Theodore Roosevelt

By John Allen Gable
Executive Director
Theodore Roosevelt Association

Oyster Bay, N.Y.

Spain declared war on the United States, following protracted arguments over the independence of Cuba, on April 24, 1898. The next day the First U.S. Volunteer Calvary Regiment was established when Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was appointed lieutenant colonel of the regiment, and his close friend Dr. Leonard Wood, Army regular and physician to President William McKinley, was named colonel.

The genesis of the regiment dated back to the 1880s, when Roosevelt, a New York politician, was a cattle rancher in the Dakota Territory, and dreamed of leading a regiment of mounted riflemen. In the 1890s Roosevelt had championed the cause of freeing Cuba from Spain, and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy had done much to prepare and position the Navy for the coming conflict. Given his chance to lead the regiment, Roosevelt had decided to team up with Leonard Wood, whose years in the Army made him more qualified for command than Roosevelt. The regiment assembled in San Antonio, Texas, in May, with recruits coming in from all over the nation. In the end the regiment, called the "Rough Riders" by the press, was an American mosaic of cowboys, Indians, and aristocratic easterners, all of whom could ride and shoot well. The Rough Riders embarked for Cuba from Tampa, Florida, on June 14. Unfortunately, there was no room on the transports for the horses, and so the regiment would become "Wood’s weary walkers." They landed in Daiquiri on June 22. Heading for Santiago, they first met the enemy in the Battle of Las Guasimas on June 24. On the night before the assault on the heights overlooking Santiago, Wood was promoted the brigade commander and Roosevelt became Colonel of the Rough Riders.

In later years Roosevelt would describe the Battle of San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898, as "the great day of my life" and "my crowded hour." TR, in one of the most famous battle scenes in American history, led the Rough Riders and other troops in daring, reckless, heroic, and successful charges first on Kettle Hill and then San Juan Hill. Some 89 Rough Riders were casualties that day. Santiago soon surrendered and the war was over.

Malaria and other diseases now killed more troops than had died in battle. TR and other officers demanded that the soldiers be returned home. The famous "round robin letter," and a stronger letter by Roosevelt, were leaked to the press by the commanding general, enraging Secretary of War Russell A. Alger and President McKinley. TR believed that it was this incident that cost him the Medal of Honor.

Montauk Point, on the eastern end of Long Island, isolated and swept by healthy breezes, was chosen as the quarantine, hospital, and mustering-out camp for the Rough Riders and all the troops returning from Cuba. When the Rough Riders landed at Montauk on August 15, Theodore Roosevelt was, says his biographer Edmund Morris, "the most famous man in America." All eyes were on Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and Montauk Point, New York, during the next month.

This collection, edited by Jeff Heatley, shows what Americans saw when they looked out at Montauk in those days of August and September, 1898. Heatley has assembled newspaper articles from the colorful and fascinating time when the Rough Riders and their colonel were encamped on the remote and sandy shores of the eastern end of Long Island. There, President McKinley came to pay homage to the heroes, and there New York Republican leaders in private offered Roosevelt the G.O.P. nomination for governor. Jeff Heatley is to be commended for his hard work and research in editing this engaging and interesting volume of primary sources., which most appropriately is published to mark the centennial of the Spanish-American War and the Rough Riders’ days on Long Island.

The Rough Riders were mustered out at Montauk on September 13, 1898, with a touching ceremony in which the soldiers presented their Colonel with Frederic Remington’s bronze "The Bronco Buster," and Roosevelt shook hands with every trooper. The Rough Rider regiment had been in service for 143 days. Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York State on November 8, 1898, and took the oath on December 31. It had been a busy year for TR, from the Navy Department to Cuba to Montauk to Albany. Two years later he was elected Vice President under McKinley, and then, on September 14, 1901, after McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in, up in Buffalo, New York, as the twenty-sixth President of the United States. He was 42.

Theodore Roosevelt’s brief service with the Rough Riders was crucial to his sense of himself, his public image, and his political career. For the frail asthmatic boy whose survival to adulthood had been in doubt, the sickly youth who worked out in a gym to build himself up, the "dude from New York" with his thick glasses who had been known as "four eyes" to the cowboys in Dakota, the command of a cavalry regiment and the successful charges up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill represented a triumph of self and personal vindication that nothing else in life quite matched.

Ads for the public man, Roosevelt was a Knickerbocker aristocrat, a New Yorker of inherited wealth and social status. He was also an intellectual. He had early in life made a reputation as a naturalist and as an historian. His first book was published when he was 23, and a steady stream of essays and books followed year after year. None of these things were pluses for a politician who needed the votes of the masses in a nation with a vigorous anti-intellectual tradition. Furthermore, Roosevelt was a reformer from the outset of his political career in the New York State Assembly in the 1880s through his Square Deal Presidency and on to the Bull Moose years of his post-presidential career; and reformers are often seen by the public and pictured by their enemies and impractical, other-worldly. And even effete ("man-milliners" one New York Senator called them). Being the Colonel of the Rough Riders, a regiment of cowboys, Indians, and athletes, and a war hero of the first rank, helped offset the possible political liabilities of being an aristocratic intellectual reformer. Today virtually every American knows that Teddy Roosevelt was a Rough Rider. How many know that he played polo and wore a tux at dinner, was fluent in French and German, had a Phi Beta Kappa key, and championed the welfare state?

Roosevelt was a professional politician; but he was also a reformer, and as such was mistrusted by many Republican Party leaders. His career had been blocked by the bosses at every turn. Though he loyally served the party, and was one of the best campaigners who ever fought for the G.O.P. Roosevelt had been rewarded with secondary posts. He had been offered the job of street cleaning commissioner of New York City at one point. McKinley was reluctant to give him any post at all. But a war hero, a celebrity, was hard to ignore, and was without question a major asset to the party.

Roosevelt would not have been nominated for Governor of New York in 1898 had he not been a war hero. The incumbent Republican governor was doomed to defeat due to a scandal in the Erie Canal, and Roosevelt was nominated because he was seen as the only Republican who could win that year. TR ran a campaign that featured uniformed Rough Riders, and he spoke more about the war than on state issues. The G.O.P. boss of New York State, Senator Thomas C. Plat, was reluctant to run Roosevelt because he feared that Roosevelt would be independent and push for reforms. He also said privately: "If he becomes Governor of New York, sooner or later, with is personality, he will have to be President of the United States...I am afraid to start that thing going." In 1900, TR’s chief asset as a Vice Presidential candidate was not that he was governor of a large eastern state, but that as the Colonel of the Rough Riders he would appeal to voters throughout the West.

After 1898 and for the rest of his life, TR was portrayed as a Rough Rider by cartoonists, and most of the time this worked in Roosevelt’s favor. His standing as a war hero also gave the twenty-sixth President of the United States an image of strength and even menace in foreign affairs. He was a Rough Rider, who carried a big stick.

Yet, while the image of Rough Rider and war hero helped TR’s career, what he did for his country in his career was, of course, far more important than what he did in the fight for Santiago. Conservation, progressive reforms like the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Panama Canal, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War, and transforming the office of the Presidency, were more important than the few months he spent in the Army. But the public seems to remember 1898 most of all.

Jeff Heatley’s book in part explains how this came about. Heatley’s collection shows the appeal of the celebrity and the hero to modern America, a phenomenon that helped Theodore Roosevelt become much more than just a Rough Rider.

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