I’ve been a history buff since I was a kid. I always thought that to be considered a “historian,” I would have to do this professionally, which is to say teach history or write about it or both, but the dictionary defines the word thusly:
historian: an expert in or student of history, especially that of a particular period, geographical region, or social phenomenon.
Well, I suppose using that definition, I would qualify. The above doesn’t say “of a particular person,” but I have spent more than a little time (and more than a little money) in the past 20 years researching the life and times of one particular person: our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. I have referenced TR in several of the posts on this blog, and as today is the 159th anniversary of his birth, I thought it appropriate to tell you about my latest literary effort, which recently led to one of the more enjoyable trips I’ve had. And that’s saying something, as there have been many of those.
I had always been fascinated with a particular period of Roosevelt’s life. It was relatively short, lasting less than a year, but it included what was without question the defining moment of his life. The year was 1898, toward the end of what became known as the Gilded Age, and although Roosevelt was a wealthy man, he chose not to spend that year in comfort and style. Instead, he chose to get down and dirty in combat. He joined the U.S. Army at the age of 39 and became the leader of one of our country’s most renowned military units, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. They were known, then and forevermore, as the Rough Riders.
With war on the horizon, Roosevelt got ready.
Many of our presidents served in the military prior to entering politics, of course, and several of those saw combat, but none of them had quite the same experience as Roosevelt. He grew up with a burning desire to prove himself, driving him to overcome childhood asthma by building up his body with weight-training and vigorous outdoor activities like rowing, horseback riding and hunting. He learned to box and wrestle, but TR’s most fervent hope was to be able to test himself in combat, which he considered the ultimate measure of manhood. His inspiration in this quest was his father. But unlike many sons, who follow their fathers’ footsteps into military service, TR decided to do exactly the opposite of what his own father had done.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (1831-78) avoided service in the Civil War by hiring a man to replace him in the draft, a common practice at the time. The elder Roosevelt was not a coward, though; quite probably, his decision was due to the fact that his wife, the former Martha Stewart “Mittie” Bulloch, was a Georgia-bred Southern belle whose older brothers fought for the Confederacy. (It was also said that Mittie was the ideal behind Margaret Mitchell’s character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.) To keep the peace in a home where his wife was actively supporting the Confederate cause, TR’s father made the difficult choice to pass on U.S. Army service himself. But he did throw himself into the Union war effort by organizing several ventures, the most prominent being the Allotment System, which allowed soldiers to have some of their pay sent home to their families. At his own expense, Roosevelt Sr. helped organize and operate the New York State branch of the system, a considerable undertaking. He had lobbied President Lincoln personally for the program, and during a visit to the White House, young Theodore was able to sit on the president’s knee.
As 1898 arrived, TR was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the administration of William McKinley. Tensions were high between America and Spain over its occupation of Cuba, the Caribbean island 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida. The Spanish had been in control of Cuba since founding their first settlement there in 1511, and their rule had grown increasingly autocratic over the centuries. Many Americans felt honestly revolted over the excesses of the Spaniards in their treatment of their Cuban subjects, and many others were just spoiling for a fight. Aside from its periodic skirmishes with Native Americans in the country’s interior, the U.S. had been at peace since the end of the Civil War 33 years earlier. Many prominent Americans felt their growing, industrialized country was not respected by the much older European powers, many of whom had colonies around the world. The best way to gain that respect, in their eyes, was to defeat one of those Old World empires in battle. Among those who tended to think along those lines was Theodore Roosevelt.
Using the power of his office, often while his boss, the Secretary of the Navy, was out of town, Roosevelt did what he could to prepare the Navy for war with Spain. When the battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on the evening of February 15, 1898, war fever in the U.S. began to rise precipitously. The Cuban insurgency against Spanish rule had been active for several years by then, but it was clear that without outside help, the Cubans’ quest for freedom would likely fail. Although the destruction of the Maine was never conclusively tied to a Spanish attack–a Navy inquiry later determined the likely cause was a fire in a coal bunker that ignited the ammunition magazine–“Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” became a rallying cry across the country. The fever was boosted by many sensational newspaper articles of Spanish atrocities, some of them completely fictional (the 19th century version of “fake news”). President McKinley finally asked Congress for a declaration of war, which passed on April 25.
Like nothing the Army had seen before.
The United States Army traces its history back to 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized the formation of ten companies of riflemen for service against the British in the Revolutionary War. Over the next 123 years, the Army would see many colorful units wear its uniform. In the War of 1812, the regiments who would later be formed into the 6th Infantry Regiment (“Regulars, by God!”) distinguished themselves under General Winfield Scott in the 1814 Battle of the Chippawa, the first time U.S. Army regulars demonstrated that they could hold their own against European soldiers. The 6th earned more honors under Zachary Taylor in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). The Civil War saw individual units on both sides garner many battlefield honors, including the Iron Brigade, formed mostly of Wisconsin troops, and the 20th Maine, which successfully defended Little Round Top at Gettysburg in one of the key engagements of the war’s pivotal battle.
In peacetime, the regular Army had always been small, by design. Early in the history of the nation, there was significant sentiment against maintaining a peacetime military force at all, except for the Navy, whose ships were needed to defend U.S. commerce on the high seas. Local militia were seen as the lynchpin of American territorial defense, and in wartime a great many militia units were incorporated into the regular Army and deployed in combat, similar to how the National Guard is used today. In the three major conflicts fought by the United States after the Revolution–the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the Civil War–volunteers had served as critical complements to the regular units deployed in the field. By 1898, this concept was still in place, and Theodore Roosevelt saw it as a way to raise the cavalry regiment he had been dreaming about since his days as a rancher in what is now North Dakota, some fifteen years before.
The size of the Army in 1898 was about 25,000 troops, the same as it had been since the end of Reconstruction, during which federal troops occupied the defeated Confederacy. That was only 0.04% of the total population of the country at the time. Throw in a few thousand more members of nascent National Guard units and that might boost the percentage up to 0.10%. By comparison, today we have about three times that many Army soldiers as a percentage of the population, counting the Guard and Reserves. In World War II, the Army was the largest it has ever been: 11.2 million in uniform, about 8.4% of the population.
President McKinley put out a call for volunteers to serve in the liberation of Cuba, and Roosevelt was ready. The newspapers, who had been following Roosevelt since his days as a young state legislator in New York in the early 1880s, were happy to get the word out about the new regiment, to be designated the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. Roosevelt wanted to concentrate his recruiting efforts to the states and territories of the Southwest; not only were those men experienced with horses and firearms, the hot climate of the region would have prepared them for tropical Cuba. But TR’s call to arms also produced men from the East, including many from Ivy League universities (TR was a Harvard alumnus himself). A good number of these men were athletes, including Dudley Dean, quarterback of the Harvard football team, and Bob Wrenn, four-time national tennis champion.
The newspapers quickly came up with nicknames for the outfit. Some that didn’t stick, fortunately, included monickers like “Roosey’s Red-Hot Roarers.” What did stick was Rough Riders. They came largely from the West but from many walks of life: cowboys, miners, policemen, sheriffs, veterans of the Indian Wars, and a few of the officers had seen action in the Civil War. There were some Native Americans among their number, but no African-Americans, even though many blacks, freed from slavery in the Confederacy, had settled in the West after the war. The Army was still segregated at the time and would remain so for another half-century, but during their penultimate engagement in Cuba, the Rough Riders would fight alongside all-black regiments.
After training near San Antonio, Texas, the Rough Riders shipped out, riding trains to Tampa, Florida, and from there by ship to Cuba. Some of the troopers had to be left behind for lack of space on board the available ships. Those who did make the voyage soon found themselves in the jungles of southeastern Cuba. Their commanding officer was a regular Army colonel, Leonard Wood. Roosevelt had been offered overall command by the War Department but turned it down in favor of the more experienced Wood, who was a close friend. TR was given the rank of lieutenant colonel and served as Wood’s second. During the short campaign, as illness decimated the ranks of officers and enlisted men, Wood was promoted and Roosevelt, now a full colonel, was given command of the Rough Riders.
Most of their horses had to be left behind in Tampa, although Roosevelt and a few other officers were able to bring their mounts along. The Rough Riders went into action as dismounted cavalry and distinguished themselves in battle. Their eternal fame was gained on the slopes of San Juan Heights, a pair of hills guarding the approach to the city of Santiago. Spanish ground and naval forces were concentrated there, rather than in Havana, and American strategists gambled that victory in Santiago would result in the capitulation of the Spaniards on the entire island. They were right.
The charge by the Rough Riders up San Juan Heights quickly gained fame as one of the greatest military efforts in the history of American arms. In truth, the Rough Riders were but one of several units who took part in the assault. But journalists who were accompanying the invading army had taken an early shine to Roosevelt and his men, and their dispatches consistently featured the Rough Riders in leading roles, often at the expense of other soldiers.
The Spanish troops were dug in on the hilltops and blistered the Americans with withering machine-gun and rifle fire. U.S. artillery was largely ineffective, leaving it up to the troops on the ground to take the heights. Support from a battery of Gatling guns was crucial to the success of the assault. Roosevelt led from the front, as he had throughout the campaign, further endearing himself to his men. Next to the Rough Riders, the 10th Cavalry, one of the Army’s four African-American regiments, fought gallantly and took casualties equal to those of the Rough Riders. The 10th’s commanding officer was a white man, Captain John J. Pershing, who 19 years later would command all U.S. forces in Europe during World War I.
After taking the Heights, the Americans and their Cuban insurgent allies besieged the Spaniards in Santiago, and it didn’t take long for the city to surrender. The Spanish fleet that had been bottled up in the harbor tried to make a run for the open sea but was decimated by the U.S. fleet lurking offshore. By the time the Spanish flag came down in Cuba, American forces had already driven the Spaniards out of their island colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In the peace settlement, Spain turned all those territories over to U.S. jurisdiction and threw in the Pacific island of Guam. The Cubans and Filipinos eventually were granted independence, but Puerto Rico and Guam remain U.S. territories to this day.
By any measure, the war was a complete victory for the Americans. Our casualties were relatively light: fewer than 400 men were killed in action in both theaters, with another 2,000 succumbing to accidents or illness. More than 4,000 American servicemen would die over the next four years in the Philippines, when the natives refused to simply accept a change in administration from one colonial power to another and rose up in revolt. American forces led by General Arthur MacArthur, father of future general Douglas, eventually quashed the insurrection, and 40 years later thousands of Americans would die in defense of the Philippines against the invading Japanese.
Of more than 1,200 men who went to Cuba with the Rough Riders, 23 were killed in action. Another 22 died later of their wounds or of disease, and rather astonishingly, 14 committed suicide.
Roosevelt’s fame became even more widespread after the war. He was elected governor of New York later in 1898 and vice-president on McKinley’s victorious ticket in 1900. In September 1901, after McKinley was assassinated, TR became the youngest president in American history, taking office a month before his 43rd birthday. He was elected to a full term by a landslide in 1904, declined to run for another term in 1908, and then challenged incumbent William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. Although he won most of the primaries, the nomination was still decided in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms back then, and Taft secured it at the convention. Roosevelt was persuaded to run at the head of the new Progressive Party’s ticket and came in second to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. If Roosevelt had overcome Taft for the GOP nomination, he would have won the election rather handily. Who knows how history might have changed?
Remembering the Rough Riders.
Roosevelt died in 1919, a few months past his 60th birthday, but his impressive accomplishments as president live on, a century later. As to the Army unit he created and led into battle, the Spanish-American War service of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry would be its first and last time in the field. During World War I, Roosevelt tried to raise a volunteer division for service in France, but Wilson and his War Department would have nothing to do with it. Roosevelt’s four sons and younger daughter all served at the front; youngest son Kermit, a fighter pilot, was killed in action just weeks before the Armistice.
Many of the Rough Riders served in World War I and a few were officers in World War II. Reunions were held every year, beginning in 1899, when now-Governor Roosevelt traveled to New Mexico to meet his men in the town of Las Vegas. The reunions lasted until the late 1960s. The last Rough Rider, Jesse Langdon, died in 1975.
Twenty-two years later, TNT produced a two-part TV movie about the outfit. Rough Riders was directed by John Milius and starred Tom Berenger as Roosevelt and Brian Keith, in his last role, as President McKinley. Venerable Western star Sam Elliott played Capt. Bucky O’Neill, an Arizonan with a typically colorful background. Thirty-eight years old when he joined the Rough Riders, O’Neill had worked as a newspaper reporter, sheriff, judge and mining magnate. As a reporter in Tombstone, he knew Wyatt Earp and reported on the famous 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral. Killed at San Juan Heights, O’Neill was one of the few officers who died in combat.
I remember watching the movie when it aired with my wife, Sue, and a few days later with my father at my grandmother’s house in Platteville. The film made quite an impression on me, inspiring me to begin my study of Roosevelt’s life. In 2011, my youngest brother Brian joined me for a tour of the Old West. We rode horses in the Dakotas and explored the sites of Roosevelt’s ranch houses in the national park that bears his name in North Dakota, and we rode wearing Rough Rider replica uniforms. It was a special time, one that my son-in-law, Mike Marolda, and I reprised on our visit to New Mexico earlier this month.
I was in New Mexico to do research for a new novel, which will be titled The Heights of Valor. Without giving away too much of the plot, it involves a young man who leaves the University of Wisconsin to join the regiment in 1898, and his great-great-grandson, who is serving with Army Special Forces in modern-day Iraq. I already had some pretty good reference material, but decided to go to one of the most authentic sources in the country, the Las Vegas Public Museum, which has perhaps the best collection of Rough Rider archives in existence. New Mexico, then a territory, supplied the largest number of Rough Riders.
There have been several books written about the Rough Riders, including TR’s own account, published in 1899. I have a first edition of that volume as part of my personal Roosevelt collection. Two of the more contemporary accounts that are worth reading are The Boys of ’98 by Dale L. Walker, published in 1999, and Mark Lee Gardner’s stirring Rough Riders, which came out last year.
The more I learned about Roosevelt and his men, the more I wanted to find out. What manner of men were they? What made them leave their homes and relatively comfortable, peacetime lives to risk everything in Cuba? It certainly wasn’t the money; I saw the discharge papers of several troopers in the archives, and they were paid about $150 when they were mustered out after five months of service. From what I have found out, they were motivated by many things: patriotism, of course, but a lot of them were bored with their civilian lives, that the adventurous life of a soldier promised to erase. Many wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves. Most of them, including Roosevelt, felt they had something to prove–to their fathers, many of whom had fought in the Civil War, to their friends, and especially to themselves. In other words, their reasons were similar to those that motivate men (and women) to join the military today.
Would the United States have defeated Spain in 1898 without the Rough Riders? Undoubtedly yes. Spain’s navy was no match for ours, and without naval support to keep open their lines of reinforcement and supply, the Spanish troops on the islands could not last long against the invading Americans, who had access to almost limitless supplies and reinforcements, and had the backing of the indigenous guerillas besides. As to the reasons leading to our intervention, historians continue to debate the causes of the war to this day. Kicking the Spaniards out of Cuba would open a large, virtually untapped market to American goods, so there was certainly an economic incentive for the U.S., and American control of the island would also mean American control of its exports, an issue that is subtly addressed in the film, when Roosevelt is shown with a sugar company’s sign in the background. The desire for empire played a big part, too. Were these good reasons for going to war? To most Americans of the day, the answer was yes. Today, we have a tendency to view our ancestors’ actions through the lens of our own modern sensibilities and experiences. Whatever war you’re talking about, there are always going to be economic reasons behind the decision to send in the troops, and some will want war for reasons even more selfish than that. We should be careful about judging their decisions; after all, Americans in future centuries will doubtless look back on a lot of our decisions and question our motives, too.
What cannot be disputed is that the peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were freed from autocratic Spanish rule, and today they are either independent nations themselves or territories of the United States, with the potential for statehood and full inclusion in American society and its freedoms. Although the French and Dutch retain a handful of Caribbean islands to this day, and Britain held onto Jamaica and the Bahamas until well into the 20th century, European colonial rule in the Americas was effectively finished by the latter half of the 19th century. Spain and Portugal once controlled the entire Western Hemisphere from the Mexican-American border southward to the tip of South America, but by the end of the 19th century, it was all gone. Britain granted independence to Canada in 1867 (although full legal independence didn’t happen until 1982). It was only a matter of time before Spain’s grip on those islands was thrown off, from without or from within. No doubt our intervention in 1898 hastened the process, almost certainly saving lives on both sides that would have been lost to grinding, years-long insurgencies.
There is little that is romantic about war, as anybody who has served in combat can tell you. But there is undeniably a sense of romance about the Rough Riders, in the sense of the allure their story still has for us, 119 years after they went ashore in Cuba. So here’s to TR and Bucky O’Neill, Jesse Langdon and Hamilton Fish and all the other men who served in that famous outfit, including my fictional creation, Charles Dawson of Platteville, Wisconsin. Gentlemen, you made us proud in ’98, and you still do today.