Historically yours : Teddy Roosevelt’s biggest mistake

Teddy Roosevelt made a terrible blunder in his otherwise outstanding presidential career: the Brownville riot. On August 16, 1906 Teddy received a telegram from the Mayor of Brownsville Texas, advising that three days earlier, some 20-30 colored soldiers left the garrison, fired rifles in town, killing a resident and injuring a police officer. Roosevelt ordered a full report. The 25th Infantry, some 160 Negro soldiers, had arrived in Brownsville a few weeks earlier and local racial tensions began to rise. Commanding Officer Penrose took the precaution of restricting the Negro soldiers to quarters. Late on evening, the men were aroused by the sound of rifle shots fired from outside the post. Penrose immediately ordered his men to fall in for roll call with their arms. All soldiers were accounted for except two on special leave. The rifles of all the Negro soldiers were inspected and found to be clean.

The Mayor presented empty cartridge shells found in the local streets. Penrose acknowledged that the discharged shells were identical to those supplied to the Negro soldiers. All Negro soldiers professed innocence of any crime. Inspector General Blocksom, sent to hear the matter, concluded that it must have been the Negro soldiers and many of the other men must have known of the plan. The report was sent to Roosevelt for official action. Roosevelt, believing it was “conspiracy of silence,” ordered the entire Negro company dishonorably discharged, including those who had been in service for over 15 years, six Medal of Honor winners and 13 soldiers who had been honored for bravery. The men forfeited all pension and military rights.

Editorial comment was severe against Roosevelt. Senator Joseph Foraker, a Civil War veteran, after demanding an investigation, declared that the evidence against the few alleged perpetrators was insufficient to find them guilty and there was no evidence of any conspiracy. The expert proof established that the spent shells were used by the Negro troops at their prior post for target practice, saved by the government and made available to the public at Brownsville. Foraker concluded that the Negro troops had nothing to do with the riot, that local residents had perpetrated the crimes and blamed it on the Negro soldiers. Teddy undoubtedly realized that he had made a terrible mistake. He then compounded his error by possible violation of the Constitutional rights of the soldiers in reversing the required burden of proof by stating that any man would be reinstated if he could prove his innocence. The damage was done. Few were reinstated. To his dying day, Teddy insisted that he did “substantial justice.” Constitutional scholars disagree. It is revealing that in Teddy’s autobiography, the Brownsville incident was strangely omitted.

Sources; Quora, “What was Teddy Roosevelt’s Greatest Mistake,”: Theodore Roosevelt Center, at Dickenson State University, “Brownsville Incident,”: History News Network, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Biggest Mistake,”: Theodore Roosevelt Center, etc. “Race, Ethnicity and Gender.”

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