President Ulysses S. Grant and the West Point Controversy of 1870

Fredrick Dent Grant (1850-1912). Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Fredrick Dent Grant (1850-1912). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During the initial phases of Reconstruction, social reformers and advocates for black rights in the United States began calling for the West Point Military Academy to become racially integrated. Looking back at these developments, historian William McFeely wondered aloud in the 1980s why so much effort was exerted to integrate West Point in the years after the Civil War since it was, according to him, “perhaps the last place to look for democracy.” But the desire of blacks to enlist at West Point at this time does make sense. Nearly 200,000 African Americans joined United States Colored Troops regiments during the Civil War, and these efforts to defend the country in a time of need had played an integral role in postwar debates over the status of black rights in a newly reconstructed country. Amid the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments giving all native-born Americans the right of citizenship and all men regardless of color the right to vote, black men looked to postwar military opportunities to demonstrate their heightened presence in American society and establish stable careers for themselves.

The first black cadet accepted to West Point arrived in 1870. James Webster Smith was the man chosen for this task. A former South Carolina slave born in 1850, Smith garnered attention at an early age for his intellectual abilities and strong character, and a Connecticut philanthropist named David Clark eagerly used his wealth and influence to help Smith graduate high school and start a university education at the newly-established Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his time at Howard, South Carolina Congressman Solomon L. Hoge nominated Smith to attend West Point. Unfortunately for Smith, the West Point establishment–from the lowest cook to Cadet Commandant Emory Upton–were hostile to his presence there. After years of racial harassment and physical violence towards him, Smith was formally discharged from West Point in 1874 after Philosophy professor Peter S. Michie defied previous school custom and gave Smith a private examination. Michie declared that Smith had failed the exam and had “displayed a marked deficiency in deductive reasoning” which, in conjunction with prior claims against Smith’s character, established suitable grounds for his dismissal. Smith returned to his native South Carolina and taught mathematics and military tactics at what is now South Carolina State University, but he tragically died in 1876 at the age of 26 after a bout with tuberculosis. He was buried in Columbia, South Carolina, in an unmarked grave, and no one today knows the location of that grave.

The aforementioned historian William McFeely offers the most comprehensive analysis of Smith’s time at West Point in his Pulitzer Prize-winning but largely negative biography of Ulysses S. Grant. McFeely and subsequent historians have laid the primary blame for Smith’s mistreatment at West Point on President Grant for his failure to publicly speak out against these wrongdoings and Cadet Fredrick Dent Grant–eldest son of Ulysses and Julia Grant and a member of West Point’s Class of 1871–for allegedly being a ringleader in Smith’s harassment. I recently went back through McFeely’s biography and the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant to learn more about Ulysses and Fred’s roles in the Smith affair. I discovered that McFeely actually bungled some of the documentary evidence connecting Fred to any particular harassment against Smith, but I do concur with him that President Grant could and should have done more in his capacity as Commander in Chief and former General of the Army to stop the discrimination against Smith.

President Grant found himself in a number of difficult political situations when it came to West Point. Fred’s class of 1871 was a particularly unremarkable graduation class that often found itself in trouble with the academy’s leadership, much to the concern of President Grant, who hesitated to take any action that might suggest executive overreach or favoritism towards his son. Moreover, McFeely argues somewhat convincingly that Grant’s public comments one way or the other towards Smith’s harassment may have had limited influence on West Point’s daily culture anyway. “The place was impregnable to thought of any kind,” according to McFeely, and “his word would have penetrated neither mind nor heart” (376). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, apparently.

Smith’s harassment started immediately upon his arrival in 1870. That summer, cadets hurled racial epitaphs towards him and forced him to eat his meals at a separate table from the white cadets. Smith wrote a letter that June to his benefactor David Clark stating that the going was tough and that “these fellows appear to be trying their utmost to run me off.” Clark published this letter in a local paper to draw attention to Smith’s plight, and a court of inquiry found that the son of General Quincy Adams Gilmore and a nephew of Secretary of War William Belknap–among other cadets (but not Fred Grant)–were guilty of harassing Smith and subject to reprimands, but no punishment. Later in the fall Smith and another white cadet got into a physical altercation that led to another court of inquiry, this time led by General Oliver Otis Howard, a well-known supporter of black rights and the namesake of Howard University. Smith testified without counsel in the case and was successfully exonerated of any wrongdoing in January 1871. The harassment against Smith continued, however, and he was soon arrested after keeping his head down while marching. A third court martial came, this time overseen by Secretary Belknap (no friend to blacks and an unfortunate pick by President Grant to oversee the case). Belknap–with Grant’s support–was willing to pardon Smith, but only on the condition that he be held back a year to join the class of 1875. The former abolitionist Lewis Tappan, outraged at this ruling, offered to pay for Smith to leave West Point and attend a university in New England, but Smith refused. He endured for several more years at West Point until he failed Professor Michie’s “test.”

The nature of Frederick Dent Grant’s relationship to James Webster Smith and his role in the harassment towards Smith are hard to determine conclusively. McFeely claims that Fred led a “conspiracy” among white cadets to blackball Smith out of the academy and that “there was considerable evidence to suggest that he was an active participant in the ceaseless harassment of James Smith” (376). This is where McFeely screws up, however, because the evidence he employs to assert Fred’s racism actually comes from an entirely separate incident in 1870 involving a number of white cadets that Smith was never involved with. In that incident a group of senior cadets grabbed several white freshman cadets from their dorms and threw them out in the freezing cold to shiver in their underwear overnight. In a January 1871 investigation of the matter Fred testified to the Committee on Military Affairs that he was aware of the prank, that he supported it, and that he did nothing to stop it. McFeely conflates Fred’s testimony from this case with the separate court martial cases against Smith to make it look like he was aware of and supported Smith’s harassment. In actuality, Fred never testified in Smith’s cases nor admitted any role in his harassment.

Another claim against Fred that you will find on his Wikipedia page is that during a meeting between President Grant and David Clark in the summer of 1870 about Smith’s status in the academy, he exclaimed that “the time had not come to send colored boys to West Point” and that “no damned nigger will ever graduate from West Point.” But the source of this quote came from a letter Smith wrote four years after the meeting, and Smith himself was not present at that meeting. Added to this fact is a letter Clark wrote to Sayles J. Bowen in 1872 in which he reported that Fred “said [at the meeting that] he had never spoken to Cadet Smith, nor had he any knowledge of any indignities heaped upon him, though he had heard about them. He said he should take neither one side nor the other in the quarrel, if one existed. He thought that it was premature to admit colored cadets at this time.” That’s quite different from what Smith reports in his later letter, leaving me to question whether Smith’s letter is a reliable source for understanding Fred’s role in this situation. Added to the complexity is that Fred himself never commented on the Smith case at any time later in his life.

To conclude: James Webster Smith’s courageous effort to racially integrate West Point and become the first African American graduate of the academy was marred by racist acts of harassment and violence towards him by fellow white cadets and apathetic indifference to stop it among the academy’s leadership and even President Grant himself. Although Grant claimed in his 1870 meeting with Clark that he supported Smith’s enrollment in West Point and vowed to protect him, his failure to make any public statements in support of Smith or against the harassment, and his appointment of prejudicial figures like Belknap to oversee Smith’s case represent a failure of leadership and a negative mark on his presidency. While other military figures like Upton, Belknap, and Howard deserve criticism for not doing more to protect Smith, it seems that Grant bears ultimate responsibility because even one public statement from him could have influenced public opinion and potentially pushed West Point into action. That he failed to do so is unfortunate to say the least. Even though McFeely’s interpretation of Frederick Dent Grant’s alleged racism at West Point has been largely accepted as gospel within the historical community, the available evidence against him is actually very shaky and unreliable. We simply don’t know a lot about Fred’s role in Smith’s harassment. But we can safely conclude that he was largely indifferent to the situation, did little to nothing as a senior cadet to offer support to Smith, and that he probably did hold some sort of racial prejudice against African Americans and their attending West Point. Ultimately both father and son could have taken a more proactive approach to protecting Smith’s welfare while at the academy.


Addendum: See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 21, pages 28-34 and 140-141 for the primary source documents I have cited in this blog post.

5 thoughts on “President Ulysses S. Grant and the West Point Controversy of 1870

    1. I appreciate you citing this essay in your article, but if you read a little closer you’ll see that I actually challenge some of the assertions you make about Frederick Dent Grant.

  1. Just now reading Chernow’s Grant bio, and he repeats some of the same accusations relating to Fred Grant.

    His biography is far from negative–he goes to some pains to make it clear that there is no President to whom African Americans owe more thanks than U.S. Grant. But he still says Fred Grant was involved in driving three black cadets into the cold, and cites Smith himself as the source.

    The odds of not making any mistakes in a book of that size are basically zero.

    I doubt whether Grant could have stopped the racist treatment of Smith. Presidents are not invested with the power to improve men’s souls, or to erase the conditioning they receive as children.

    Could he have done more to attack racism? Yes.

    Did any other President, Obama included, do as much? Doubtful.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Chernow’s book has its good and bad parts, to say the least. Regarding this particular story, McFeely bungled the evidence and I think Chernow basically copied it without many alterations. What I suggest here is that even Smith’s comments need to be interpreted carefully. Smith alleges that Fred used the derogatory language cited above, but he wasn’t actually present at the meeting in which Fred allegedly said what he said, and Smith mentioned it a few years after the meeting took place. I think Fred had racial prejudices, but I don’t think he was the ringleader of the bullying campaign against Smith while both were at West Point. Thanks for reading and enjoy the Chernow book.

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