Roosevelts Rough Riders
Their Path into History
R. Andrew Kincheloe
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, William McKinley defeated Grover Cleveland for the presidency and there was a huge push for the United States of America to expand beyond its continental boarders. (Lorant, p. 281) With an enthusiasm for a new urge for international Manifest Destiny, the American people wanted to match Europes imperial power by making Americas weight felt around the world. (Boger p.714) The extent of expansionism was felt in the Pacific Ocean with the occupation of the Hawaiian Islands and Guam, but the most famous example of Americas enthusiasm for international assertiveness came in the Caribbean with the war for Cuban independence against Spain. (Boger p.714) The Spanish-American war was a war that made the United States emerge as a world power and has sense been thought of as the most popular war in American history. (Lorant, p. 281) As John Hay had said, It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest matters, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by the fortune which loves the brave. (Lorant, p. 297) Words that truly captured the feelings of all Americans at the time. In the American peoples eyes, the war was not won by political jargon or a decisive Naval campaign, but by a rugged Lieutenant Colonel and his band of outlaws, cowboys, and Harvard polo-players, more commonly known as the Rough Riders. (Lorant, p. 295) Although the war was not won by Roosevelts Rough Rider charge up San Juan Hill, the battle gave the war its romantic essence, which still fills history books today. Roosevelts Rough Riders were a key part in the fight for Cuban Independence by brave yet unconventional means that made them one of the most popular fighting forces in American history.
Soon after McKinleys presidential victory in 1896, he appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy under John D. Long. (Lorant, p. 281) The main problems of the time were the occupation of Cuba by Spain and the fact that relations with Spain were steadily worsening. American sympathy was with the Cubans who were rebelling against the corrupt and evil Spanish overlords. (Lorant, p. 281) Americans attitude towards the Cuban people was mainly on humanitarian motives, but other reasons came into play to push the United States into a fight. The first reason was being economic. (Lorant, p. 281) The trade with Cuba, which had been one hundred million dollars in 1893, was badly disrupted by the insurrection. (Lorant, p. 281) Another reason was geo-political. The United States had always wanted to control the Caribbean area, with all its islands and opportunities. The United States badly needed ports for its growing Navy and the United States wanted to protect the approaches to the present site of the Isthmain canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. (Lorant, p. 281) As if the fire needed anymore fuel, Joseph Pulitzers New York World and William Randolph Hearsts New York Journal continually published a series of Cuban atrocity stories which told of the inhumanities of the Spanish government, lead by the Spanish commander, General Weyler, who herded non-combatant Cubans into concentration camps where 200,000 Cubans died. (Lorant, p. 282) More reports kept following in about rapes, robbery, and unspeakable crimes. Although the American people wanted to act, McKinley, and Cleveland before him, wanted to remain neutral. Roosevelt disagreed with the decision and was convinced the United States should fight for the independence and civil liberties of Cuba. (Lorant, p. 282) Roosevelt was constantly trying to persuade others, including McKinley, into listening to his beliefs on the matter of war and was always trying to bring the Navy to full strength. Roosevelt felt that diplomacy is utterly useless, without force behind it and that, the diplomat is the servant, not the master of the soldier. (Lorant, p. 282)
But more often than not, Roosevelt was over stepping his boundaries and McKinley was set on giving Spain the opportunity to reform their ways. Reform would not come in enough time. Several events determined the destiny of Spain. The first was being a letter intercepted in February of 1898 by a Cuban revolutionary agent and turned over to the New York Journal. (Lorant, p. 282) The letter was from Enrique de Lome, the Spanish Minister in Washington, and stated that President McKinley was weak and a bidder for the administration of the crowd, besides being a would-be politician who tries to leave a door behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes in the party. (Lorant, p. 282) This infuriated the American people, believing that Spain was taunting the United States, not to mention the complete lack of respect for the President. Spains arrogance was a complete slap in the face as far as Roosevelt and the American people were concerned. Still, McKinley remained unmoved by the letter and remained neutral about Spain. The next chain of events would prove to be disastrous for Spain. The U.S.S. Maine while at anchor on a peaceful mission in Havana harbor, Cuba, was blown-up and sank with the loss of two hundred and sixty lives. (Lorant, p. 283) The explosion was thought to be either set by the Spanish, Cuban provocateurs or an internal explosion on the ship, but the American people were thoroughly convinced the Spanish government was responsible for this horrible act of terrorism. Still Roosevelt argued intensely for war but McKinley waited for terms for change. Without proper authority, Roosevelt cabled Commodore Dewey, the head of the American Naval forces, to hold the Spanish fleet on the Philippine islands and to be prepared for war by keeping plenty of munitions and coal aboard his vessels. (Lorant, p. 282) Then, After a long investigation in Cuba, a Spanish underwater mine was determined to be the cause of the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. (It was later determined that an inner coal fire was the cause of the explosion.) With the report of the underwater mine racing across the country, on April 11 1898, President McKinley delivered his War speech to Congress. (Lorant, p. 282) With Remember the Maine on the lips of all Americans, the country prepared for battle, including an elated Theodore Roosevelt. (Grantham, p. 51) Roosevelt immediately resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ordered a new uniform from Brooks Brothers, half a dozen pair of spectacles, some horses and was off to join a brand new volunteer regiment in Texas. (Lorant, p. 282)
Although friends warned Roosevelt that to resign his post in the Navy Department might mean the end of his political career, he ignored the warnings because he felt he needed to prove himself in battle. (Lorant, p. 295) Congress had authorized the recruitment of three volunteer cavalry regiments in the United States and territories of the West and Southwest. . (Lorant, p. 295) General Russell A. Alger, the Secretary of War, was ready to place Roosevelt as the head of one of the regiments, but Roosevelt declined the offer and proposed that his friend Leonard Wood, a young Army surgeon, should be given the command. Roosevelt settled for the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. . (Lorant, p. 295) After several names were labeled to fit the new regiment, the Rough Riders, as it was came to be known, was formed and became one of the most extraordinary fighting forces ever to be assembled in the United States military. . (Lorant, p. 295) The Rough Riders was made up of hard riding cowboys, iron-tough gamblers, native Americans, and recruits whose relations with the law were strained at best. On the other side of the spectrum, from the East came adventurous college boys from Harvard, polo-players, and Long Island fox hunters. . (Lorant, p. 298) The Rough Riders were a motley and undisciplined regiment but was physically tough and were excellent shots and horsemen. Most of all and especially to Roosevelts liking, they were eager to fight. Colonel Wood had joked, If we dont get them to Cuba quickly to fight Spaniards there is a great danger that theyll be fighting one another. (Jeffers, p. 170) They trained all day long starting at 5:50 am and ending at 9:00 p.m., with constant mounted and ground drilling to instill the discipline of military life. They wore their blue shirts, loosely knotted handkerchiefs around their necks, brown pants, and leggings, boots and slouched-brimmed hats that quickly became the regiments trademark. The rifles they carried were regular army carbines and they were also issued army revolvers. Sabers, the traditional symbol of the cavalry were not issued because of their ineffectiveness in battle. (Jeffers, p. 175) The men quickly grew used to the life of a cavalry soldier. Above all, Roosevelt wrote in his book The Rough Riders, every man felt, and had constantly instilled into him, a keen pride of the regiment, and a resolute purpose to do his whole duty uncomplainingly, and, above all, to win glory the way he handled himself in battle. (Jeffers, p. 177) The term Rough Rider did not sit well with the soldiers in the beginning. They did not want people to think they were some kind of sideshow. They wanted to be known as a regiment that may be of rough riders, but they will be as orderly, obedient, and generally well disciplined a body as any equal number of men in any bunch of the service. (Jeffers, p. 151) The reason why the Rough Riders were such good soldiers was largely due to the fact that they counted the cost before entering the regiment. (Grantham, p. 51) All members of the Rough Riders were prepared for their own deaths and the death of their enemy. (Jeffers, p. 154) The Rough Riders had become a full military regiment and had the pride to match any in the regular army.
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While the Rough Riders were training in San Antonio, Texas, Commodore Dewey won the first victory in the war in the Philippines. (Lorant, p. 283) One of the main reasons for this decisive victory was due to the state of readiness he had assumed on Roosevelts orders while Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Dewey sailed from Hong Kong with his squadron and on the night of April 30, he slipped into Manilla Bay, where the Spanish fleet lay at anchor. At dawn he closed into range before giving his famous order of, You may fire when ready, Gridley. (Lorant, p. 295) Five times he passed the Spanish fleet, raking it with heavy gunfire. The Spanish fleet was successfully destroyed.
Now it was time for the ground troops to make their way to Cuba for the land war. Lack of transportation and horrible accommodations made the journey from Key West, Flordia very difficult and uneasy for men who were mostly used to being on open pastures, not open waters. (Lorant, p. 296) The vessels allowed standing room only because of the capacity of the ships were stretched to twice the expected limit. (Lorant, p. 296) Upon the arrival of Cuba, ruff seas and lack of sufficient docks caused many of the boats to capsize, resulting in the loss of ammunition, rifles and food. The ruff seas also took the lives of two Rough Riders coming ashore in the choppy waters. (Jeffers, p. 209)The conditions on shore did not get any better. Heat and humidity along with strange surroundings caused for an unsettling setting for a war. While landing, they were not met by any of the expected resistance in the town of Daiquiri because the Spaniards fled after being bombarded with shells from the war ships in the harbor. (Jeffers, p. 209)They were met by a group of four hundred Cuban insurgents who were brandishing rifles from several periods of history, and proved only to be useful as scouts for the army. (Jeffers, p. 209) Another problem that arose was the fact that the Rough Riders were a mounted cavalry but on their way to Cuba there was no room for the horses. The Rough Riders soon became known by the regular army troops as Woods Weary Walkers. (Jeffers, p. 210) Even with all the difficulties that had arisen, the Rough Riders were still ready to fight.
Their mission was to push towards the main town of Santiago were the main concentration of Spanish soldiers had been stationed. (Jeffers, p. 215) Two days after their arrival in Cuba, while advancing through thick jungle in the mountains at Las Guansimas, the Rough Riders were introduced to their baptism of fire. (Lorant, p.296) Although the skirmish was brief, Richard Davis, a news correspondent who accompanied the regiment, said the skirmish was the hottest, hastiest fight I ever imagined. (Jeffers, p. 215) Sixteen Rough Riders lost their lives and another fifty were wounded. (Jeffers, p. 215) As the men were being wounded they continued to fight. One of the soldiers who was mortally wounded through the hip, asked for his canteen and his rifle and continued to fight until he died. (Jeffers, p. 220) This was a common occurrence and showed the strong personal fortitude of the Rough Riders. The battle was considered a victory, which was the first for the Rough Riders and an embarrassment for the regular army brass that produced little effectiveness. (Grantham, p. 51) They set camp in the small town called Sevilla of Las Guansiamas. There was little food and other supplies which Roosevelt considered this a failure of the Army Commisionary Department as one more evidence of the nations unprepardness for war. (Jeffers, p. 222) But despite all the problems, Roosevelt wrote, From the generals to the privates, all were eager to march against Santiago. (Jeffers, p. 223) After a long look of Santiago, the commanders decided to take the trenches on San Juan Hill in order to have the high ground advantage over the town and the fort of El Caney. On July 1st and 2nd, at San Juan Hill, the Rough Riders would endure their greatest test with the capture of the Spanish entrenchment at the summit of the hill.
As the troops set up at the foot of San Juan Hill, the United States artillery forces opened fire on the Spanish troops guarding the hill. The Spanish quickly returned fire and the exact strength and position of the enemy was not known. The troops had become pinned down at the foot of the hill by a heavy barrage of artillery fire. (Jeffers, p. 223) While the men hid behind whatever they could find for protection, Roosevelt sat upon his horse Texas with his revolver drawn (which he given by his brother-in-law from the sunken Maine), shouting and riding among his men so they would be ready for the charge. He wore a dark blue shirt, with yellow suspenders with silver fasteners. (Jeffers, p. 230) He was determined to set an example of courage, but he also set a tempting yet elusive target for the Spanishs German Mauser rifles. As Roosevelt and the other commanders waited for a signal to start the upward charge, men all around were being picked off by the Spanish. With great frustration, Roosevelt sent messenger after messenger to find a general to give the forward charge command. He was finally given the welcomed command to move forward and support the regular army troops hesitated to advance because of confusion in the orders. So Roosevelt led his Rough Riders up the hill in front of everyone else. With the 9th regiment in front, the 1st on the left and the 3rd, 6th, and 10th behind, the troops soon saw the Lieutenant Colonel charging up the hill with his regiment following loyally behind and joined in the gallant charge. (Jeffers, p. 232) The regiments soon became intermingled with Roosevelt spear heading the charge in what he called my crowded hour. (Jeffers, p. 234) From all sides the troops were overpowering the Spanish lines. Roosevelt managed to kill two Spaniards on his way up the summit. The Rough Riders, the 9th and scattered members of the 1st cavalry scrambled up the hill. Roosevelt breathlessly reached the top and almost immediately the Rough Riders and the 9th swarmed around him. The Rough Riders, along with other members of the regular and volunteer troops, had successfully taken San Juan Hill but American history would assign the glory to only one man, Theodore Roosevelt. (Jeffers, p. 237) But their glory was shot lived. Immediately, the Spanish troops started firing and shooting cannons at the men on top of San Juan Hill and the rest of the regular army troops battling to reach the summit. (Jeffers, p. 237) Roosevelt immediately led a heavy charge of all the troops, both regulars and volunteer straight into the fire in the trenches to give coverage for the advancing men. White and black soldiers became intermixed during the attack but advancing as one causing the Spaniards to flee or surrender. Roosevelt had fragments of six cavalry regiments under his command. Finally, the regiments took over the trenches and managed to capture food and supplies. They found shovels, trenching tools, picks, coffee, and food found still hot on the stoves. (Jeffers, p. 241)
Out of the four hundred and ninety Rough Riders who had marched into the battle for San Juan Heights, eighty nine had been killed or wounded, the heaviest loss suffered by any regiment in the cavalry division. (Jeffers, p. 241) Roosevelt attributed the heavy losses to the fact that his men had done the charging. That the Rough Riders had suffered more heavily than their opponents was a point of pride for Roosevelt. Everyone who had witnessed both charges on San Juan Hill and the trenches agreed that they had occurred only because of the man who had led them. Roosevelt was highly regarded by everyone fighting against the Spanish, which was made known by a recommendation sent to secretary of War Alger that Roosevelt be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the highest honor awarded to a soldier, and was signed by Colonel LeonardWood. (Jeffers, p. 243) Great admiration had also been directed toward the Rough Rider regimentreceived a new Official name, the 11th United States Horse. (Jeffers, p. 248) But no one admired the Rough Riders more than the man who trained and led them into their place in history. Roosevelt proudly wrote, In less than sixty days the regiment had been raised, organize, equipped, drilled, mounted, dismounted, kept for a fortnight on transports and put through two victorious aggressive fights in very difficult country, the loss in killed and wounded amounting to a quarter of those engaged. This is a record, which is not easy to match in the history of the volunteer organization. It may be doubted whether there was any regiment which made such a record during the first months of any of out
wars. (Jeffers, p. 248)
Still, though the infantry fought hard, the war was not decided by their bravery. It was the Navy who delivered the final blow by destroying the Spanish fleet trying to flee into open water from Santiago harbor. Because of the mismanagement of the War Department with the lack of supplies and food, that the United States won the war was a miracle. What saved the day was not American efficiency but the incompetence of the Spanish, whose navy was untrained and who used only a small number of the 200,000 troops they assembled in Cuba. (Gatewood, p. 26)
In October, formal negotiations began in Paris with America represented by a five-man commission. A treaty was devised that granted Cuban independence and Spain assumed Cubas debt of 400 million dollars. (Morris p. 597) The signing of the treaty in Paris marked the United States emergence as a world power. The United States was now able to regulate its own navy rather than Englands to enforce such diplomatic law as the Monroe Doctrine. The United States was now educated by its military mistakes into creating an adequate standing army with a permanent general staff. (Morris p. 597)
To Roosevelt, the war had been a glorious adventure, proof of his physical courage and his abilities as a leader. Roosevelt had become one of the most popular men in America and a permanent figure in history. (Hill, p. 15) On the final day of the Rough Riders, the troops all met at Camp Wilkoff and presented their Lieutenant Colonel with a bronze bronco buster. After the cheering had stopped, Roosevelt addressed his beloved Rough Riders.I am proud of this regiment beyond measure. I am proud of it because it is a typical American regiment. The foundation of the regiment was the cowpuncherNo gift could have been so appropriateThe men of the West and Southwest horseman, rideman, and the leaders of cattle have been the backbone of this regiment, which demonstrates that Uncle Sam has another reserve of fighting men to call upon if necessity arises. Outside of my own immediate family, I shall never show a strong ties as I do toward you. I am more than pleased that you feel the same for me. Boys, I am going to stand here, and I shall esteem it a privilege if each of you will come up here. I want to shake your hands, I want to say goodbye to each of you in person. (Collin, p. 105-106) With wet eyes, the men of the 11th United States Horse filed before Roosevelt to say goodbye to a man who had lead them into battle and into history. Roosevelts Rough Riders were a rare bread of men who had lived, trained, and fought hard to accomplish a goal many thought would never be possible, to emerge victorious against difficult and harsh odds to become one of the renowned regiments ever to be assembled. (Beale, p. 43) Americans will always remember them as the Western cowboys and the Eastern polo-players who were lead by a man of immeasurable character and spirit in a fight that lead them down the path into their place in history.
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