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Quest for belated justice

It might seem inconceivable in this day and age that the Army at one time court-martialed and dishonorably discharged a man for allegedly drinking and using bad language in front of a woman.

But because it happened to Henry Vinton Plummer - a Prince George's County native and the first African-American chaplain in the Army - his reputation remains tarnished by the military ruling more than 100 years ago, which said he had behaved with "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."

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Plummer's descendants are fighting to have the decision overturned, saying the military's case was wrought with false testimony and racial bias. They want him reinstated posthumously as a chaplain with the 9th Calvary, a regiment of black fighters known as Buffalo Soldiers.

Yesterday, the Committee to Clear Chaplain Plummer - a group of his descendants, historians and elected officials - gained its strongest support so far with a resolution from the Prince George's County Council that calls on the president, Congress, the defense secretary and the Army to examine Plummer's record and review his reappointment.

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"He was treated unfairly and his life ended in despair," Frederick Douglass IV, the great-great-grandson of the 19th-century abolitionist for whom he was named, told council members during a hearing.

Douglass supports the effort, in part, because his great-great-grandfather championed Plummer's chaplaincy in a letter to President Chester A. Arthur, who appointed the soldier to the post in July 1884.

"I see it as part of my personal mission," Douglass said in an interview. "It's about restoring the dignity of our ancestors. It's about correcting history."

Council members unanimously supported the resolution, stating that "because of the color of his skin, he and his family were not afforded the respect and dignity despite his service as an officer, including boarding with enlisted men."

Born into slavery

Plummer was born a slave in 1844 on the Three Sisters Plantation near Bowie, where his family worked until he and his mother were sold in 1851, according to research by the committee working to clear his name. In 1862, Plummer escaped from slavery and traveled to the Riversdale Plantation in Prince George's to find his father.

His father hid him for a time before sending him to live with an aunt in Washington. He then enlisted in the Navy and served with the Union in the Civil War. He received an honorable discharge in 1865, according to the committee's findings.

In 1872, Plummer enrolled at Wayland Seminary in Washington and later became the pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church, the committee's records show.

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But one of his strongest desires was to become an Army chaplain. So he applied for the post with letters of support from Frederick Douglass and others.

Arthur appointed him chaplain of the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers - African-American soldiers so named by the Plains Indians for their courage. In addition to serving as chaplain, Plummer also ran his post's bakery and the day school.

Plummer served at Fort Riley, Kan., Fort McKinney, Wyo., and Fort Robinson, Neb., before his 10 years in the Army was cut short.

Court-martial

The Army convened a general court martial at Fort Robinson on Aug. 27, 1894, to try Plummer - a husband and father of nine - on charges that he drank and furnished liquor to enlisted men and for behaving in an "unbecoming manner" and using "intemperate and vulgar language toward an enlisted man" in the presence of the man's wife, according to the committee.

Plummer pleaded not guilty.

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Research by Plummer's supporters found that seven witnesses testified for the prosecution and 12 for the defense.

On Sept. 7, 1894, the court found Plummer guilty. Subsequent appeals by Plummer and his wife proved unsuccessful. He was dismissed from military service and later moved to Kansas, where he served as a pastor and held office in the Kansas State Baptist Convention.

He died Feb. 10, 1905, maintaining his innocence.

Discovering the story

Although Plummer's great-nephew, the Rev. L. Jerome Fowler of Forestville, knew of his great-uncle, it wasn't until 1996 that he began to learn the whole story.

"My great aunt, Henry Plummer's baby sister, wrote a book in 1927," Fowler said. "There's a whole chapter on Henry Plummer in that book. She says in 1894 he was dismissed [from the military]. I never understood what happened."

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But during the Prince George's County tricentennial celebration eight years ago, Isaac L. Prentice, a Buffalo Soldier re-enactor who played Henry Plummer, told Fowler about his uncle's remarkable story.

In 2001, the Plummers organized a family reunion and Fowler told his relatives the tale. A year later, Fowler organized the Committee to Clear Chaplain Plummer.

Fowler said the committee now has dozens of documents in support of Plummer's innocence and wants his great-uncle's good name restored.

Fowler appeared yesterday before the Prince George's County Council along with Prentice and other Buffalo Soldier re-enactors; Bowie City Councilman William Aleshire, who offered a proclamation from his colleagues; and others members of the committee, urging support for their effort.

"We have worked only for a short period and are so thankful for the successes we have experienced," Fowler told the council. Henry Plummer "was an unusual man who worked through the system. He did things in decency and in order."

Formal petition

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Fowler said the committee expects to file its formal petition to the Board for Correction of Military Records by Sept. 1. He said they hope to have a resolution by July 31 next year, when they intend to celebrate Henry Plummer's 160th birthday.

"It is important to correct and restore the legacy of our great black leaders and our role models," said Howard Cooley, a member of the Plummer committee who attended the hearing.

Based on the historical records of Plummer and his case, "It's just unbelievable that he would have done this," Cooley said.


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