August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
One morning Cadet Johnson Whittaker was found battered and bleeding, trussed to his barracks bed. Who had done it, and why?
West Point, April 7, 1880. At reveille—6 A.M. —it was discovered that Cadet Johnson Chesnut Whittaker was not in formation. This caused a slight stir of interest, for Whittaker was an unusual cadet. He was the only Negro at West Point.
After dismissing the cadets the officer in charge directed George R. Burnett, the cadet officer of the day, to see if Whittaker was still in his room. Burnett moved quickly up the barracks stairs to the fourth floor and banged on Whittaker’s door. There was no answer, and he opened the door and looked in.
Whittaker was lying motionless on the floor, and Burnett could see that his legs were trussed to the side rail of the bed. There was blood on the floor, and the room was in disorder. Burnett left him untouched and ran to get the officer of the day.
Cadet Johnson C. Whittaker had been appointed to West Point from his native Camden, South Carolina, and had come to the United States Military Academy on August 23, 1876, at the age of seventeen. Previously he had been on a scholarship at the University of South Carolina and one of the school’s leading students. South Carolina was not, in the true sense of the word, a university, but rather a school to prepare the freedman for entrance into society. Whittaker, however, had benefited from tutoring at the hands of Professor Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College. When he came to West Point, he seemed to have enough background to complete the four-year course successfully.
Academically his record from 1876 to 1880 was spotty. At one point he was on the verge of academic disqualification but was put back a year instead. In 1880, then, he was a second classman —the equivalent of a junior in college. In class standing he was at the head of the sixth, or lowest, section.
The real problem of Whittaker’s life was not academic, but social. No one spoke to him except on official business, and then as briefly and as curtly as possible. Cadets reproached him if he tried to sit next to them at the mess table or if he fell in next to them at formation. Once, a cadet struck him in the face over some disagreement; Whittaker complained, and the cadet was suspended for a month. No one wanted to room with him, and the administration put him by himself in a room normally occupied by two cadets.
Whittaker, who was light brown in color, sometimes visited other Negroes in the area around West Point, but not often. He faithfully wrote to his mother and to his former teacher, Professor Greener. Occasionally he talked with two black workers at the Academy, one named Simpson and the other Mitchell. For the most part, however, he kept to himself, studied, and regularly read his Bible.
On the front leaf of this brown leather Bible, on April 21, 1878, Whittaker had written, “Try never to injure another by word, by action or broken … [illegible] Forgive as soon as you are injured and forget as soon as you forgive.” On New Year’s Day, 1879, he had written that he would always try “to do his duty to God and man” and never to do anything that would “make his mother ‘blush.’” In the text of the Bible Whittaker underlined passages and wrote his own commentaries. All the underlined passages concerned loneliness. For example, he underlined a phrase from the thirty-second verse, chapter 16, of John: “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” In the margin he wrote in pencil: “I in my dreary solitude surrounded by none but enemies can say that I am not destitute of friends for God is near me.” The fourteenth verse of the Twenty-seventh Psalm was also underlined: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine (heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.” In the margin he wrote: “a world of comfort for sad souls is locked up in this 14th verse, XXVII chapter.”
On Sunday, April 5, 1880, Whittaker opened a small post commissary envelope that, he said later, he found in his room. The message was short and to the point:
You will be fixed. Better keep awake.
Finding this note after he returned from supper, Whittaker said, he did not know what to make of it. He mulled it over and even asked the opinion of the black bathhouse-attendant, Louis Simpson, who urged him to ignore the whole thing. Whittaker mentioned the note Monday in a letter to his mother and said he was planning to show it to the superintendent of the Academy, General John M. Schofield. He had not done so, however, by Monday evening. After supper that night, Whittaker studied, read his Bible as usual, and went to bed a little after midnight. It was the following morning that Cadet Burnett found him unconscious on the floor, tied to his bed.
As Burnett hurried off for help, he met Cadet Frederick G. Hodgson and asked him to stay in Whittaker’s room. Hodgson surveyed a chaotic scene. Whittaker’s room was the typical cadet’s double room of that day. In the corner diagonally opposite Whittaker’s bed, steam pipes entered the room from below, and there was enough open space around the pipes to allow a glimpse of the room below. There were walls two feet thick separating the room from those on either side of it, while above was the roof of the building. The furnishings were scanty: a bed, a small desk and chair, a washstand, a gun rack, and an open clothespress.
Whittaker was in his underclothes. There was blood on his hair, his ears, and the shoulders of his undershirt. Some could be seen on the legs of his drawers, above the knees, and on the bands tied around his ankles and wrists. There was also blood on the floor near him, on the wall above the middle of the bed, and on the mattress near where his feet were tied. An Indian club at the foot of his bed was also marked with a few drops.
On the floor Hodgson noticed a smashed mirror, face down, and near it clumps of black hair and burned scraps of paper. Between Whittaker’s body and the bed there lay a pocketknife with the blade open, and close by his head was a bloodstained handkerchief from which a corner (and probably a name tag) had been torn. The gaslight in the room was only partially turned on and gave a dim light. The window curtains were closed tight.
Cadet Hodgson, while waiting for help to arrive, touched nothing in the room, including Whittaker. He felt that to touch him before a superior officer had surveyed the scene would be improper. Other cadets gathered outside the door, but no one came in. Whittaker still seemed to be unconscious, but he was breathing evenly.
In a few minutes Burnett returned with the officer of the day and helped untie the black cadet. The post surgeon, Major Charles T. Alexander, M. D. , came in several minutes later. He immediately checked Whittaker and found that his pulse and body temperature seemed normal and that his skin had a “natural appearance.” He opened one of Whittaker’s eyelids and found that at first his eye pointed upward, but on command it looked straight ahead.
Despite the fact that he could not rouse Whittaker, Dr. Alexander made no further examination until the arrival, shortly afterward, of the commandant of cadets, Lieutenant Colonel Henry M. Lazelle. Both made new attempts to rouse Whittaker. Dr. Alexander said afterward that Whittaker now spoke for the first time: “Oh, don’t cut me, I never hurt you.” Colonel Lazelle said curtly: “Get up and be a man,” while Alexander shook and pinched the cadet. Whittaker thereupon appeared to be “restored to perfect and complete sensibility.”
Dr. Alexander then treated Whittaker’s wounds, and the black cadet was ordered to report to the post hospital. He walked there under his own power and ate breakfast. He was again given a cursory physical examination and was dismissed for class, having missed only one period. That evening between five and six thirty, General Schofield ordered the assistant post surgeon, Dr. Henry Lippencott, to examine him.
The two doctors differed strangely as to some of Whittaker’s injuries, but they did agree on the key ones. He had “incised wounds on the anterior surface of the lobes of both ears”—five eighths of an inch long on the right ear, slightly shorter on the left. A small piece of flesh was gone from the tip of the left lobe. The equivalent of a “thin scratch” was found on his left hand and “two parallel cuts” about five eighths of an inch long were discovered across the top of the big toe of his left foot. The two doctors estimated that Whittaker had lost from “one and one half to two ounces of blood” in all.
When he had first found Whittaker, Burnett had thought he had a fractured skull, but the doctors discovered no evidence of severe head damage. They found that Whittaker’s hair had been crudely cut “in swaths, extending to the back of the right ear, around and upward to the left.” Various other spots on the head had also been clipped of hair.
Whittaker’s story of what had happened, which he repeated again and again during the day, was briefly as follows.
About 2 A.M. he had awakened to what sounded like the movement of the latch on his door. He listened sleepily, decided that the noise was probably the wind rattling the window, and went back to sleep.
Sometime later he was suddenly dragged out of bed and awoke to see, in the half-light, three men, two dressed in dark clothing and the third in a gray suit. All three wore masks. He tried to struggle against his attackers but had little success. He was seized by the throat and choked, struck on the temple, and given a bloody nose. One assailant warned: “If you don’t be still, you will be a dead man; don’t you holler.”
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.
Schofield also granted interviews to newspaper reporters. According to a New York Herald account he was more certain of the culprit than he had seemed in the communiqués to his superiors. In the Herald interview Schofield indicated his belief that Whittaker had committed self-mutilation in order to spend some time in the hospital and thus avoid next month’s examination, which he feared he could not pass. Most West Point officers, Schofield reportedly said, shared this belief. The New York Tribune , citing Schofield, reported that Whittaker had had an encounter with an Alabama cadet, John B. McDonald, a few years back; but Schofield said he was convinced McDonald had not been involved in this affair. Commenting on details of the episode, the General said the blood was so fresh that it seemed to indicate that the mutilation had occurred just a little before reveille. Moreover, why was it that no one in the adjoining rooms had heard any noise? And finally, why should anyone else commit such an outrage? “He has no enemies, because the other students have had no intercourse with him.”
The press was inclined to accept Schofield’s view, however reluctantly. As the Tribune editorialiZed on April 8: “It is painful to know that the one representative of the colored race among the cadets, who had such an opportunity to do credit to his people, should have made such a dismal failure.”
Meanwhile, the court of inquiry got under way. It first met on the morning of April 9 in the Military Academy library. From its first session it had national significance, as newspapers kept their readers informed of each day’s proceedings and often made editorial comments. The inquiry room was filled each day with the trial’s participants as well as an audience, including many officers’ wives.
The first order of business was to summon the black cadet to testify. As the spectators buzzed in anticipation, the recorder of the court, Lieutenant Clinton B. Sears, called Whittaker to the stand. Whittaker stood up and, with a slight limp, moved in front of the assembled officers of the court. He saluted smartly, was sworn in, and was told to take his seat. Lieutenant Sears then asked him to tell the court exactly what had happened. Whittaker, in a calm and steady voice, related again the story of his night of terror. He spoke clearly, though at times quickly, and poured out the tale of masked attackers, slashed ears, and cut hair. His still-evident wounds gave his account dramatic reality.
The court listened carefully to the story, and then the recorder asked a series of questions, trying to get Whittaker to give more exact details of the attack.
Q.—During this affair, did you continue to struggle throughout?
A.—I did, sir.
Q.—Did you make your best endeavor physically to prevent their touching you?
A.—I did, sir.
How had his ears been cut? He thought with a single blade. Had the rope covered his fingers? No. Had he tried to free his legs by kicking? He had. Was he now limping from the affair? Yes, the wound on his toe was causing a limp. Had he recognized any of the voices? He had not.
The questions now took a new line. How did Whittaker feel about getting through West Point? He had always felt confident about his chances.
Q.—Have you any cause to suppose that there is any prejudice against you in the minds of your instructors due to which it would be more difficult for you to graduate than other cadets against whom such prejudice did not exist?
A.—No cause to think so from their actions toward me in the least.
Q.—Has your social isolation had any effect on you in the progression of your studies?
A.—It has, sir.
Whittaker was kept on the stand that first day until 4:40 P.M. The next day, at 10 A.M. , he was again called, and after a long series of questions about various details of the attack the recorder raised a key point:
Q.—You are aware that the opinion is held by some that this assault is entirely an imaginary one and that you yourself were alone concerned in it; now for your own benefit I have here this Bible which you state you are accustomed to read, which has been in your possession for some years, in whose sacredness I presume you have every belief, and I want you to put your hand upon that Bible and take an oath that you are in no way cognizant of nor were in any way a free agent, nor had any knowledge of or connivance with your assailants.
Despite the somewhat garbled grammar, everyone got the point: Whittaker was being asked to swear that he had not mutilated himself. He placed his hand on the Bible:
A.—I do, sir.
With this dramatic scene over, to the excited murmur of the courtroom, Whittaker was excused for the present.
During the next several days activity really picked up. Major Thomas F. Barr had arrived from the Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington on April 9 and was shown Dr. Alexander’s report and the note of warning. According to Schofield he immediately noticed a great similarity between Whittaker’s handwriting and that of the note of warning. That same day Colonel William Wherry, the West Point adjutant, left for New York to secure the services of a detective to help investigate the case. On April 12 Mr. James Gaylor, the superintendent of city delivery of the New York Post Office, the first of five “handwriting experts” retained by West Point, began his investigation of the warning note. On the same day Professor Richard Greener, Whittaker’s former teacher and now dean of the law school at Howard University, arrived to lend his support and advice to Whittaker.
With national interest in the case kept high by the newspapers, nonmilitary agencies began to get involved. There were debates in the United States Senate over whether the entire “regime” at West Point ought to be investigated under suspicion of prejudiced treatment of Negro cadets. At the request of President Rutherford B. Hayes, the United States district attorney for the northern district of New York, Martin I. Townsend, was dispatched to oversee the inquiry for the government.
This in itself put West Point—the administration and the Corps of Cadets alike—on the defensive, and Townsend’s first statement after his arrival on April 14 only increased the tension: “I don’t say the cadets did it, but if it was not a hostile attack then the world is a farce.” Townsend, whose habitual manner was blunt and sarcastic, immediately became a leading figure in the inquiry. He questioned witnesses aggressively, and repeatedly challenged the code of conduct of the Corps. In a discussion of the earlier incident when Whittaker had reported a fellow cadet for striking him, Townsend suggested that although this was in keeping with official regulations, the normal response would have been for Whittaker to strike back. The only reason he had not was that he was a lone black in hostile surroundings, and there was one rule at West Point for whites and another for blacks. This aroused and confused General Schofield, who rushed to the front of the room and heatedly declared: “If you think the rule is taught at West Point that a cadet is to tamely submit to a blow without returning it or defending himself you are greatly mistaken.…That rule may perhaps be taught in the Bible, but it is not taught here…” The implication seemed to be that Whittaker was a coward.
While all this was going on, newspaper reporters were poking around, and one who worked for the New York Times uncovered a tale about three cadets who had been overheard, on the night of Whittaker’s mutilation, boasting that they were going to “take care of him.” This was supposed to have taken place at Ryan’s Tave n, in nearby Highland Falls. The proprietor, Philip Ryan, was called, and he denied before the court that cadets ever came to his place. This was soon discredited when a number of cadets testified that it was indeed common practice to change into civilian clothes at Ryan’s place prior to a night on the town. It also developed that several cadets had been out after taps on the night of the trouble.
At this point General Schofield issued General Order No. 14, dated April 21, 1880, “commending the Corps of Cadets for their bearing under the injurious suspicions cast upon them and expressing… confidence in their honor and integrity.” In his official diary he gave this remarkable explanation: …the unanimous belief of the Corps…was that the alleged culprits were not cadets.…[Yet] all the Cadets were again undergoing the same examination under oath before the court of inquiry, as if their statements upon honor were doubted… I knew that they were all innocent except possibly three or four.…The order of April 21 was issued as a simple act of justice to the Corps of Cadets.
As for the inquiry itself, the focus of attention now shifted to the reputed handwriting experts. Samples of Whittaker’s handwriting, labelled as specimen No. 8 but supposedly not otherwise identified, were mixed in with other numbered samples evidently chosen at random, and the lot were compared to the handwriting on the note of warning that Whittaker had received. Three of the five experts, after several tries, averred that the handwriting of No. 8 matched that of the warning note. Since everyone suspected that No. 8 was Whittaker’s, it was not a great surprise when, on May 15, Lieutenant Sears dramatically asked Whittaker if he had written the note of warning. Whittaker said No. Why then, Sears asked, had the experts found his handwriting and that of the warning note identical? Sears punched this home by revealing that one expert had matched one edge of the warning note with an edge of a letter Whittaker had written and declared that both sheets had come from the same piece of paper. Whittaker was unable to offer any explanation of this alleged fact.
On May 29, 1880, the court of inquiry found that Cadet Johnson C. Whittaker had written the note of warning, had mutilated himself, had tied himself up, and had then feigned unconsciousness. “The imputation upon the character of Cadet Whittaker, referred to in the order convening the Court, and contained in the official reports of the Commandant of Cadets and the Post Surgeon,” the court concluded, “was fully sustained.”
Almost immediately after the court disbanded, June examinations began at West Point. Despite the pressure and distractions of the last two months, Whittaker passed all of his subjects except philosophy. His grades, however, dropped sharply in everything, and because of the failure in philosophy he was deficient and subject to dismissal. No one seemed sure just what would happen.
In any event the Whittaker affair was not yet over. The argument about whether there was racial prejudice at West Point, and whether the black cadet had been treated fairly, continued in the press and in Congress, reflecting dissatisfaction in many parts of the country with the results of the court of inquiry. The press ran critical editorials, to which Professor Peter S. Michie, of the Military Academy, replied in an article published in the June, 1880, North American Review . If Negroes were ostracized at West Point, the professor said, it was because any white cadet caught in any altercation with a black cadet would be more severely punished than usual. “Let the authorities send here some young colored men,” he wrote, “who in ability are at least equal to the average white cadet, and possessed of manly qualities and no matter how dark be the color of the skin, they will settle the question here as must be settled in the country at large, on the basis of human intelligence and human sympathy.” Few of West Point’s critics seemed to be convinced by this.
On August 17 General Schofield was summoned to Washington for a conference with President Haves. After welcoming the General, the President said that a decision had been made to change the command at West Point to insure fair treatment of black cadets. In that case, Schofield observed, there was nothing he could say; but the President urged him to speak up.
Seizing the opening, Schofield began by insisting that at West Point black cadets enjoyed all their constitutional rights and in fact were “closer” to whites there than anywhere else in the country. Unfortunately, he said, “this enforced association had the effect of increasing rather than diminishing pre-existing prejudice and hence of preventing rather than encouraging voluntary social intercourse.” Warming to this theme, Schofield asked rhetorically whether those who were opposed to mingling with blacks did not have the same rights as those who favored it? How could West Point force social intimacy when the rest of the country was opposed to it? As for Whittaker, he was ostracized because “he had provoked a difficulty with a white cadet, had tamely submitted to blows in the face; and then turned in his assailant, who was therefore court-martialled.”
After further discussion, in which Hayes remarked that he had not read the official transcript of the court of inquiry or kept up with newspaper reports of the case, the President asked whether Schofield thought Whittaker should now be court-martialled. Schofield said Yes, and that the black cadet should in the meantime be given a leave of absence: “The only necessity is to get him away from West Point, where he does not belong.”
Shortly after the meeting between Hayes and Schofield, Whittaker was indeed given an indefinite leave of absence and left West Point. In December, 1880, he himself appealed to President Hayes for a court-martial in order to clear his name. The officer slated to replace Schofield as superintendent of the Military Academy, General O. O. Howard, also urged that a court-martial be held, and an order to that effect was issued on December 31.
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.
A point concerning the handwriting experts, which played only a slight role in the trial, was the government’s use of a number of Whittaker’s letters only as specimens for analysis and not as actual evidence. Chamberlain objected vehemently that it was not legally proper to introduce these letters, but the board, after discussion, overruled him. Later this seemingly insignificant point was to take on overwhelming proportions.
On June 1, 1881, after nearly four months of testimony, Chamberlain began his closing statement. He brieflyreviewed the charges and specifications and then reminded the court gently but firmly that it was not Whittaker’s task to prove his innocence. It was up to the government to prove him guilty. Suspicion was not enough; proof of guilt had to be conclusive. Whittaker had no motive for committing the outrage: his grades were adequate, and the argument that he mutilated himself to miss an examination two months later made no sense.
Chamberlain then launched into an attack on Whittaker’s social ostracism. He denied any desire to try West Point in this court, but he did question the fairness of its authorities. It seemed ludicrous to watch three hundred to four hundred people completely ostracize a young man of blameless record and then argue that the former should be taken at their word, while the latter be assumed guilty. Who was more worthy of belief—the blameless young man or the cadets doing “daily and hourly outrage against his sacred right?”
Chamberlain then showed that the two surgeons, Alexander and Lippencott, had contradicted each other on such elementary matters as the location of wounds. Dr. Alexander, he said, was particularly at fault for making such positive statements that Whittaker was feigning, despite his failure to give the cadet a thorough physical examination at the time of the incident.
Chamberlain also scoffed at the notion that anyone could tie himself up as tightly as Whittaker was tied when he was found. In fact, he argued, the prosecution’s entire hypothesis about the way Whittaker had supposedly mutilated himself was completely untenable. To cite but one example, nowhere in Whittaker’s room was there found a pair of scissors with blades long enough to cut Whittaker’s hair the way it had been cut. Whittaker’s own scissors were too small.
As for the handwriting analysis, the crux of the government case, Chamberlain implied that the government experts were incompetent. More reputable experts, retained by the defense, had shown that the edge of the warning note did not match that of Whittaker’s letter, as contended; there was no underwriting; and the paper of the note was not the same paper as that of the letter.
Chamberlain continued in this vein for over three hundred pages of summation, minutely examining the various details in the case and answering the government’s accusations. He argued that the government had not been able to prove that Whittaker had written the note of warning or that he had feigned anything. The government had had superior resources and power in this case, but he felt confident that truth would win out. “I reverently believe,” he concluded, “in a protecting Providence without whose notice not a sparrow falls.”
A burst of applause swept through the courtroom as Chamberlain sat down. It was now the prosecution’s turn, but Major Gardiner asked for a delay over the weekend because of voice trouble and a recent burn to his hand that had prevented him from taking notes on Chamberlain’s summation. The court agreed.
The following Monday, June 6, 1881, at 11 A.M. , Gardiner gave his summation. He began by congratulating Chamberlain on his performance. It showed clearly, he said, that Whittaker had had excellent representation in this case. As for the prosecution, the men of the court knew him well—some from past association—and they knew that he would speak up if he did not think there was enough evidence in this case. There was no doubt in his mind, he said, that Whittaker was guilty. He particularly wanted it made clear, too, that he disagreed with Chamberlain’s contention about a key legal principle: “It is not that there shall be no possibility of a doubt, but that there shall be no reasonable doubt .”
Gardiner then carefully traced the entire incident from the discovery of Whittaker that April morning, through the examination by Dr. Alexander and the court of inquiry. The gist of his argument was that Whittaker was the only person with a motive, he could have committed the act himself, he wrote the note of warning, and he was therefore guilty.
Gardiner’s argument regarding Whittaker’s motive was particularly interesting because it discussed the aspect of the case that had received the most national attention, the social ostracism. Gardiner said: He undoubtedly was left alone by many cadets; but whether this occurred because he made himself unpopular by his selfconceit and assumptions or because of certain disagreeable personal peculiarities or because of that want of frankness in his character and appearance which has been manifested here on the witness stand, or whether it was on account of his colored skin merely, or all combined, is something difficult to determine…
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.
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.