Henry Ossian Flipper was born March 21, 1856 to Festus Flipper (1832 – 1918) and Isabella Buckhalter Flipper (1837 – 1887) in Thomasville, Georga, both of mixed race. Accordingly, he was born a slave. In the 1870 census, Festus was shown to be a cobbler or shoemaker. Henry entered Atlanta University, a historically Black college, in 1873. While still a freshman there, he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, said to be the the fifth such appointment of a person of African American descent. Though his time at West Point was difficult due to prejudice, he graduated in 1877 as a 2nd Lieutenant. Accordingly, Flipper was the first African American graduate of West Point and the first African American commissioned officer in the United States Army.
The following year, Flipper was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Battalion at Fort Sill, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). In 1880, his 10th Cavalry headed west to its posting at Fort Davis along with the 24th Infantry, both of which units were part of the four (two infantry and two cavalry) battalions of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers. These units were formed after the Civil War comprised primarily of African American troops and Anglo officers, with few exceptions. While with the 10th Cavalry, Flipper saw duty at several Texas forts including Elliott, Concho and Quitman in addition to Fort Davis. He was responsible for several successful engineering accomplishments and served in military capacities in other action with the 10th Cavalry.
At Fort Davis, Flipper served as quartermaster. Shortly after Colonel William Shafter arrived and began serving as commander of Fort Davis, a shortage was discovered in commissary funds in the amount of $3,791.71 and Flipper was accused of being responsible for it. In a controversial decision, Shafter brought Flipper up on charges including embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer. To a layman, the former charge is possibly more understandable than the latter.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, prosecutors must prove two elements under Article 133 to convict a service member of conduct unbecoming an officer or gentleman, that the individual accused either did commit or omitted to perform certain acts, and that, under the circumstances, these acts or omissions constituted conduct unbecoming an officer or gentleman. In 1881 a court-martial was held the result of which was the acquittal of Flipper on the count of the accused embezzlement, but a conviction on the count of conduct unbecoming of an officer. Flipper was dishonorably discharged from the Army in the summer of 1882.
Flipper remained in Texas for a number of years after his discharge from the Army. He initially worked as a surveyor in various capacities for a Texas company. In the late 1880s, he relocated to Arizona where he ran a civil and mining engineering firm. Flipper went on to use his engineering and language gifts while working for the United States Justice Department and in private business, generally living in the southwest. He continued to fight to restore and clear his Army record but was unsuccessful in doing so during his lifetime.
Flipper died in 1940 of a heart attack at the age of 84, without having success in clearing his military record. No record can be found that he was married and had a family, but other family members appear to have supported a review of his case and in 1976, the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records. The Board concluded that Flipper was excessively punished and awarded him a posthumous honorable discharge. President Bill Clinton granted him a full pardon in 1999.
Flipper was initially buried in Atlanta, but in 1984, his remains were reinterred in the family plot in Thomasville, Georgia where he was born.
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