Glimpse: Fort Davis – Pride and betrayal for Buffalo Soldiers
Fort Davis, in southwest Texas, was established in 1854 to protect travelers and local citizens from Apache and Comanche raids. It became home to four cavalry companies of African-American soldiers who became known as Buffalo Soldiers. It was strategically located at the crossroads of the San Antonio to El Paso road, near the Chihuahuan Trail, used by Indians in the area.
After watching an introductory film narrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a 10-gallon hat, say whaaaaat???, you can wander the fort to see soldiers’ barracks, the commissary, officers housing and the hospital. Along the way you will hear the bugle calls, for changing of guard duty, sick call, and call to meals.
The fort was a ragtag group of flimsy buildings until after the Civil War, when Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt was named commander and began constructing stone buildings, many of which have been restored and house exhibits. The hospital is the newest effort, with displays of medical practices of the day, which prescribed opiates but did not include an understanding of germ theory. You can see instruments used on one patient after another without sterilization, spreading contagious disease. The military medics, using the best knowledge of the times, recognized that isolating patients seemed to slow contagion, and there are several rooms where soldiers, staff, or family members were treated.
The most bittersweet story of the fort is that of Henry Ossian Flipper, a former slave and the first black soldier to graduate from West Point in 1877. He served as a 2nd lieutenant and became the first black officer to lead buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Flipper was the post quartermaster and commissary at Fort Davis until a white commander who didn’t like black officers arrived. Flipper was dismissed within days, then “asked” to keep the quartermaster’s safe in his quarters. When he discovered a $2,000 discrepancy, which many later thought to be a setup, he tried to hide it and later lied about it when confronted. Other soldiers and the community came up with funds to replace the money, but he was court-martialed anyway. The main charge was dropped, but he was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and dismissed.
Flipper fought all his life to clear his name, and became a civil engineer in El Paso and, later, assistant to Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior, in 1921, and an engineer in the petroleum industry in Venezuela. He died in 1940.
In 1967, at the request of his descendants, his case was reviewed by the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records, which said that, though it didn’t have the authority to overturn the court-martial, it found the punishment “unduly harsh and unjust,” and changed Flipper’s dismissal to a good conduct discharge. President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 1999. A bust of Flipper now stands at West Point, and an award is given in his name to graduates who show “leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties.”