By John E. Carey
Henry Vinton Plummer, slave-born, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and saw combat in the Civil War, enrolled in a seminary after the war and became an Army chaplain to the famed Buffalo Soldiers. However, he was drummed out of the Army and humiliated on what his descendants are convinced was a trumped-up charge. He continued to serve his community as a minister until his death in 1905 at age 60.
Plummer was born at Three Sisters plantation in Prince George’s County in 1844. The owners sold young Henry and his mother to residents of the District in 1851. Family records show he lived in the Meridian Hill section of the city and later at Ellicott Mills in Maryland. In 1862, Plummer escaped and made his way to Riverdale, where he hid until he could reach an aunt’s house in Washington.
Soon after (the family says in 1862; Navy records say 1864) he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the USS Coeur de Lion (which means “lionheart” in French), a paddle-wheel steamer of 110 tons. Officially, she was classified as a “fourth rate” – a converted lighthouse tender that the Navy had pressed into service as a warship.
Because the Coeur de Lion operated from the Washington Navy Yard, Plummer probably reported aboard immediately after his enlistment.
The vessel was 110 feet long and had a shallow draft of just over 41/2 feet. Constructed of wood and with a steam boiler, she probably could navigate rivers as fast as 6 to 10 knots. When converted to naval use, she was armed with a 30-pound Dahlgren rifle, a 12-pound rifle and one light 12-pound smoothbore.
During Plummer’s service, he certainly saw action in many engagements, as Coeur de Lion frequently engaged blockade runners and Confederate warships in the Eastern rivers, including the Potomac and the James.
Coeur de Lion burned the schooners Charily, Gazelle, and Flight in the Appomattox River on May 27, 1862.
Navy records also show she burned the schooners Sarah Alaroarof and Odd Fellow on the Coan River on June 1, 1862. Enforcing the blockade, Coeur de Lion captured the schooner Emily Murray off Machodoc Creek, Va., on Feb. 9, 1863. She also engaged the schooners Robert Knowles (Sept. 16, 1863) and Malinda (June 3, 1864) in the Potomac. During a reconnaissance up the Nansemond River, Coeur de Lion exchanged fire with enemy batteries on April 17 and 19, 1863.
Plummer was honorably discharged from the Navy just after the end of the Civil War. The next year, his family dispatched Henry to New Orleans to find his sister, Sarah, who had been sold in 1860. He found and returned with Sarah, who later started St. Paul Baptist Church in Bladensburg.
In 1872, Plummer enrolled at Wayland Seminary, where he graduated in 1876. He became the third pastor of his sister’s First Colored Baptist Church of Bladensburg. During his tenure, the church’s name was changed to St. Paul’s Baptist Church. He served five years and in 1881 became pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington.
He applied to become an Army chaplain in 1884. With Plummer’s war record, service to his congregation and letters of recommendation from dignitaries such as Frederick Douglass, Plummer won appointment in the U.S. Army’s Chaplain Corps. The Army assigned Plummer to minister to the famed 9th U.S. Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, deployed to Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Plummer reported to Fort Riley, Kan., where he immediately made an impression as a spiritual leader and an excellent minister to the men. His commanding officer attended services and encouraged the troops to “a higher state of morality and education.”
The post correspondent to the Army-Navy Journal complimented Plummer on his fine sermons and prayers and for “doing a good work among the soldiers.” The writer also noted that Plummer could “discount any of the white Chaplains in the Service.”
Plummer’s commander at Fort Robinson, Neb., reported that he had never seen such large church attendance at a military post. He said the “efficient manner” in which Plummer carried out his work was the reason for the devotion of the men.
In 1894, Mrs. Mary Garrard, an officer’s wife and the chapel organist, wrote that Plummer was “energetic, faithful & devoted to his duties.” She noted that his influence on the troops was “decidedly good” and that she had never seen a chaplain with “such large congregations.” She also cited his “untiring efforts.” She also said that Plummer succeeded “almost entirely without help or encouragement from the officers” – officers of the regiment were white, the troopers black.
Plummer was more than a preacher, however. He supervised bakeries, monitored the quality of the food, wrote for newspapers and led an effort to stem the amount of alcohol consumed. He was the equivalent of today’s “morale, welfare and recreation officer.”
Plummer took a stand against the hard drinking at the lonely and remote Army outposts by persuading the adjutant general of the Army to halt beer sales at Fort Robinson. Naturally, this action brought him enemies. Some of the officers began to call Plummer a “disturbing element.”
As editor for the Fort Robinson Weekly Bulletin and resident manager of the Fort Robinson department of the Omaha Progress, Plummer made sure news of interest to the black troops appeared prominently. Suspicious that Plummer’s newspaper activities could undermine “the colored troops’ ” confidence in their officers, the post commander of the time wrote a confidential letter about the chaplain’s activities to the commanding general of the Department of the Platte.
One of Plummer’s initiatives was to try to persuade the adjutant general of the Army and the secretary of war to send him to central Africa with some black troops on an “exploring and missionary tour.” He wanted to introduce “American civilization and Christianization among some of the tribes” and “form a nucleus for a colony of black Americans” to go. Plummer spoke of an opportunity to “secure a slice of the African turkey, before it is gobbled up by foreign nations.” The secretary of war declined Plummer’s offer, saying there was “no law authorizing” him to detail “any officers of the Army for such an expedition.”
Unfortunately, after espousing temperance for so many years, Plummer was accused of drinking at a sergeant’s promotion party. To this day, his family believes the accusation was a fabrication. One Plummer enemy was a black sergeant who had worked under Plummer’s supervision at the Fort Riley bakery. On at least one occasion, Plummer had disciplined the sergeant. The disgruntled noncom had made an official complaint against Plummer.
Plummer was accused of “conduct unbecoming an officer,” and after an 11-day general court-martial, Henry Vinton Plummer was found guilty as charged and sentenced to be separated from military service.
After the court-martial and discharge, Plummer moved his family to Kansas City, Kan., where he again led a congregation of his own and also held office in the Kansas State Baptist Convention.
Immediately after he was separated from the service, Plummer began trying to overturn the court’s decision or to receive a pardon. His efforts and those of his descendants were not successful – until recently, when the U.S. Army Board for the Correction of Military Records agreed to review the case. This could take place within weeks, with the prospect of restoring Plummer’s good name and family pride.
John E. Carey is a historian in Arlington who has done extensive research on the chaplains and nuns of the Civil War and Old West. A version of this article appeared in the February issue of Naval Institute Proceedings.