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Military History Facts


This year, the nation celebrates the election of President Barack H. Obama, the country's first African-American president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. This significant first for the nation was built on the foundation of many great African-American leaders throughout history.

African Americans have a long and distinguished history of service in defense of the nation, and in particular, in service to the U.S. Army. And while President Obama is the most recent and perhaps the most celebrated "first" for African Americans, below are a few notable "firsts" for African Americans who answered their nation's call to duty in the Army.

First General Officer

BG Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.On Oct. 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African American to serve as a general officer in the U.S. Army. He entered the military service on July 18, 1898 during the war with Spain as a temporary first lieutenant of the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered out on March 6, 1899 and on June 18, 1899, he enlisted as a private in Troop I, 9th Cavalry, of the regular Army. He then served as a corporal and squadron sergeant major, and on Feb. 2, 1901, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the regular Army.

Davis' military decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal. His DSM, awarded by General Order 10, dated Feb. 22, 1945, stated that Gen. Davis was awarded the DSM "for exceptional meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility from June 1941 to November 1944 as an inspector of troop units in the field, and as special War Department consultant on matters pertaining to Negro troops."

First African-American Female Soldier

Immediately following the Civil War, William Cathey enlisted in the U.S. Regular Army in St. Louis, Mo. Cathey, intending to serve three years with the 38th U.S. Infantry, was described by the recruiting officer as 5 feet 9 inches tall with black eyes, black hair, and a black complexion. The cursory examination by an army physician missed the fact that William was actually Cathay William, an African-American woman.

Cathey served from Nov. 15, 1866 until her discharge with a surgeon's certificate of disability on Oct. 14, 1868. Despite numerous and often lengthy hospital stays during her service, her sex was not revealed until June 1891, when she applied for an invalid pension and disclosed her true identify. She did not receive the pension, not because she was a woman, but because her disabilities were not service-related. Cathey William has been noted in military history journals as the only documented female Buffalo Soldier and as the only documented African-American woman who served in the U.S. Army prior to the 1948 law which officially allowed women to join the Army.

First African-American West Point Grad

Henry O. FlipperIn 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. His assignment in July 1877 to the 10th U.S. Cavalry, one of two Black cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War, was the realization of a personal dream. Unfortunately, his dream was short-lived as he was wrongfully court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

Assigned to the 10th Cavalry over Buffalo Soldiers, Lt. Flipper served at Forts Elliott, Concho, Quitman, Sill, and Davis, and he fought twice at Eagle Springs, Texas, during the Victorio campaign against the Apache Indians in 1880. In 1881, while stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, he was framed by white officers and charged with embezzlement. At his court-martial he was found not guilty of embezzlement, but guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." He was dishonorably discharged, and for the rest of his life he fought to restore his good name.

Following his death in 1940, Flipper's descendants continued advocating to have his dishonorable discharge overturned, and in 1976, with the recognition of his mistreatment, he was finally granted an honorable discharge by the Department of the Army. A bust of Flipper was unveiled at West Point in the same year. In 1999 President Bill Clinton granted him a full pardon. West Point now gives an award in his honor to the graduating senior who has displayed "the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet."