While recently enjoying Ken Burns’s excellent documentary episodes The Roosevelts (2014), one of the stories about Theodore Roosevelt made me want to find out more. The narrator mentioned President Teddy Roosevelt’s handling of a black regiment in Brownsville, Texas. Roosevelt gave a dishonorable discharge to a black sergeant who had once shared his food rations with Roosevelt in Cuba. I became curious to find out more about this unnamed man who was treated so poorly. And with a little research I soon found his name was Mingo Sanders.
Sanders’ Early Service
Mingo Sanders, who had been born in March 1858 in Marion, S.C., enlisted in the Army on May 16, 1881. In 1888, he went to Missoula, Montana (there are conflicting stories whether or not he was married yet, in which case he brought his wife Luella). There, he served with Company B of the 25th Infantry.
In 1897, the 39-year-old Sergeant Sanders played an important role in helping Lt. James A. Moss test the military use of bicycles on a trip between Missoula and St. Louis. Sanders was older than the other men and was partially blind from an explosion during his long military service. But he earned the admiration of his men on the difficult 41-day journey.
Sanders Encounters Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba
Not long after the trip, the Spanish-American War broke out and the 25th Infantry’s commission in Missoula ended. Many of the men, including Sanders, were sent to Cuba.
Sanders and his colleagues would play a brave and important role in the capture of San Juan Hill, the battle that made Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders famous. Despite all the credit given to Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, black soldiers made up about 25% of the U.S. forces in Cuba and played an important role in the battles.
It was in Cuba where Sanders first crossed paths with Roosevelt. On one occasion, Roosevelt went to Sanders and asked Sanders to give some of his unit’s hardtack rations to the Rough Riders.
Sanders continued to have a distinguished career. Eight years after his efforts in Cuba, he rescued five white prisoners during a conflict between the United States and the First Philippine Republic. For his work, he received a medal of honor.
The Dishonorable Discharge
Unfortunately for Sanders, his life would cross paths with Roosevelt’s responsibilities once again. In 1906, Sanders had served in the military for 26 years and was near retirement. That year, the 25th Infantry was stationed in Brownsville, Texas, where the town was not welcoming of the black soldiers. After some arguments in the town, on Aug. 13, 1906, someone or some people fired shots, killing a white bartender and wounding a police officer.
Some of the townspeople blamed the black soldiers. But their white officers insisted the men were all at the barracks at Fort Brown at the time of the shooting.
At this time Theodore Roosevelt was president. Amid rising racial tensions in the Brownsville area, he sent officers to conduct an inquiry. Through interviews with the men of the 25th Infantry, they found no witnesses.
Without any type of trial, President Roosevelt ordered the men to be given dishonorable discharges. Among the men was Mingo Sanders, the man who had once shared his food with Roosevelt. President Roosevelt waited until after Congressional elections in November 1906 to order the discharge, so that black voters would not abandon the party.
After the Discharge
In later elections, though, many used the Brownsville decision against Roosevelt. President Taft had even appointed Sanders to federal positions as sort of an anti-Roosevelt reminder. Sanders settled in Washington, D.C. with his wife, eventually dying on August 23, 1929 and then being buried at Arlington Cemetery, where his wife Luella was also buried in 1942.
In 1972, Congress would reopen the case of the Brownsville shooting. It absolved Mingo Sanders and his fellow soldiers of the shooting. President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill giving the men honorable discharges.
The following video from Montana PBS recounts the story of Sanders’s Montana unit that tested out the use of bicycles for soldiers. It also tells about Roosevelt’s order discharging Sanders and the other men. Check out The Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army On Wheels (2000).
Screenshot via YouTube. Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)