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A Black Cadet At West Point
One morning Cadet Johnson Whittaker was found battered and bleeding, trussed to his barracks bed. Who had done it, and why?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Someone said: “Let’s mark him as we mark hogs down South.” The other two agreed, and Whittaker was pushed to the floor and his feet were tied. He tried to kick but was warned: “Don’t you kick or I will cut you.” The speaker proceeded to slash Whittaker’s ear lobes with a knife, cutting off a tip of his left ear. Whittaker threw up his hands to prevent this mutilation and received the cut on his left hand. Then one of the men cut his hair with a pair of scissors, gouging out big hunks of it with each snip.
Whittaker continued to struggle through all this, whereupon his hands were tied tightly in front of his body. One of the three men then picked up a small hand mirror and forced the captive to look at himself. Next he was struck in the forehead with the mirror, which shattered. Finally, the attackers used pieces of white cadetbelting to lash Whittaker’s ankles to the bed rail.
While all this was going on, one of the three men, the shortest, was standing at the foot of the bed holding a light—either a candle or a taper of wadded paper. He did not actually take part in the attack and seemed to be reluctant about the business. He noticed how much Whittaker’s nose and wounds were bleeding, and said: “Look out, don’t hurt him; see how much he bleeds; take my handkerchief, and put it around his wounds.”
Whittaker, who was feeling faint, asked his assailants to place a pillow under his head, and they did. After warning Whittaker not to speak out, the masked trio then slipped silently out of the room. The last words Whittaker heard were, “then he will leave.”
After he was sure they were gone, Whittaker unsuccessfully tried to loosen his tied hands with his teeth. He called for help, but not loudly, for fear that his assailants would return and carry out their threat to kill him. Besides, he had no confidence that any of his fellow cadets would come to his aid even if they heard his cries. So he lay there on the floor, frightened and confused, trying to decide what to do. He remembered nothing else until he was aroused in the morning.
While the doctors were examining him, and all that day, Whittaker was bombarded with questions. Did he suspect who did it? No he didn’t. What did the attackers look like? He couldn’t tell because they wore masks. Why should anyone want to do this to him? He didn’t know. Whittaker told his story over and over again and must have quickly sensed that he was not being believed. He also turned over the note of warning to Lieutenant William H. Coffin, the officer in command of his cadet company.
All that day and the following day Lieutenant Colonel Lazelle investigated the strange affair. The investigation itself was rather strange. In fact, it consisted mainly of questioning Whittaker further, soliciting from the rest of the cadets the declaration that they knew nothing of the affair, and consulting the two doctors. Their examination of Whittaker was not very thorough, as it turned out later; for instance, his nostrils were never examined to see if he actually had had a nosebleed. Whittaker1 s room was very quickly cleaned up the first day, and all the blood was removed from the floor and clothes. On April 8 Lieutenant Colonel Lazelle reported the conclusion of his investigation to General Schofield: Whittaker had cut himself and faked the attack.
Schofield accepted the report, and around noon of April 8 personally informed Whittaker of its conclusions. Whittaker denied he had any reason to hurt himself and demanded a further investigation. Schofield agreed and immediately published Special Order No. 55, setting up a court of inquiry “to examine into and investigate the facts and circumstances connected with the assault upon Cadet Whittaker and the imputation cast upon his character in relation thereto.” Four West Point officers were appointed to act as the court of inquiry, and another officer, requested by Whittaker, was detailed as defense counsel. The first session was to meet on April 9.
By the time the court of inquiry began sessions, the incident had become more than a simple internal West Point matter. The day of the assault Schofield had sent a rather detailed telegram to the Adjutant General of the Army in Washington, reporting the incident. He said that Whittaker was all right, though at first he had appeared to be seriously hurt. The cooperation of the cadets had been outstanding, but it was not yet known if a cadet had been involved in the incident. The next day Schofield telegraphed that the cadets disclaimed any responsibility for the attack and that the wounds were indeed superficial. On April 11, after the court had been in session for two days, he wrote to General William T. Sherman, the Commanding General of the Army, calling the affair “a perplexing mystery” but one that he hoped would be cleared up quickly. He was sure, however, that the cadets were being “candid” in their assertions that none of them was involved.