How Fake History Gets Made
A minor incident gets distorted in order to provide the British with the racial history they desire.
Over the weekend, a village in Lancashire celebrated the 80th anniversary of “the Battle of Bamber Bridge.” There was a dramatic reenactment as well as live musical entertainment, a history walk, and an academic symposium in collaboration with the U.S. embassy. In the American press, the anniversary was marked by long feature articles in both the Associated Press and NPR on the episode and its enduring significance.
This was all a bit excessive considering that the Battle of Bamber Bridge was not a battle at all. It was a race riot. Its central incident was not much more than a bar fight.
On June 24, 1943, two American military police on patrol in Bamber Bridge were told that there was a “disturbance” at Ye Olde Hob Inn. When they arrived at the inn, they found a black soldier not in proper uniform, Private Eugene Nunn, whom they attempted to arrest. A crowd of British civilians and a dozen black soldiers protested that Nunn wasn’t hurting anybody and menaced the M.P.s, who left in their Jeep. As they drove away, a beer bottle flew over their heads and broke on the windshield.
Having been prevented from carrying out a lawful arrest, the M.P.s got backup and returned. They found a group of black soldiers, including Nunn, drunk and disorderly in the street. When they attempted to arrest the men, a brawl began. Stones and bottles were thrown, breaking the nose of one M.P. and the jaw of another. One black soldier was shot in the back while trying to grab the gun out of the holster of an unconscious M.P. who had been knocked out by a rock. Two others were shot while hurling projectiles.
The black soldiers retreated with their wounded back to camp, where they started wild rumors that white M.P.s were on a rampage. A mob of 100 to 200 black soldiers gathered at the main gate. Their NCOs either refused or were unable to impose discipline. At midnight, a group of M.P.s arrived at camp in a Jeep equipped with a machine gun, which inflamed the mob. The commanding officer ordered the M.P.s to leave but the sight of the machine gun had already resulted in a panic. The black soldiers raided the armory, and some took their arms into town. One black private, William Crossland, died in the confused gunfire overnight, the night’s only fatality. Weapons were collected the next morning.
Not much of a battle. Certainly not the glorious civil rights protest that AP and NPR try to make it out to be. Nunn and his friends were not staging a sit-in; they were drunk and disorderly and then spread wild rumors to fuel an angry mob. The NPR article, in its description of the fight, skips directly from the thrown beer bottle to the M.P.s coming back with a mounted machine gun, giving the impression that the M.P.s violently harassed the black soldiers for no reason and then overreacted. This version of events omits the soldiers’ escalating violent assaults, culminating in mutiny, a serious matter especially in wartime.
No one in the U.K. had ever heard of the “Battle of Bamber Bridge” until a few years ago, when the British decided to rewrite their own history to revolve around race. Inconveniently for them, there were only about 8,000 black people in all of Great Britain in 1939, so naturally they have had to blow minor events out of proportion. The 2022 reboot of the children’s classic The Railway Children has a plot line based on the Bamber Bridge incident.
What’s the problem with that? The Battle of Bamber Bridge may be a minor incident, but from the British perspective it was basically a nice one, emphasizing their national sense of fair play and sympathy for the underdog. Why rain on their parade?
Because once you bend the truth about stories like this, the lies tend to get out of hand. That’s what has always happened before.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon pardoned the one surviving member of the three companies of black soldiers discharged over the Brownsville Raid of 1906. The Army retroactively gave all 167 men honorable discharges and sent pensions to the surviving widows. The lone surviving veteran, Pvt. Dorsie Willis, was invited to Washington and presented with an official apology for the federal government’s handling of the episode under President Teddy Roosevelt.
The problem is, there is no reason to doubt the original story in the Brownsville affair. Teddy got it right the first time.
On the night of August 12, 1906, shots were fired in the streets of Brownsville, Texas, in a part of town adjacent to the army fort. For 10 minutes, bullets went through the windows and walls of residences, including one where women and children were sleeping. Amazingly, only one person was killed, a Mexican bartender. A police horse was also shot and the policeman wounded, resulting in the amputation of his arm.
Within hours, everyone agreed that a group of about ten or twenty black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment had done the shooting. There were eye-witnesses. There were ear-witnesses who heard the men shouting. Tensions had been building between the fort and the town, with the black soldiers resenting the way the white Texans treated them and the townspeople suspecting a soldier of a recent attempted rape. Shells and cartridges from military Springfield rifles were found in the alley where the shooting took place. This last piece of physical evidence convinced even the regiment’s white commanding officer that his men were guilty.
To get around this overwhelming evidence, revisionists have to construct an elaborate conspiracy where the people of Brownsville framed the soldiers. The physical evidence was supposedly taken from a box of discarded shells from the firing range and scattered in the alley. The trouble with this version is that the box in question held shells from fifty different rifles, and the ones found in the alley came from only three. The townspeople would have had to pick out exactly the right shells from a box of a thousand.
No one in any of the three companies suspected of the crime would testify and there was not enough evidence to identify individual culprits, so Teddy Roosevelt, thinking that the army should not employ men who cover for murderers, gave everyone “discharges without honor” (more neutral than a dishonorable discharge). The plight of the discharged soldiers was taken up by Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio, a Republican business lawyer who hated Roosevelt for his economic populism and is generally thought to have used the Brownsville issue cynically. The black leaders who rallied behind Foraker did not argue that the soldiers were innocent, just that the mass discharge was unfair.
Only in 1970 did a journalist publish a book arguing that the Brownsville shooting was not done by the soldiers at all. Nixon probably did not believe this revisionist version of events, with its allegations of an elaborate racist conspiracy. The White House probably just figured that it was all right to bend the truth a little, if there was a chance there could be votes in it. It all happened so long ago, it can’t hurt to print the legend.
But there is a cost to printing the legend. The Houston Mutiny of 1917 was similar to the Brownsville incident, involving escalating racial tensions and a group of soldiers shooting at civilians. In 2021, the Houston Police Department tweeted a memorial to five of its officers killed during that 1917 riot, with the hashtag #NeverForget, as part of its “End of Watch” series. They deleted the tweet after social media users accused them of celebrating a “race massacre.”
Once again, the activists were distorting history in order to paint a violent riot as a noble uprising. The actual facts of the Houston mutiny are not at all favorable to the black mutineers. There was very little connection between their grievance—racist treatment by Houston police—and their victims.
On August 23, 1917, approximately a hundred soldiers left camp and marched armed through the streets of Houston shooting civilians almost at random. Their victims included a white teenager who came out onto his porch to see the commotion and a Mexican worker who had fallen asleep on a bench. One group of soldiers waylaid an ambulance, forced the driver and two medical officers to get out, and shot at the men as they fled. They shot Charles W. Wright as he raised his hands to surrender. One man was pulled from his car and beaten to death. In all, eleven civilians were killed, in addition to the five Houston police who died trying to halt the senseless shooting.
A movie was recently made about the incident, The 24th, which thankfully got buried during Covid. The movie itself is well done (Trai Byers of Empire and Mykelti Williamson of Forrest Gump give excellent performances), but its message is evil.
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During the soldiers’ march through the streets of Houston, a white civilian comes out onto his porch and asks if they are on night maneuvers. For his curiosity, he gets a bullet through the chest. When our main character, Corporal William Boston (Byers), looks uneasy about this cold-blooded murder, one of his companions reassures him, “Ain’t nobody innocent here. Not them, not us, nobody.”
The climactic monologue takes place when a friendly white officer (played by Thomas Haden Church) tries to convince Boston to testify at the court-martial in order to escape hanging. Boston refuses: “I wanted to kill them just as much as the others did. Every time they spit, they pissed, they beat us down, I could feel it. Hate. But when I aimed the gun...I won’t stay unheard forever. You keep pushing people down, sooner or later they rise up. And they won’t see a man, they’ll see murder. If death is the price for a night of justice, I’m ready to pay it.”
Here we have the end result of all this historical revisionism: referring to the murder of innocent civilians as “a night of justice.” Again and again, activists are allowed to rewrite history because the rest of us can’t be bothered to insist on the truth. The activists care so much more than we do, and we don’t want to waste political capital relitigating what happened in a Texas alley 100 years ago. But energy spent fighting over history is not wasted. This revisionism has political consequences in the present day—as we will all be reminded the next time violent riots are depicted as “mostly peaceful protests.”