In Brownsville, Texas
on the night of August 13, 1906 a gun battle broke out. During a ten-minute period, referred to in the popular press of the time as the Affray at Brownsville
, twenty blacks were alleged to have fired some 150 to 200 shots throughout downtown Brownsville. The shooting killed a white bartender and seriously wounded a white policeman.
White townspeople blamed three companies of the 25th Colored Infantry stationed at nearby Fort Brown for the attack, believing it was retaliation for the town's harassment of the African American soldiers. The black soldiers denied involvement in the affair and an inspection of their weapons found that none had been fired. The ensuing investigation failed to identify any individual culprits and the Army Inspector General concluded that the battalion's conspiracy of silence was shielding the guilty parties.
The bulk of the evidence against the soldiers consisted of 39 cartridge casings and some spent bullets all "found" by white townspeople in a back alley sometime after the incident. These casings and bullets, along with numerous rifles belonging to the three infantry companies, were collected and sent to the staff of the Frankfort Arsenal for examination. This marked the first time that a serious study was undertaken to attempt and identify fired cartridge cases to specific rifles. The arsenal staff was able to specifically identify 33 of the fired cartridge casings as having been fired from four of the submitted rifles. The remaining six cartridge casings could not be associated with any of the submitted rifles and no conclusions were reached concerning any of the spent bullets. A report titled Study of the Fired Bullets and Shells in Brownsville, Texas, Riot was published in 1907 by the US Government Printing Office. This exhaustive examination of evidence is the first recorded instance of fired cartridge casings being evaluated as evidence and is a milestone in the history of firearms identification.
Unable to determine individual guilt, President Theodore Roosevelt followed the Inspector General's recommendation and, without a trial, dishonorably discharged all three companies - 167 of the 170 soldiers in the 1st Battalion of the 25th Infantry - knowing full well that the majority were innocent of any wrongdoing. Roosevelt's decision forfeited the pension of many seasoned soldiers, including six Medal of Honor winners. These men had fought bravely throughout the American West, served with distinction in Cuba and the Philippines and, ironically, had backed up Roosevelt's Rough Riders in their assault on San Juan Hill.
Roosevelt waited on dismissing the battalion until after election day. He issued his decision a day after African Americans had cast crucial votes for his Republican Party in several state elections. But Roosevelt's decision destroyed his reputation among African Americans. In the first decade of the 20th century, 704 black Americans were lynched - more than one per week. The Affray at Brownsville convinced many blacks that they couldn't expect help from Roosevelt in the wake of these increasing white-on-black assaults. The erosion of black political support helped deny Roosevelt the presidency in the election of 1912.