Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

The Rough Riders

On a fateful day in 1898 the governors of four Western Territories received the following telegram:

"The President desires to raise—volunteers in your Territory to form part of a regiment of mounted riflemen to be commanded by Leonard Wood, Colonel; Theodore Roosevelt, Lieutenant-Colonel. He desires that the men selected should be young, sound, good shots and good riders, and that you expedite by all means in your power the enrollment of these men."

R. A. ALGER., Secretary of War.

The last sentence of this telegram gives a fair description of the "Rough Riders," as this regiment was promptly nicknamed. It was just such a command as Roosevelt had long dreamed of taking.

Then why was he not made Colonel, you ask? It was a fine bit of self-denial on his part, that he did not take this position. Secretary Alger, who was a friend of his, offered him the post; but Roosevelt thought that he had not had sufficient military experience for it. He knew of Leonard Wood, an Army surgeon, who had seen active field experience in Indian campaigns, and felt that here was an ideal man with whom he could serve.

"Then why don't you take the colonelcy; and I will appoint Wood lieutenant-colonel?" asked Secretary Alger.

"No," replied Roosevelt bluntly. "I feel that I would then be climbing to preferment upon another man's shoulders."

And so he took the second office.

Great was the rejoicing among the plainsmen when news was flashed around that "a regiment of rough riders is going to be raised to go and lick the Spaniards." That suited them right down to the ground, and soon men were pouring into San Antonio, the recruiting ground, in droves. There were two or three times as many applications as vacancies. The regiment was recruited in record time.

A motley collection of riders it was, at first glance. There were cowboys from Dakota swapping yarns with boys from Texas; ranch men from the Rockies; prospectors from the coast; bronco-busters; two-gun men; sheriffs and other officers of the law rubbing elbows with gamblers and "bad" men. Alongside of these were a bunch of Easterners who had hurried out there to get into "Roosevelt's regiment": some policemen from New York eager to serve their "Chief" again; football, baseball, tennis, and golf players; polo players who were old neighbors and riders with Roosevelt in Oyster Bay; and college athletes of every stripe. It was indeed a weird assortment, but the men had one common bond: they could ride and fight, they were afraid of nothing, and they adored Roosevelt.

When the members of the regiment had been carefully selected, and were assembled on the parade ground, Roosevelt rode up, facing them, and said:

"Gentlemen: You are now about to take oath and be mustered into the service of your country. If any of you doesn't mean business, let him say so now. An hour from now it will be too late to back out. Once you're in, I shall depend on you to see it through."

Of course, not a man flinched; and soon the officers were busily working out field tactics, arms, supplies, and all the other vexatious but necessary details which go to make up a fighting machine.

The time was so short that no elaborate system of drill was attempted; and for the ordinary tactics the men got along surprisingly well. Their knowledge of horsemanship was a prime advantage. For equipment there were not arms enough to go around; so the men were given "two revolvers and a lariat," much to the dismay of certain Eastern editors, who were disposed to poke fun at the Rough Riders.

Roosevelt himself found that his best efforts could be directed back in Washington getting supplies from the War Department. There was an endless amount of red tape to cut, and with the Department turned upside down by the sudden declaration of war, it was not easy. Repeatedly he would be refused some request because it was "irregular," and then would appeal to Alger, who promptly went over the bureau chief's head.

He tells amusingly of one official who insisted upon supplying heavy woolen uniforms for the troops, on the ground that it was now summertime and they always began issuing the "heavy-weights" at that time, looking to the fall campaign. That these troops were going at once to the tropics apparently meant nothing to him, and it took a special appeal to the Secretary to get the light khaki uniforms that Roosevelt wanted—this being a new style of clothing at the time.

Another bureau head told him that he must advertise for thirty days for horses—which would have meant missing the Santiago expedition entirely—and again the Secretary had to be appealed to. The same thing happened with wagons and other equipment.

"On the last occasion," says Roosevelt. "when I came up in triumph with the needed order, the worried office head, who bore me no animosity, but who did feel that fate had been very unkind, threw himself back in his chair and exclaimed with a sigh:

"'Oh, dear! I had this office running in such good shape—and then along came the war and upset everything!'

"His feeling was that war was an illegitimate interruption to the work of the War Department!"

On the 29th of May the Rough Riders took train for Tampa, and a week later were debarking from a transport off the southern coast of Cuba. It was dangerous business. Had one of the Spanish ships been in the offing, or a regiment of soldiers been in ambush on the shore, the results must have been disastrous.

"We disembarked," said Roosevelt some years later, "higgledy-piggledy, just as we had embarked."

The only way to get the horses and mules ashore apparently was by pitching them over-board and letting them swim for it. The men were crowded into boats and landed on the slippery dock at Daiquiri. What a wonderful target such a boatload would have made for snipers in the hills; but luckily the Spaniards did not see fit to contest the landing.

That first night they camped on a swampy flat near where they had come ashore, and at noon next day an order came from General Joseph Wheeler to march to the front at once. This necessitated taking a trail through the jungle leading to the west, and climbing a ridge. The march was made on foot, in single file, and many of the men, unused to walking, found it pretty stiff going. One wag suggested that the name of the regiment be changed from "Roosevelt's Rough Riders" to "Wood's Weary Walkers."

Once over the crest of the ridge the men left the narrow and dangerous jungle trail and deployed into the open field of a large plantation. Still there were no signs of life, and the suspense grew oppressive.

Suddenly a sharp order came back through the ranks: "Silence, everybody, and on guard!"

The men crouched in the long grass and peered ahead. The day was fine and clear. A scorching sun shone out of a blue sky. Back in the woods birds were singing. Palm and banana trees stood tall and stately like sentinels. It was a scene of peaceful, tropic beauty.

A moment later a faint pop was heard, followed by a droning sound like the humming of a lazy bee. Another followed, then another, and a trooper remarked, "I got it that time!"

The poor fellow dropped back wounded. The bullets from the Spaniards' Mauser rifles were beginning to sing, but the foe himself was invisible. Smokeless powder was being used.

"Load chamber and magazine!" came the sharp command, which was quickly obeyed.

The men strained their eyes to try to locate the source of the unseen firing. Ping! sang the bullets past their ears. It was a trying moment. Then a newspaper correspondent, standing by Roosevelt's side, pointed to a slight depression about three-quarters of a mile away. It was the trench which concealed the Spaniards.

The land which lay between was rough and jungle-filled. The moment the soldiers left the open spot where they now were they would get out of touch with each other. However, there was nothing for it but to go forward and attack. Wood and Roosevelt deployed one force to the right—only to lose it promptly for the rest of the day!

"I was afraid later I was going to be court-martialed for losing that platoon!" Roosevelt naively remarks.

When they finally wormed their way across the valley, it was only to find that the enemy had vanished again. It had been only a preliminary skirmish, with perhaps a dozen Rough Riders wounded; but it taught them to be constantly on their guard. The Spaniards did not intend to fight in the open.

This little skirmish, lively enough while it lasted, took place at Las Guasimas, in the southern part of Cuba. The troops were then ordered northward in the direction of Santiago; but it was almost a week before they came in contact with the enemy again.

Living conditions were far from ideal. A torrential rain had set in, and nearly every day the downpour would visit them. There were swamps, jungles, flies and mosquitoes. The tobacco supply gave out in the Rough Rider camp—a very real hardship. But most of the men were inured to hardship of one kind or another; and Roosevelt proved that his own life in the West had not been in vain. He refused to have a different mess or tent from that afforded the humblest private.

On account of a shift in officers, Wood was made head of a brigade, with the rank of Brigadier General. Roosevelt succeeded him as Colonel of his regiment.

On the night of June 30, after a long and muddy march, the Rough Riders joined other units of Wood's brigade near Santiago. The Spaniards held a fortified town called El Caney, and orders were received to attack and take the hills overlooking it the next morning. The tired soldiers lay down in their tracks, their arms beside them, and slept till dawn.

With the first beams of the sun the notes of the bugle called the men to arms again. A hasty breakfast was served; arms and ammunition inspected; final orders given; and then came the command to advance.

The American troops were divided for the attack which followed. Part of them were to move against El Caney, while the rest were to drive the Spaniards from San Juan ridge. It was the latter battle in which the Rough Riders engaged.

Only one road, which was little more than a muddy trail, led to the ridge, by way of a ford across a small stream, the San Juan River.

Roosevelt, mounted on his pony, Texas, led his troops, who were on foot, working their way forward as best they could through the jungle grass at the edge of the stream. He was a fair target for the shrapnel guns mounted on the crest beyond. Here and there members of the troop were struck down, and one shrapnel bullet struck him a glancing blow on the wrist, raising a bump as big as a hickory nut; but otherwise he escaped unwounded.

There were two or three brigades down in that valley exposed to the Spanish fire—seven thousand men in all. The tropic sun beat down upon them, and the Mausers and shrapnel sang about them like angry hornets, with death in their sting.

Roosevelt rode back and forth among his men encouraging them and awaiting the order for the final charge. As an interesting side incident, it has been told of him that in addition to the spectacles he always wore, he had a dozen other pairs on or about his person—inside his coat and even in his saddle-bags. He was not going to take any chances in failing to see the enemy!

At last came the order to "support the Regulars in an assault upon San Juan Hill."

Roosevelt needed no further instructions. There lay the enemy in plain sight, in a red-roofed blockhouse on the crest of the hill. As for the "Regulars" he was to support, he did not stop to inquire.

"Go get 'em, boys!" he yelled, waving his slouch hat; and his men with a cheer rose up and started up the hill after him.

Part way up the slope they came upon a regiment of colored troops. It was the Regulars they were ordered to support. These soldiers were crouching in the grass firing steadily upon the enemy.

"Why don't you charge?" asked Roosevelt. "Because we have no orders to do so," replied their commanding officer.

"I will give you the order," said Roosevelt impetuously. Then as the elderly army officer naturally hesitated, he added: "Then let my men go through, sir."

They did so, and the colored troops fell in behind the Rough Riders with a yell and raced after them up the slope. What did it matter if the bullets sang and spat about them with increased fury? They could fight back, and the Spaniards should not get away this time. Now and again some brave fellow stumbled forward and lay still or else remarked to a comrade, "Well, I got mine that time." But never for a moment did the line waver; they followed like mad that figure on horseback, waving his slouched hat like a battle-flag.

Forty yards from the top they encountered a barbed wire fence. Down off the horse went Roosevelt, rolling under the fence, and advancing on foot. Under the fence and over it rolled and scrambled his men. Another moment and the hilltop swarmed with Rough Riders and negro Regulars.

The Spaniards did not wait for them. They promptly fled from their first line of trenches and lay entrenched further on up the rising ground. They swept the exposed land with an intermittent fire.

"It was like Shadrach, Meshach and Company in the fiery furnace," wrote one of the troopers later; "but Teddy never got scorched."

General Sumner, in command of the brigade, now arrived, and Roosevelt turned to him for further orders.

"Shall I drive them out, sir?" he asked. "Go ahead!" ordered Sumner.

Roosevelt called to his men, and then dashed forward again. A hundred yards up the trail he glanced around and was amazed to see that only five men had followed him. Two of these were already wounded.

Dashing back, he berated his men.

"Are you afraid?" he taunted.

"Sorry, Colonel," said one. "We didn't hear you before. Lead ahead!"

This time away they went and stormed the Spanish entrenchments. There was some close fighting, and a few prisoners were taken. The rest of the enemy got away. One Spaniard drew a bead on Roosevelt as he scrambled through another barbed-wire entanglement, and Roosevelt shot him with his revolver.

The Spaniards attempted a counter-attack that afternoon, but were easily driven off, the troopers laughing and cheering as they rose to fire. This was a lot more exciting than a round-up!

By the next day the fight had settled down into a siege. Roosevelt, always impetuous, chafed sorely because he was not allowed to go ahead and attack the city. He ever after believed that he could have taken it. But that cautious old campaigner, General Joe Wheeler, did not want to sacrifice needless lives. They settled down to hold the Spanish forces in Santiago like rats in a trap; while Cervera's proud fleet lay bottled up in the harbor with our navy guarding the high seas outside.

The rest is history—how the Spanish fleet made its futile dash—and how the city itself surrendered.

Meanwhile, the American army lying encamped back of Santiago had become stricken with malaria. Denied many of the ordinary comforts, the men suffered severely. Roosevelt beheld disease and discomfort making inroads upon the health of his Wien, and stormed at the army red-tape which made this possible. He saw that now that the active fighting was over, the American army must be sent north as soon as possible. Not being a "regular" officer himself, he wrote a blunt letter stating his opinion, which was given out to the Associated Press.

A storm of protest from Government officials and others of his critics was aroused by this letter; but it accomplished its purpose. An investigation was ordered, and the army was sent north to a more bracing climate.