Chaplain's 1894 dismissal from the Army reversed

Action on black officer said to have been unjust

February 10, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - An Army board reversed yesterday the 1894 dismissal of an African-American chaplain for conduct unbecoming an officer, saying the action against Henry Vinton Plummer, who was born a slave in Maryland, was unjust and tainted by discrimination.

The decision, which followed a three-year campaign by Plummer's descendants and included support from members of Congress and state officials, means Plummer will receive an honorable discharge. The Army, however, let stand his underlying court-martial conviction.

Plummer, the Army's first active-duty black chaplain, served a decade with the famed Buffalo Soldiers on the western frontier. He fought the dishonorable discharge until his death - 100 years ago today.

"A measure of honor and dignity is being restored to Henry Plummer," said Dov Schwartz, an Army spokesman. "This is a way we can correct a historical wrong."

Plummer's relatives requested the honorable discharge last year, arguing that his conviction came at the hands of white commanders retaliating against an outspoken black officer.

"I'm very pleased by the fact they have come to this conclusion, giving him an honorable discharge," said the Rev. L. Jerome Fowler of Forestville, Plummer's great-nephew and associate to the pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, where Plummer once ministered. "I'm a little disappointed we didn't get all we asked for: a total eradication of the verdict."

The Army Board for the Correction of Military Records agreed that racial bias played a part in the dishonorable discharge. Plummer was ostracized by white officers and forced to bunk with enlisted black soldiers, they concluded.

But the panel chose not to reverse his conviction for drinking alcohol with enlisted men and arguing with a soldier at Fort Robinson, Neb., noting that even his supporters acknowledged that in his testimony Plummer admitted that he had been drinking.

Fowler said supporters will review the 45-page Army ruling and decide whether to continue to challenge the conviction. They could request a rehearing before the Army board, file a lawsuit or seek a pardon, said G. Brian Busey, a lawyer with Morrison and Foerster, which took the case pro bono.

The appeal was supported by members of Congress, including Maryland Reps. Albert R. Wynn and Steny H. Hoyer, as well as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Frederick Douglass IV - the great-great-grandson of the abolitionist, who was Plummer's friend.

There are 143 black chaplains among the estimated 1,000 in the active-duty Army. Maj. Gen. David H. Hicks, an African-American who is chief of chaplains, said yesterday's action has restored Plummer "to his rightful and deserved place in the history of the United States Army chaplaincy."

Born a slave in 1844 on the Three Sisters Plantation near Bowie, Plummer escaped when he was 18 and made his way to Riverside Plantation in Prince George's County.

With the Civil War soon raging, Plummer joined the Navy, serving as a sailor aboard a side-wheel gunboat that plied the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, capturing or destroying blockade-running schooners and battling Confederate forces.

After being honorably discharged, Plummer taught himself to read and write before enrolling in Wayland Seminary in Washington and becoming pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church. But over the years he yearned to become an Army chaplain.

With the help of Frederick Douglass and others, he was appointed chaplain of the black 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in 1884 and became a captain. The regiment, commanded by white officers, was involved with controlling hostile American Indians on the Great Plains and protecting the increasing number of settlers. The Indians called the black troops "buffalo soldiers" because of their coarse hair and reputation for ferocious fighting.

The regiment, which was also forced to deal with the hostility and racism of the settlers, was seen as a major force in promoting peace and advancing settlements along America's frontier. Over the next decade, Plummer was stationed at three frontier posts, serving not only as chaplain, but also as the education officer for the troopers and their families. It was at his final posting, in Fort Robinson, Neb., that he ran into trouble.

One evening in 1894, Plummer left a party, where he had been drinking, and stopped at the home of an enlisted man, who was out. When the sergeant returned home drunk to find Plummer chatting with his wife and playing with his daughter, an argument ensued. Plummer was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer for drinking with enlisted men and for using "intemperate and vulgar language" toward an enlisted man in the presence of his wife.

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