A Black Cadet At West Point

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Finally, Swain said, the prosecution had in no way proved that Whittaker had written the note of warning or that he had mutilated himself. “I am unable to see from the evidence…such material variances from Whittaker’s own version of the transaction as to remove from him the presumption of innocence.…On the whole my conclusion is that the prosecution has fallen short of sustaining the charges and specifications by adequate legal proofs, or such as would be sufficient in law to justify a jury in uniting in a conviction, and that the proceeding, findings and sentence should be, therefore, disapproved.”

This report was studied for the next several months. The Secretary of War asked the Attorney General for advice concerning the admissibility of Whittaker’s letters in the court-martial and was told that it was commonlaw and Supreme Court ruling that the letters should not have been admitted, and therefore the case was void.

On March 22, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur ruled that Whittaker should be released from arrest because the court-martial had improperly admitted his letters. Whittaker’s trial had been invalid, and his sentence was therefore void. In essence, this meant that Whittaker should be returned to West Point. That same day, however, he was separated from the Academy because of deficiency in the June, 1880, examinations. He therefore never went back, and quickly dropped from public view.

Such, then, is the case of Cadet Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, the only black cadet attending West Point in 1880. It is a curious fact that it has been almost entirely ignored in standard histories of the period. Two recent histories of West Point fail to give a full account of the episode and do nothing to rescue Whittaker’s reputation. Professor Stephen Ambrose, in Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (1966), states categorically that Whittaker had indeed mutilated himself and commiserates with General Schofield for having befriended a Negro cadet who then turned on him. Thomas J. Fleming, in West Point: The Men and Times of the United States Military Academy (1969), goes into some detail on the court of inquiry, but says nothing of the subsequent court-martial. “Any fair-minded examination of the case,” Fleming says, “would find the evidence heavily against him [Whittaker].” Still, Fleming concludes that “the definitive truth will probably never be known.”

The record, however, speaks for itself, and tells volumes about the long struggle of the American Negro against the bias, conscious and unconscious, of his white fellow citizens.