Brownsville Raid of 1906

By: Garna Christian

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: September 30, 2020

The Brownsville Raid of August 13–14, 1906, an alleged attack by soldiers from companies B, C, and D of the black Twenty-fifth United States Infantry stationed at Fort Brown, resulted in the largest summary dismissals in the annals of the United States Army. The First Battalion, minus Headquarters and Company A, arrived at Brownsville, a community of 6,000, from recent duty in the Philippines and Fort Niobrara, Nebraska, on July 28. The soldiers immediately confronted racial discrimination from some businesses and suffered several instances of physical abuse from federal customs collectors. A reported attack on a White woman during the night of August 12 so incensed many townspeople that Maj. Charles W. Penrose, after consultation with Mayor Frederick Combe, declared an early curfew the following day to avoid trouble. The evening passed peacefully until around midnight, when a brief shooting spree claimed the life of bartender Frank Natus and destroyed the arm of police lieutenant M. Y. Dominguez. Various residents claimed to observe soldiers running through the streets shooting, despite the darkness of the hour and vantage points of considerable distance.

Several sets of civilian and military investigations presumed the guilt of the soldiers without identifying individual culprits. A citizens' committee, cooperating with Penrose's own inquiry, successfully demanded the removal of the troops but failed to receive White replacements. Maj. Augustus P. Blocksom, of the army's Southwestern Division, deemed the soldiers uncooperative and urged their dismissal if they refused to turn evidence. The men denied any knowledge of the shooting, while officers and a sentry reported hearing pistol fire outside the reservation. Texas Ranger captain William Jesse McDonald pursued the trail to twelve enlisted men, whom he arrested for holding positions key to a conspiracy. However, a Cameron County grand jury failed to return any indictments. Inspector General Ernest A. Garlington charged a "conspiracy of silence" against the companies and urged implementation of Blocksom's suggestion. Accordingly, on November 5 President Theodore Roosevelt summarily discharged "without honor" all 167 enlisted men previously garrisoning Fort Brown.

The action of Roosevelt, who had served with black troops in the Spanish-American War and conspicuously appointed African Americans to office, shocked his black constituency and moved the controversy to the national stage. The Constitution League, a civil-rights organization, decried the lack of due process accorded the soldiers and impugned the timing of the order, which followed the congressional elections. Amid signs of alienation that could jeopardize the presidential ambitions of Secretary of War William Howard Taft, Senator Joseph B. Foraker (R-Ohio) urged a Senate investigation.

Foraker, a nemesis of Roosevelt and an aspiring presidential candidate in his own right, kept the issue alive through speeches and writings over the next several years. He and Roosevelt clashed in addresses to the Gridiron Club in 1907 and hired private detectives to enhance their investigations. The Senate Military Affairs Committee, which included Foraker, conducted hearings while courts-martial cleared Penrose and officer-of-the-day Capt. Edgar A. Macklin of alleged negligence. The majority report, issued in March 1908, concurred with the official White House decision, while a minority of four Republicans found the evidence inconclusive. Yet another minority report, submitted by Foraker and Morgan G. Bulkeley (R-Connecticut), asserted the soldiers' innocence. It assailed alleged contradictory, insufficient, and contrived evidence and bias of witnesses and investigators. The report suggested that townspeople or outsiders had staged the raid to banish the black troops or to avenge customs enforcement.

Submitting to pressure, the administration appointed a board of retired army officers to review applications for reenlistment. After interviewing somewhat over half the applicants, the Court of Military Inquiry in 1910 inexplicably approved only fourteen of the men. The decision, in conjunction with Taft's presidential victory, Roosevelt's retirement, and Foraker's failure to win renomination, effectively closed the matter for more than sixty years.

In 1972, convinced by recent research critical of the government's handling of the affair, Representative Augustus Hawkins (D-California) urged justice for the debarred soldiers. The Nixon administration concurred and awarded honorable discharges without back pay. Still maintaining the battalion's innocence, Dorsie Willis, the only surviving veteran, received a $25,000 pension.

Garna L. Christian, "The Brownsville Raid's 168th Man: The Court-Martial of Corporal Knowles," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93 (July 1989). Ann J. Lane, The Brownsville Affair: National Crisis and Black Reaction (Port Washington, New York: National University Publications, Kennikat Press, 1971). New York Times, September 29, 1972. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Brownsville, Texas-Riot). John D. Weaver, The Brownsville Raid (New York: Norton, 1970).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Garna Christian, “Brownsville Raid of 1906,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 29, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994
September 30, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: