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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
The trial began on February 3, 1881, in the Army Building in New York City. (In March it was moved to the roomier Post Office Building.) The members of the court had been appointed with careful consideration for possible charges of pro-West Point or anti-Negro bias. Six of the ten officers, including Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, the president of the court, were non-West Pointers. All were Northerners, and one had served with a “colored infantry” unit.
The judge advocate—the prosecuting officer—was Major Asa Bird Gardiner, formerly a West Point professor and the most famous Army lawyer of his day. On the other side, Whittaker also had prestigious counsel: Daniel H. Chamberlain, former Radical Republican governor of South Carolina, an early abolitionist, and a most experienced courtroom lawyer.
Whittaker was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, in violation of United States Military Academy regulations, and with conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. The first charge was supported by two specifications that accused him of mutilating himself and writing the note of warning “with the design and intention to excite public sympathy, to bring discredit upon the said Military Academy, to obtain notoriety, and further to avoid and escape an approaching public examination.” As for the second charge, it was supported by three specifications that in effect said that Whittaker had lied at the court of inquiry.
The trial itself discovered no new significant information: essentially it was a rehash of the court of inquiry, except that now Whittaker had adequate representation, and much counterevidence was introduced in opposition to the various accusations against him.
The crux of the government case rested on the assertions of handwriting experts that Whittaker had written the warning note and the allegation that he was the only person who had a motive for committing the act.
One of the first persons called was General Schofield, who had been replaced as superintendent of West Point on January 21. Schofield tried to emphasize that throughout the court of inquiry he had hoped Whittaker would be proved innocent. He could not see, he said, how his general order exonerating the cadets, or any of the various other actions he took during the inquiry, could be construed as being prejudicial to Whittaker. At first, he said, he thought Whittaker was innocent, but then he changed his mind when Whittaker asked for a court of inquiry.
Q.—Do you think that a demand for a Court of Inquiry was a sign of guilt?
A.—I did not think that a boy would naturally have so much self-confidence as he displayed. If he had been an old officer, I should not have been surprised at it.
Q.—You were able to explain, then, his self-confidence on another ground than that of innocence?
A.—Yes, I was. I thought perhaps, he might rely on the support he would receive outside.
Q.—What do you mean by support from outside?
A.—I mean the support of those who originated the whole affair. I do not believe that it was originated with Cadet Whittaker.
Schofield then went on to say that outside pressure influenced the court of inquiry, causing, for example, the interrogation of cadets after they had already sworn on their honor that they were innocent.
A veritable platoon of West Pointers then paraded to the stand, one after the other, from Dr. Charles T. Alexander to ordinary cadets. They all defended the Academy’s social ostracism as only natural, though they contended that Whittaker was ostracized not because he was black but because he was no gentleman. Besides, they kept repeating, everyone had the right to choose his own friends.
The sensation of the trial was the claim by a handwriting expert named Southworth that he had new proof to show that Whittaker had written the warning note. Southworth, who had previously contended that the note of warning and Whittaker’s letter to his mother had been written on parts of the same sheet of paper, now argued that he had discovered “underwriting” on the note. This underwriting, he explained, which consisted of partially erased words that could only be seen under a microscope, was definitely Whittaker’s.
Chamberlain countered this testimony with a number of experts in microscopy who testified they could see no underwriting whatsoever. He also showed that no two persons who claimed they saw underwriting could agree as to which letters they saw where. In short, Chamberlain said, the underwriting was a figment of Southworth’s imagination, the latest in a career of errors.