A Guide to the Frederick Combe Papers, 1898-1909
Dr. Frederick Combe, a former Army surgeon during the Spanish American War, was the acting Mayor of Brownsville, Texas during 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 Stated Infantry stationed at Fort Brown, which resulted in the largest summary dismissals in the annals of the United States Army.
Upon arriving in Brownsville on July 28, 1906, the soldiers were 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. Around midnight, a brief shooting spree claimed the life of bartender Frank Natus and injured 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 successfully demanded the removal of the troops while 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.
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. 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.
A 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.
The papers of Dr. Frederick Combe include business records, which comprise the bulk of the collection, personal and professional correspondence with other medical doctors, druggists, and patients, and records pertaining to his time in the U. S. Army and as mayor of Brownsville, Texas. Papers relating to Combe’s time as mayor include records for projects and initiatives in commerce and economic development as well as city planning, including Brownsville’s first sewage and electricity plants, roads, and rail and waterways.
This collection is open for research use.
Frederick Combe Papers, 1898-1909, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
This collection was processed by Stefanie Lapka, December 2012.
Detailed Description of the Papers