Born into slavery, Henry Vinton Plummer served honorably in the Union Navy during the Civil War, went on to attend seminary, then became the Army’s first black chaplain.
But Plummer’s stellar career went bad in 1894: While chaplain, he was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for drinking with an enlisted man and cursing in front of the man’s wife and children.
More than a century later, an Army board has upheld the court-martial but granted Plummer a posthumous honorable discharge, said Brian Busey, an attorney for Plummer’s descendants.
The Army board determined that Plummer’s court martial was conducted properly and that modern legal standards should not be applied to a case that is more than a hundred years old.
“They obviously were worried about a precedent that opens the door for other cases,” Busey said Wednesday of the decision not to reverse the court-martial.
Plummer’s descendants had wanted him to be given an honorable discharge and did not seek any financial compensation. They filed an appeal in February 2004 with the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, arguing the chaplain was convicted on very little evidence because of his race and because of animosity from his superior officers. The jury was all white.
The family’s bid to review Plummer’s case got the backing of several Maryland lawmakers, including Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
Plummer was born into slavery in 1844 on a plantation in Prince George’s County, outside Washington. He escaped when he was 18 and eventually joined the Union Navy during the Civil War, receiving an honorable discharge in 1865.
He went to seminary and became a Baptist minister, settling in Prince George’s County after the war. In 1884 he joined the Army as a commissioned officer and served in a unit comprised of black soldiers that became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He was later posted at Fort Robinson in Nebraska with the 9th Cavalry.
According to the family, while with the 9th, Plummer clashed with his unit’s white commanders, unsuccessfully seeking access to officers’ quarters and pushing for temperance on the base.
But what eventually did Plummer in, according to the family’s petition, was a running dispute he had with a black enlisted man.
The sergeant claimed Plummer had given him money to buy alcohol and had cursed in front of his wife and children. The petition claims Plummer thought the money was for milk and the allegations about cursing were not true. He was convicted after an 11-day trial.
Upon his discharge, Plummer moved his family to Kansas City and spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name, including writing letters to the Army and President Grover Cleveland. He died in 1905.