April 16, 2017
Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill
By Mark Lee Gardner
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Mark Lee Gardner’s 2016 book, Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gardner paints a detailed, dynamic, and relevant picture not only of Colonel Roosevelt himself, but, as the title promises, the diverse men he led during their much-lauded actions in the Spanish-American War. I think it safe to say that most any American adult alive today learned about Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in middle school or high school. I’m even more confident in saying that anyone who did receive such education, most likely came away years later with only a vague recollection of “Remember the Maine!” “Buffalo Soldiers,” (“in the heart of America …”) and perhaps a charge up a hill that may or may not have actually happened. Well, for any of those people who grew curious about the nitty-gritty and the human drama of the American war in Cuba, and the part that Teddy and his Rough Riders played in that war: this is the book for you.
Let me emphasize first how much of a fearsome bad-ass hero Teddy Roosevelt was. He’s one of my personal heroes, and a great inspiration in my life. The guy was born as a sickly, asthmatic, weak child: did he let that little inconvenience stop him? No, at his dad’s encouragement, he worked his ass off in the gym until he built himself a strong body worthy of pride. He threw himself headlong into every adventure and topic of interest he could find throughout his entire life: boxing, bird-watching, writing 33 books, hunting grizzly bears, reading a book or two a day, working as the police commissioner of NYC, a congressman, a Wild West lawman, a rancher. When his first wife and his mother both died on the same day, do you know what he did? After writing the heart-wrenching journal entry of “The light has gone out of my life,” he struck out West, throwing himself into the wild life of a rancher. We all know he went on to become Vice President, then President of the United States following the assassination of President William McKinley, and from that position led the way on the national parks program, numerous social and economic reforms, construction of the Panama Canal, and assertion of American might on the global stage. But between the eras of “Wild West Teddy,” and “President Teddy,” we have the “Rough Rider” Colonel Teddy Roosevelt.
As Mark Lee Gardner discusses, T.R. had an unsettlingly positive fascination with war, and badly wanted to get himself into one. He got his chance after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898, when U.S./Spanish tensions reached a point of no return, and America raised a volunteer army to run the Spaniards out of Cuba. With his characteristic gusto and the use of his long-time Ivy League connections, the 39-year-old Roosevelt recruited a motley cavalry regiment of cowboys, miners, lawmen, bankers, lawyers, and football players. They called themselves the Rough Riders, though the name and concurrent public image belied the large proportion of New Yorkers and other big city North Easterners within their ranks. Regardless of their professional background or what region of the country they hailed from, and the numerous mishaps in training and logistics throughout their journey from Texas, to Florida, to Cuba, the men of Teddy’s regiment displayed great courage and fighting ability in their critical involvement in America’s short war against Spain. They most famously captured the fortified Spanish positions on San Juan and Kettle Hills; operations which enabled the successful American siege of Santiago and the conclusion of the war in Cuba. From a military history perspective, as Gardner illustrates, the battles in which the Rough Riders participated showed the validity of the rapidly ongoing transition from of line-of-battle, muzzle-loading musket combat, into the 20th century tactics employing shorter-barreled and faster-firing weapons with smokeless munitions, and camouflaged versus brightly colored uniforms.
A major appeal of this book is that Gardner heavily researched primary accounts of the individual Rough Riders, as well as government officials and other civilians who witnessed, celebrated, and traded with them. We get a plethora of quotations from diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and interviews, all of which bring brilliant color into the experiences of these men: from the challenges and mishaps of training new horses for military service, to the jubilant welcome of the San Antonio and Tampa publics, to the songs and jokes these soldiers loved, to the daring and tragedy of the hellish combat and malaria-infested environment they suffered through on campaign. A few interesting anecdotes among many include the habit of the wealthier members of the regiment (mostly Ivy League students taking leave from school,) of sneaking into the fancy hotels in town for meals during training, and later smuggling bottles of champagne aboard the boat to Cuba. One tactically crucial contribution of those Ivy League guys was the brand-new Colt machine guns, and the pneumatic dynamite gun, that they bought with their own money and contributed to the regiment’s arsenal. Interestingly, thanks to an unprepared federal supply system, Teddy was multiple times obligated to spend his own money to keep his men properly fed throughout the campaign! One great Teddy anecdote is when the Colonel, after the surrender of the Spanish army, joined a fellow officer in swimming across Santiago Bay to examine shipwrecks. This being Cuba, there were numerous sharks in the area, and some fellow American soldiers on shore alerted their commander to this fact. Teddy being Teddy said that he knew all about sharks from reading about them, and that they almost never bothered people; then he kept on swimming and having a great time, as per usual.
Another good aspect of this book is Gardner’s authoritative dispelling of misconceptions about the Rough Riders. One of these is that most people, (myself included until I read the book,) understandably think that Theodore Roosevelt was himself the commander of the regiment. In fact, that position belonged to General Leonard Wood, (namesake of U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri,) who had to step back from primary command responsibility due to illness. Though Wood went on to continue his successful military career, Roosevelt continues to hold the glory for recruiting, leading, and promoting the Rough Riders all the way through and beyond service in Cuba. Integral to that glory was Roosevelt’s leading of the charge up San Juan Hill. Contrary to politically motivated, distorting newspaper accounts, YES, the charge did in fact happen, and Roosevelt led it. U.S. Army “Regulars” (members of the full-time, permanent military as opposed to the wartime volunteers) and the African-American Buffalo Soldiers did play a huge role alongside the Rough Riders in the campaign across Cuba, including the battle at San Juan, but, again, contrary to smear campaigns by Roosevelt’s political opponents, the Rough Riders fought admirably and played a crucial role, with Teddy deserving a great deal of credit for boldly leading from the front.
As I’m discussing military history here, by the way, let me be clear: no, I don’t buy into the “Rah rah,” “For Glory,” disastrously naïve view of war that much of the Western world held in the post-Napoleonic, pre-Great War years of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Teddy Roosevelt and many men (and women!) of a similar cultural background held those rose-tinted views in that era. War is obviously hell: it leads to a lot of people dying and valuable things being destroyed for no good reason, it creates incomprehensible human misery. Humans should continue the current trend of replacing war with economic exchange and diplomacy. (And dogs go “Woof!”) At the same time, war is sometimes necessary, and I’m not convinced that mankind will ever be rid of it entirely so long as mankind exists.
When wars do occur, I do admire the Virtue (“Virtue” in the good, Ancient sense,) of many of those fighting within war. States throughout history have often needed to win wars to ensure their national security, and winning wars requires the discipline, bravery, and cunning of those on the front line. Since success in war tends to further the security of the given state and all who live within its borders, while failure will inevitably decrease that security, war-winning ability should be admired, in my book. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders demonstrated martial Virtue in spades, showing skillful and brave adaptation to the latest innovations in warfare, including smokeless, breech-loading rifles and machine guns, especially in the unfamiliar and treacherous tropical environment of Cuba. Especially since I happen to be quite fond of America and what we’re about, I’m enthusiastic about Teddy and Co. being bad-asses, and winning. The maiming and death that occurred for both sides were incredibly tragic, and as I read, my heart went out to those hurt and killed, as well as to their families, themselves now all long dead.
In short, the point I’m making here is that war is Hell, its consideration should be a matter of gravity rather than jubilation, but that bravery, skill, and triumph within war is admirable, conflict is interesting, and the story of the Rough Riders is enjoyable for me in that nuanced context.
To continue with my connections and response to the text: I can see some echoes of the American attitudes during the Spanish-American War, in early public attitudes towards the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. Though Gardner’s book gives us a zoomed in story of one theatre of the Spanish-American War, rather than depth on the greater context, he does inevitably hit on the political implications, and the impact of public opinion, and that all got me thinking. Essentially, the conflict between America and Spain started like this:
The United States had expanded all the way across the continent by the 1890’s, with East and West thoroughly connected, and the once “Wild” West growing more settled every year; the legendary tales of cowboys and Indians already in the 1890’s confined to, well, legend, brought to life in popular Wild West shows. The Civil War was several decades’ past, with many scars of that conflict still stinging. Mexico had been thoroughly humbled, aggressive Canadian-British designs from the north were exceedingly unlikely, and Americans had little need to worry about distant affairs in Europe, Asia, or Africa.
However, there was the little problem of Spain’s New World empire. In the Victorian Era of European Imperialism, it made Americans a tad antsy to have the Spanish military operating so close to U.S. waters, around Cuba and Puerto Rico: even if the Spanish themselves weren’t a threat, what if they got kicked out and the island was taken over by someone stronger and more capable of messing with American interests: someone like Britain, France, or even the rising power of Germany?
In addition to the security dimension, Americans were reading with disgust the stories coming out of Cuba, of Spanish soldiers abusing and exploiting the native Cuban population. Even if yellow journalism may have exaggerated things, there truly were atrocities and daily abuses taking place at Spanish hands, and many Americans wanted to do something about it. The United States finally had the continental security and power to assert itself on the wider world, and, overpowering the dissenting voices of non-interventionism, we fought the Spanish-American War largely with the justification of liberating the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Filipino peoples from tyranny, and helping them develop modern and democratic states. I (and others) see parallels between this intervention to (at least initially) liberate oppressed people, combined with exaggerated fears over a foreign threat, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Like the way 21st century Americans were horrified by accounts of oppression coming from Iraq, and irreconcilably suspicious of Saddam’s motives and capabilities regarding W.M.D. and terrorism, the Americans of the 1890’s saw a bully and a threat in Spain, and sought to punish that bully and rescue its victims. In both cases, America sent its troops across the world to nation-build, but found the task a lot more messy, dangerous, and less appreciated than anticipated. (It’s too much to get into in any detail here, but I recommend reading up on America’s experience in counter-insurgency in the Philippines. A lot of lessons there were seemingly forgotten in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.) Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it, and I think considering the ongoing conflict against ISIS and other radical Islamist groups in the Middle East, reviewing the events of the Spanish-American War is well worth the effort!
Further connecting this history with the 21st century, is the topic Gardner bookends his book with: Teddy Roosevelt’s posthumous receipt of the Medal of Honor, awarded in 2001 by President Bill Clinton after a surprising amount congressional debate. Much to his chagrin, Roosevelt didn’t receive the Medal for his actions in the war in Cuba at the time; critics arguing that he “Simply followed orders” in leading the charge up San Juan Hill, and didn’t do anything out of the ordinary beyond the normal duties of a soldier. Analysis by later historians reversed this opinion in Congress. This posthumous award was great news to me, and a great way for Gardner to wrap up his narrative. Roosevelt remains the only U.S. President to have received a Medal of Honor.
In closing, Mark Lee Gardner did a tremendous job on Rough Riders. He took a story that most people know of, but where the details have long been missing in the public consciousness, and fleshed it out with well-researched primary sources, and compelling narrative form. As I read, I could easily imagine the events as a big-budget miniseries in the vein of Band of Brothers. The characters, heroic and human, are all there in their diversity and in their unifying Americanness, braving their way through incredible adversity. We get to see a lot Colonel Roosevelt’s personality and exploits, but, as Teddy would have wanted, plenty of space is left for the Lieutenants and Privates whose names go unnoticed in the collective public mind, but whose personalities, struggles, and all too often, their tragedies, are colorfully presented here.