that the senior tactical officer was therefore acting superintendent. A plebe sentinel on Post No. 1, seeing him approaching camp, and not knowing under the circumstances how to act, or rather, perhaps, I should say, not knowing whether the report was true or not, called a corporal, and asked if he should salute this officer with “present arms.” To this question that dignitary replied with righteous horror, “Salute him with present arms! No, sir! You stand at attention, and when he gets on your post shout, Hosannah to the supe! This rather startled the plebe, who found himself more confused than ever. When it was about time for the sentinel to do something the corporal told him what to do, and returned to the guard tents. The officer was at the time the commanding officer of the camp.

While walking down Sixth Avenue, New York, with a young lady, on a beautiful Sabbath afternoon in the summer of 1875, I was paid a high compliment by an old colored soldier. He had lost one leg and had been otherwise maimed for life in the great struggle of 1861-65 for the preservation of the Union. As soon as he saw me approaching he moved to the outside of the pavement and assumed as well as possible the position of the soldier. When I was about six paces from him he brought his crutch to the position of “present arms,” in a soldierly manner, in salute to me. I raised my cap as I passed, endeavoring to be as polite as possible, both in return for his salute and because of his age. He took the position of “carry arms,” saying as he did so, “That s right! that s right! Makes me glad to see it.”

We passed on, while he, too, resumed his course, ejaculating something about “good breeding,” etc., all of which we did not hear.

Upon inquiry I learned, as stated, that he had served in the Federal army. He had given his time and energy, even at the risk of his life, to his country. He had lost one limb, and been maimed otherwise for life. I considered the salute for that reason a greater honor.

During the summer of 1873 a number of cadets, who were on furlough, visited Mammoth Cave. While there they noticed on the wall, written in pencil, the name of an officer who was an instructor in Spanish at West Point. One of them took occasion to add to the inscription the following bit of information:

“Known at the U. S. Military Academy as the Spanish Inquisition. ”

A number of cadets accosted a plebe, who had just reported in May, 1874, and the following conversation ensued:

“Well, mister, what s your name?”

“John Walden.”

“Sir!” yelled rather than spoken.

“John Walden.”

“Well, sir, I want to see you put a sir on it,” with another yell.

“Sir John Walden,” was the unconcerned rejoinder.

Now it was not expected that the “sir” would be put before the name after the manner of a title, but this impenetrable plebe put it there, and in so solemn and “don t care” a manner that the cadets turned away in a roar of laughter.

Ever afterward he was known in the corps as “Sir John.”

Another incident, even more laughable perhaps than the preceding, occurred between a cadet and plebe, which doubtless saved the plebe from further hazing. Approaching him with a look of utter contempt on his face, the cadet asked him:

“Well, thing, what s your name?”

“Wilreni, sir,” meekly responded he.

“Wilreni, sir!” repeated the cadet slowly, and bowing his head he seemed for a moment buried in profoundest thought. Suddenly brightening up, he rejoined in the most unconcerned manner possible: “Oh! yes, yes, I remember now. You are Will Reni, the son of old man Bill Reni,” put particular stress on “Will” and “Bill.”

I think, though, the most laughable incident that has come under my notice was that of a certain plebe who made himself famous for gourmandizing.

Each night throughout the summer encampment, the guard is supplied from the mess hall with an abundance of sandwiches. The old cadets rarely eat them, but to the plebes, as yet unaccustomed to guard duty, they are quite a treat.

On one occasion when the sandwiches were unusually well prepared, and therefore unusually inviting, it was desirable to preserve them till late in the night, till after the guard had been turned out and inspected by the officer of the day. They were accordingly to conceal them from the plebes transferred, with the vessel containing them, to one of the chests of a caisson of the light battery, just in front of camp in park. Here they were supposed to be safe. But alas for such safety! At an hour not far advanced into the night, two plebes, led by an unerring instinctiveness, discovered the hiding place of the sandwiches and devoured them all.

Now when the hour of feasting was come, a corporal was dispatched for the dainty dish, when, lo, and behold! it had vanished. The plebes for who else could thus have secretly devoured them were brought to account and the guilty ones discovered. They were severely censured in that contemptuous manner in which only a cadet, an upper classman, can censure a plebe, and threatened with hazing and all sorts of unpleasantness.

Next morning they were called forth and marched ingloriously to the presence of the commandant. Upon learning the object of the visit he turned to the chief criminal the finder of the sandwiches and asked him, “Why did you eat all the sandwiches, Mr. S ?”

“I didn’t eat them all up, sir. I ate only fifteen,” was his ready reply.

The gravity of the occasion, coupled with the enormity of the feast, was too much, and the commandant turned away his head to conceal the laughter he could not withhold. The plebe himself was rather short and fleshy, and the picture of mirth. Indeed to see him walking even along the company street was enough to call forth laughter either at him as he waddled along or at the humorous remarks the act called forth from on looking cadets.

He was confined to one of the guard tents by order of the commandant, and directed by him to submit a written explanation for eating all the sandwiches of the guard. The explanation was unsatisfactory, and the gentleman received some other light punishment, the nature of which has at this late day escaped my memory.

The other plebe, being only a particeps criminis, was not so severely punished. A reprimand, I think, was the extent of his punishment.

The two gentlemen have long since gone where the “woodbine twineth” that is, been found deficient in studies and dismissed.

There was a cadet in the corps who had a wonderful propensity for using the word “mighty.”

With him everything was “mighty.” I honestly do not believe I ever heard him conversing when he did not use “mighty.”

Speaking of me one day, and unconscious of my presence, he said, “I tell you he does mighty well.”

During drill at the siege battery on the 25th of April, 1876, an accident occurred which came near proving fatal to one of us. I had myself just fired an 8 inch howitzer, and gone to the rear to observe the effect of the other shots. One piece had been fired, and the command for the next to fire had been given. I was watching intently the target when I was startled by the cry of some one near me, “Look out! look out!” I turned my eyes instinctively toward the piece just fired, but saw only smoke. I then looked up and saw a huge black body of some kind moving rapidly over our heads. It was not until the smoke had nearly disappeared that I knew what was the cause of the disturbance. A number of cannoneers and our instructor were vociferously asking, “Anybody hurt? Anybody hurt?” We all moved up to the piece, and, finding no one was injured, examined it. The piece, a 41/2 inch rifle, mounted on a siege carriage, had broken obliquely from the trunnions downward and to the rear. The re-enforce thus severed from the chase broke into three parts, the nob of the cascabel, and the other portion split in the direction of the bore. The right half of the re-enforce, together with the nob of the cascabel, were projected into the air, describing a curve over our heads, and falling at about twenty feet from the right of the battery, having passed over a horizontal distance of about sixty or seventy feet. The left half was thrown obliquely to the ground, tearing away in its passage the left cheek of the carriage, and breaking the left trunnion plate. A cannoneer was standing on the platform of the next piece on the left with the lanyard in his hand. His feet were on two adjacent deck planks, his heels being on line with the edge of the platform. These two planks were struck upon their ends, and moved bodily, with the cadet upon them, three or four inches from their proper place. The bolts that held them and the adjacent planks together were broken, while not the slightest injury was done the cadet.

It was hardly to be believed, and was not until two or three of the other cannoneers had examined him and found him really uninjured. It was simply miraculous. The instructor sent the cannoneers to the rear, and fired the next gun himself.

After securing the pieces and replacing equipments, we were permitted to again examine the bursted gun, after which the battery was dismissed.

There had been some difficulty in loading the piece, especially in getting the projectile home. It was supposed that this not being done properly caused the bursting.

I was one summer day enjoying a walk on “Flirtation.” I was alone, and, if I remember aright, “on Old Guard privileges.” Walking leisurely along I soon observed in front of me a number of young ladies, a servant girl, and several small children.

They were all busily occupied in gathering wild flowers, a kind of moss and ferns which grow here in abundance. I was first seen by one of the children, a little girl. She instantly fixed her eyes upon me, and began vociferating in a most joyous manner, “The colored cadet! the colored cadet! I’m going to tell mamma I’ve seen the colored cadet.”

The servant girl endeavored to quiet her, but she continued as gayly as ever:

“It s the colored cadet! I’m going to tell mamma. I’m going to tell mamma I’ve seen the colored cadet.”

All the others stopped gathering flowers, and watched me till I was out of sight.

A similar display of astonishment has occurred at every annual examination since I became a cadet, and on these occasions the ladies more than anybody else have been the ones to show it.

Whenever I took my place on the floor to receive my enunciation or to be questioned, I have observed whisperings, often audible, and gestures of surprise among the lady visitors. I have frequently heard such exclamations as this: “Oh! there s the colored cadet! there s the colored cadet!”

All of this naturally tended to confuse me, and it was only by determined effort that I maintained any degree of coolness. Of course they did not intend to confuse me. Nothing was, I dare say, further from their thoughts. But they were women; and it never occurs to a woman to think before she speaks.

It was rather laughable to hear a cadet, who was expounding the theory of twilight, say, pointing to his figure on the blackboard: “If a spectator should cross this limit of the crepuscular zone he would enter into final darkness.”

Now “final darkness,” as we usually understand it, refers to something having no resemblance whatever to the characteristics of the crepuscular zone.

The solemn manner in which he spoke it, together with their true significations, made the circumstance quite laughable.

The most ludicrous case of hazing I know of is, I think, the following:

For an unusual display of grossness a number of plebes were ordered by the cadet lieutenant on duty over them to report at his “house” at a specified hour. They duly reported their presence, and were directed to assume the position of the soldier, facing the wall until released. After silently watching them for a considerable time, the lieutenant, who had a remarkable penchant for joking, called two of them into the middle of the room. He caused them to stand dos à dos, at a distance of about one foot from each other, and then bursting into a laugh, which he vainly endeavored to suppress, he commanded, “Second, exercise!”

Now to execute this movement the hands are extended vertically over the head and the hands joined. At the command “Two!” given when this is done, the arms are brought briskly forward and downward until the hands touch if possible the ground or floor. The plebes having gone through the first motion, the lieutenant thus cautioned them:

“When I say Two! I want to see you men come down with life, and touch the floor. Two!”

At the command they both quickly, and “with life” brought their bodies forward and their arms downward; nay, they but attempted, for scarcely had they left the vertical ere their bodies collided, and they were each hurled impetuously, by the inevitable reaction in opposite directions, over a distance of several feet.

Their bodies being in an inclined position when struck, and the blow being of great force, they were necessarily forced still further from the erect attitude, and were with much difficulty able to keep themselves from falling outright on the floor. Of course all present, save those concerned, enjoyed it immensely. Indeed it was enjoyable. Even the plebes themselves had a hearty laugh over it when they were dismissed.

Again a cadet lieutenant, who was on duty at the time over the “Seps,” ordered a number of them to report at his “house” at a given hour. They had been unusually gross, and he intended to punish them by keeping them standing in his quarters. They reported, and were put in position to serve their punishment. For some reason the lieutenant left the room, when one of the “Seps” faced to the others and thus spoke to them:

“Say, boys, let s kick up the devil. P has gone out.”

Now it so happened that P s chum was present, but in his alcove, and this was not known to the Seps. When the Sep had finished speaking, this chum came forth and “went for” him. He made the Sep assume the soldier s position, and then commanded, “Second, exercise!” which command the Sep proceeded to obey.

Another cadet coming in found him vigorously at it, and queried, “Well, mister, what s all that for?”

“Eccentricity of Mr. M , sir,” he promptly replied.

The word eccentricity was not interpreted by the cadet, of course, as the Sep meant it should be, but in the sense we use it when we speak of the eccentricity of an orbit for instance.

Hence it was that Mr. M asked, “Well, sir, what s the expression for my eccentricity?”

There is another incident remotely connected with my first tour of guard duty which may be mentioned here.

At about eleven o clock A.M., in obedience to a then recent order, my junior reported at the observatory to make the necessary observations for finding the error of the Tower clock. After an elaborate explanation by an officer then present upon the graduation of the vernier and the manner of reading it, the cadet set the finders so as to read the north polar distance of the sun for that day at West Point apparent noon. When it was about time for the sun s limb to begin its transit of the wires, the cadet took position to observe it. The instructor was standing ready to record the times of transit over each wire. Time was rapidly passing, and not yet had the cadet called out “Ready.” The anxious instructor cautiously queried:

“Do you see any light, Mr. P ?,”

“No, sir.”

“Can you see the wires?”

“No, sir, not yet.”

“Any light yet, Mr. P ?”

“Yes, sir, it is getting brighter.”

“Can you see the wires at all?”

“No, Sir; it keeps getting brighter, but I can t see the wires yet.”

Fearing he might be unable to make his observations that day unless the difficulty was speedily removed, the instructor himself took position at the transit, and made the ridiculous discovery that the cap had not been removed from the farther end of the telescope, and yet it kept getting brighter.

One day in the early summer of 1875, a cadet was showing a young lady the various sights and wonders at West Point, when they came across an old French cannon bearing this inscription, viz., “Charles de Bourbon, Compte d Eu, ultima ratio regum.”

She was the first to notice it, and astonished the cadet with the following rendition of it:

“I suppose that means Charles Bourbon made the gun, and the Spanish (?) that the artilleryman must have his rations.”

What innocence! Or shall I say, what ignorance?

“The authorities of West Point have entered an interdict against the cadets loaning their sashes and other military adornments to young ladies, and great is the force of feminine indignation.” Summer of 1873.

Come Kiss Me, Love

A young lieutenant at the Academy and his fiancée were seen by an old maid at the hotel to kiss each other. At the first opportunity she reproved the fair damsel for, to her, such unmaidenly conduct. With righteous indignation she repelled the reproof as follows:

“Not let S kiss me! Why, I should die!” Then lovingly,

“Come kiss me, love, list not what they say,
Their passions are cold, wasted away.
They know not how two hearts like ours are
Long to mingle i the sweetness o the kiss,
That like the soft light of a heavenly star,
As it wanders from its world to this,
Diffuses itself through ev’ry vein
And meets on the lips to melt again.”



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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