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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
Whatever the cause, Gardiner argued, echoing once more the phrase heard so often, everyone had the right to choose his own friends. Even Whittaker admitted this. Several cadets had testified that Whittaker possessed personal habits offensive to them: sleeping without a pillowcase, using grease on his hair, and not being able to look a person in the eye. These and similar personal habits, not Whittaker’s color, were the main reasons for the ostracism. Whittaker himself had not tried to cultivate any friends, so how could he expect any?
The important point to consider about this social ostracism, Gardiner argued, was that it caused Whittaker to devise this plan of self-mutilation to get revenge on the Academy. He had found himself inferior to many of the cadets at West Point, had not been fawned over as he had been at the University of South Carolina; so the “plant of discontent grew. And its branches bore morbid fruits of revenge and dislike to those around him” in the form of the fake assault. It had to be remembered, Gardiner charged, that “Negroes are noted for their ability to sham and feign.…‘Playing Possum’ is an Africanism that has come to be generally adopted, and the colored person is according to all anthropologists endowed with cunning and the power of mimicry.” Gardiner followed up this bit of scientific wisdom by citing a number of learned books that claimed it was common for men in circumstances like Whittaker’s to feign injuries. Whittaker’s symptoms, he said, left no doubt this was the situation in his case.
Yet Gardiner now proceeded to take the opposing view and seemed to be saying that Whittaker had indeed been attacked. He ridiculed the cadet’s lack of courage in not resisting. “By his own story the accused has shown himself a coward without one redeeming quality.” It was obvious, Gardiner concluded, that Whittaker was “a person born to obey far more than to command.”
Like Chamberlain, Gardiner spent a great deal of time discussing the evidence of the handwriting experts. As Chamberlain had ridiculed the government experts, so he ridiculed Chamberlain’s. He endorsed the underwriting theory but declared that even without this the handwriting analysis alone demonstrated clearly that Whittaker had been the author of the warning note. Finally, Gardiner pointed out, Whittaker had been contradicted by two civilians, seven commissioned officers, and by the cadets who slept near him, none of whom heard any voice on the night in question. The only conclusion, he declared, was that Whittaker himself was guilty.
With Gardiner’s summation concluded, the court went into conference to consider the evidence. It did not deliberate long. On June 10, 1881, the board of officers agreed that Whittaker was guilty as charged, except for several exceptions. They deleted that part of the first charge that had accused Whittaker of mutilating himself to gain public notoriety, bring disrepute on the Military Academy, and escape an upcoming examination. They also modified the charge that Whittaker himself had written the note of warning, so that it now included the statement: “He well knew that said letter and envelope were not first found where stated by him.”
These changes are almost impossible to understand, for they had the effect of rejecting the key motives alleged in both the court of inquiry and court-martial and so changing the note-of-warning charge that it lost some of its significance. In short, the court-martial found Whittaker guilty but altered fundamental parts of the prosecution’s case against him.
In any event, Whittaker was found guilty. The courtmartial board ruled that he was to be dishonorably discharged from the Military Academy, was to pay a onedollar fine, and was to be confined at hard labor for one year at a penitentiary chosen by the reviewing authority.
The bizarre proceedings were not over yet. On a back page of the court-martial transcript, after the report had officially been closed, six members of the board, including General Miles, recommended that “on account of his youth and inexperience…so much of his sentence as related to fine and imprisonment be remitted.” He should only be dropped from West Point.
The transcript was then sent for review to the Judge Advocate General of the Army, D. E. Swain; on December 1, 1881, in the form of a report to the Secretary of War, Robert T. Lincoln, Swain tendered his opinion. In 101 pages of minute dissection, he riddled the prosecution’s case and held the court-martial decision up to illdisguised contempt. In the first place, he argued that the court had been illegally constituted, because the President of the United States had no authority to call a courtmartial in the case; and secondly, the introduction of Whittaker’s letters, not as evidence but simply as specimens for the handwriting experts, was also illegal.