William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > VII. The Rough Rider
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
VII. The Rough Rider
WHEN Roosevelt returned to Washington in March, 1897, to take up his duties as a subordinate officer in the National Government, he was thirty-eight years old; a man in the prime of life, with the strength of an ox, but quick in movement, and tough in endurance. A rapid thinker, his intellect seemed as impervious to fatigue as was his energy. Along with this physical and intellectual make up went courage of both kinds, passion for justice, and a buoying sense of obligation towards his fellows and the State. His career thus far had prepared him for the highest service. Born and brought up amid what our society classifiers, with their sure democratic instincts, loved to call the “aristocratic” circle in New York, his three years in the Assembly at Albany introduced him to the motley group of Representatives of high and low, bank presidents and farmers, blacklegs and philanthropists, who gathered there to make the laws for New York State. There he displayed the preference, characteristic of him through life, of choosing his intimates irrespective of their occupation or social label. Then he went out on the Plains and learned to live with wild men, for whom the artificial distinctions of civilization had no meaning. He adapted himself to a primeval standard in which courage and a rough sense of honor were the chief virtues. But this experience did still more for him than prove his personal power of getting along with such lower types of men, for it revealed to him the human extremes of the American Nation. How vast it was, how varied, how intricate, and, potentially, how sublime! Lincoln, coming out of the Kentucky back woods, first to Springfield, Illinois, then to Chicago in its youth, and finally to Washington, similarly passed in review the American contrasts of his time. More specific was Roosevelt’s training as a Civil Service Commissioner. The public had been applauding him as a youthful prodigy, as a fellow of high spirit, of undisputed valor, of brilliant flashes, of versatility, but the worldly-wise, who have been too often fooled, were haunted by the suspicion that perhaps this astonishing young man would turn out to be only a meteor after all. His six years of routine work on the Civil Service Commission put this anxiety to rest. That work could not be carried on successfully by a man of moods and spurts, but only by a man of solid moral basis, who could not be disheartened by opposition or deflected by threats or by temptations, and, as I have before suggested, the people began to accustom itself to the fact that whatever position Roosevelt filled was conspicuous precisely because he filled it. A good while was still to elapse before we understood that notoriety was inseparable from him, and did not need to be explained by the theory that he was constantly setting traps for self-advertisement.   1
  As Police Commissioner of New York City he continued his familiar methods, and deepened the impression he had created. He carried boldness to the point of audacity and glorified the “square deal.” Whatever he undertook, he drove through with the remorselessness of a zealot. He made no pretense of treating humbugs and shams as if they were honest and real; and when he found that the laws which were made to punish criminals, were used to protect them, no scruple prevented him from achieving the spirit of the law, although he might disregard its perverted letter.   2
  Ponder this striking example. The City of New York forbade the sale of liquor to minors. But this ordinance was so completely unobserved that a large proportion of the common drunks brought before the Police Court were lads and even young girls, to whom the bar-tenders sold with impunity. The children, often the little children of depraved parents, “rushed the growler”; factory hands sent the boys out regularly to fetch their bottle or bucket of drink from the saloons. Everybody knew of these breaches of the law, but the framers of the law had taken care to make it very difficult to procure legal evidence of those breaches. The public conscience was pricked a little when the newspapers told it that one of the youths sent for liquor had drunk so much of it that he fell into a stupor, took refuge in an old building, and that there the rats had eaten him alive. Whether it was before or after this horror that Chief Commissioner Roosevelt decided to take the law into his own hands, I do not know, but what he did was swift. The Police engaged one of the minors, who had been in the habit of going to the saloons, to go for another supply, and then to testify. This summary proceeding scared the rum-dealers and, no doubt, they guarded against being caught again. But the victims of moral dry rot held up their hands in rebuke and one of the city judges wept metaphorical tears of chagrin that the Police should engage in the awful crime of enticing a youth to commit crime. The record does not show that this judge, or any other, had ever done anything to check the practice of selling liquor to minors, a practice which inevitably led thousands of the youth of New York City to become drunkards.   3
  How do you judge Roosevelt’s act? Do you admit that a little wrong may ever be done in order to secure a great right? Roosevelt held, in such cases, that the wrong is only technical, or a blind set up by the wicked to shield themselves. The danger of allowing each person to play with the law, as with a toy, is evident. That way lies Jesuitry; but each infringement must be judged on its own merits, and as Roosevelt followed more and more these short cuts to justice he needed to be more closely scrutinized. Was his real object to attain justice or his own desires?   4
  The Roosevelts moved back to Washington in March, 1897, and Theodore at once went to work in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in that amazing building which John Hay called “Mullett’s masterpiece,” where the Navy, War, and State Departments found shelter under one roof. The Secretary of the Navy was John D. Long, of Massachusetts, who had been a Congressman and Governor, was a man of cultivation and geniality, and a lawyer of high reputation. Although sixty years old, he was believed never to have made an enemy either in politics or at the Bar. Those who knew the two gentlemen wondered whether the somewhat leisurely and conservative Secretary could leash in his restless young First Assistant, with his Titanic energy and his head full of projects. No one believed that even Roosevelt could startle Governor Long out of his habitual urbanity, but every one could foresee that they might so clash in policy that either the head or the assistant would have to retire.   5
  Nothing is waste that touches the man of genius. So the two years which Roosevelt spent in writing, fifteen years before, the “History of-the Naval War of 1812,” now served him to good purpose; for it gave him much information about the past of the United States Navy and it quickened his interest in the problems of the Navy as it should be at that time. The close of the Civil War in 1865 left the United States with a formidable fleet, which during the next quarter of a century deteriorated until it comprised only a collection of rotting and unserviceable ships. Then came a reaction, followed by the construction of an up-to-date fleet, and by the recognition by Congress that the United States must pursue a modern policy in naval affairs. Roosevelt had always felt the danger to the United States of maintaining a despicable or an inadequate Navy, and from the moment he entered the Department he set about pushing the construction of the unfinished vessels and of improving the quality of the personnel.   6
  He was impelled to do this, not merely by his instinct to bring whatever he undertook up to the highest standard, but also because he had a premonition that a crisis was at hand which might call the country at an instant’s notice to protect itself with all the power it had. Two recent events aroused his vigilance. In December, 1895, President Cleveland sent to England a message upholding the Monroe Doctrine and warning the British that they must arbitrate their dispute with Venezuela over a boundary, or fight. This sledgehammer blow at England’s pride might well have caused war had not sober patriots on both sides of the Atlantic, aghast at this shocking possibility, smoothed the way to an understanding, and had not the British Government itself acknowledged the rightness of the demand for arbitration. So the danger vanished, but Roosevelt, and every other thoughtful American, said to himself, “Suppose England had taken up the challenge, what had we to defend ourselves with?” And we compared the long roll of the great British Fleet with the paltry list of our own ships, and realized that we should have been helpless.   7
  The other fact which impressed Roosevelt was the insurrection in Cuba which kept that island in perpetual disorder. The cruel means, especially reconcentration and starvation, by which the Spaniards tried to put down the Cubans stirred the sympathy of the Americans, and the number of those who believed that the United States ought to interfere in behalf of humanity grew from month to month. A spark might kindle an explosion. Obviously, therefore, the United States must have a Navy equipped and ready for any emergency in the Caribbean.   8
  During his first year in office, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt busied himself with all the details of preparation; he encouraged the enthusiasm of the officers of the New Navy, for he shared their hopes; he added, wherever he could, to its efficiency, as when by securing from Congress an appropriation of nearly a million dollars—which seemed then enormous—for target practice. He promoted a spirit of alertness—and all the while he watched the horizon towards Cuba where the signs grew angrier and angrier.   9
  But the young Secretary had to act with circumspection. In the first place the policy of the Department was formulated by Secretary Long. In the next place the Navy could not come into action until President McKinley and the Department of State gave the word. The President, desiring to keep the peace up to the very end, would not countenance any move which might seem to the Spaniards either a threat or an insult. As the open speeding-up of naval preparations would be construed as both, nothing must be done to excite alarm. In the autumn of 1897, however, some of the Spaniards at Havana treated the American residents there with so much surliness that the American Government took the precaution to send a battleship to the Havana Harbor as a warning to the menacing Spaniards, and as a protection, in case of outbreak, to American citizens and their property.   10
  But what was meant for a precaution proved to be the immediate cause of war. Early in the evening of February 15??, 1898, the battleship Maine, peaceably riding at her moorings in the harbor, was blown up. Two officers and 266 enlisted men were killed by the explosion and in the sinking of the ship. Nearly as many more, with Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, the commander, were rescued. The next morning the newspapers carried the report to all parts of the United States, and, indeed, to the whole world. A tidal wave of anger surged over this country. “That means war!” was the common utterance. Some of us, who abhorred the thought of war, urged that at least we wait until the guilt could be fixed. The reports of the catastrophe conflicted. Was the ship destroyed by the explosion of shells in its own magazine, or was it blown up from outside? If the latter, who set off the mine? The Spaniards? It seemed unlikely, if they wished war, that they should resort to so clumsy a provocation! Might not the insurgents themselves have done it, in order to force the United States to interfere? While the country waited, the anger grew. At Washington, nobody denied that war was coming. All that our diplomacy attempted to do was to stave off the actual declaration long enough to give time for our naval and military preparation.   11
  I doubt whether Roosevelt ever worked with greater relish than during the weeks succeeding the blowing-up of the Maine. At last he had his opportunity, which he improved night and day. The Navy Department arranged in hot haste to victual the ships; to provide them with stores of coal and ammunition; to bring the crews up to their full quota by enlisting; to lay out a plan of campaign; to see to the naval bases and the lines of communication; and to cooperate with the War Department in making ready the land fortifications along the shore. Of course all these labors did not fall on Roosevelt’s shoulders alone, but being a tireless and willing worker he had more than one man’s share in the preparations.   12
  But the great fact that war was coming—war, the test—delighted him, and his sense of humor was not allowed to sleep. For the peace-at-any-price folk, the denouncers of the Navy and the Army, the preachers of the doctrine that as all men are good it was wicked to build defenses as if we suspected the goodness of our neighbors, now rushed to the Government for protection. A certain lady of importance, who had a seaside villa, begged that a battleship should be anchored just outside of it. Seaboard cities frantically demanded that adequate protection should be sent to them. The spokesman for one of these cities happened to be a politician of such importance that President McKinley told the Assistant Secretary that his request must be granted. Accordingly, Roosevelt put one of the old monitors in commission, and had a tug tow it, at the imminent risk of its crew, to the harbor which it was to guard, and there the water-logged old craft stayed, to the relief of the inhabitants of the city and the self-satisfaction of the Congressman who was able to give them so shining a proof of his power with the Administration. Many frightened Bostonians transferred their securities to the bank vaults of Worcester, and they, too, clamored for naval watch and ward. Roosevelt must have been made unusually merry by such tidings from Boston, the city which he regarded as particularly prolific in “the men who formed the lunatic fringe in all reform movements.”   13
  It did not astonish him that the financiers and the business men, who were amassing great fortunes in peace, should frown on war, which interrupted their fortune-making; but he laughed when he remembered what they and many other vague pacifists had been solemnly proclaiming. There was the Senator, for instance, who had denied that we needed a Navy, because, if the emergency came, he said, we could improvise one, and “build a battleship in every creek.” There were also the spread eagle Americans, the swaggerers and braggarts, who amused themselves in tail-twisting and insulting other nations so long as they could do this with impunity; but now they were brought to book, and their fears magnified the possible danger they might run from the invasion of irate Spaniards. Their imagination pictured to them the poor old Spanish warship Viscaya, as having as great possibility for destruction as the entire British Fleet itself.   14
  At all these things Roosevelt laughed to himself, because they confirmed the gospel of military and naval preparedness, which he had been preaching for years, the gospel which these very opponents reviled him for; but instead of contenting himself by saying to them, “I told you so,” he pushed on preparations for war at full speed, determined to make the utmost of the existing resources. The Navy had clearly two tasks before it. It must blockade Cuba, which entailed the patrol of the Caribbean Sea and the protection of the Atlantic ports, and it must prevent the Spanish Fleet, known to be at the   15
  Philippines, from crossing the Pacific Ocean, harassing our commerce, and threatening our harbors on our Western coast. Through Roosevelt’s instrumentality, Commodore George Dewey had been appointed in the preceding autumn to command our Asiatic Squadron, and while, in the absence of Governor Long, Roosevelt was Acting-Secretary, he sent the following dispatch:
Washington, February 25,’98.
Dewey, Hong Kong:
  Order the squadron, except the Monocacy, to Hong Kong. Keep full of coal. In the event of declaration of war Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast, and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands. Keep Olympia until further orders.
  I would not give the impression that Roosevelt was the dictator of the Navy Department, or that all, or most, of its notable achievements came from his suggestion, but the plain fact is, wherever you look at its most active and fruitful preparations for war, you find him vigorously assisting. The order he sent Commodore Dewey led directly to the chief naval event of the war, the destruction of the Spanish Fleet by our Asiatic Squadron in Manila Bay, on May 1st. Long before this victory came to pass, however, Roosevelt had resigned from the Navy Department and was seeking an ampler outlet for his energy.   17
  Having accomplished his duty as Assistant Secretary—a post which he felt was primarily for a civilian—he thought that he had a right to retire from it, and to gratify his long-cherished desire to take part in the actual warfare. He did not wish, he said, to have to give some excuse to his children for not having fought in the war. As he had insisted that we ought to free Cuba from Spanish tyranny and cruelty, he could not consistently refuse to join actively in the liberation. A man who teaches the duty of fighting should pay with his body when the fighting comes.   18
  General Alger, the Secretary of War, had a great liking for Roosevelt, offered him a commission in the Army, and even the command of a regiment. This he prudently declined, having no technical military knowledge. He proposed instead, that Dr. Leonard Wood should be made Colonel, and that he should serve under Wood as Lieutenant-Colonel. By profession, Wood was a physician, who had graduated at the Harvard Medical School, and then had been a contract surgeon with the American Army on the plains. In this service he went through the roughest kind of campaigning and, being ambitious, and having an instinct for military science, he studied the manuals and learned from them and through actual practice the principles of war. In this way he became competent to lead troops. He was about two years younger than Roosevelt, with an iron frame, great tenacity and endurance, a man of few words, but of clear sight and quick decision.   19
  While Roosevelt finished his business at the Navy Department, Colonel Wood hurried to San Antonio, Texas, the rendezvous of the First Regiment of Volunteer Cavalry. A call for volunteers, issued by Roosevelt and endorsed by Secretary Alger, spread through the West and Southwest, and it met with a quick response. Not even in Garibaldi’s famous Thousand was such a strange crowd gathered. It comprised cow-punchers, ranchmen, hunters, professional gamblers and rascals of the Border, sports men, mingled with the society sports, former football players and oarsmen, polo-players and lovers of adventure from the great Eastern cities. They all had one quality in common—courage—and they were all bound together by one common bond, devotion to Theodore Roosevelt. Nearly every one of them knew him personally; some of the Western men had hunted or ranched with him; some of the Eastern had been with him in college, or had had contact with him in one of the many vicissitudes of his career. It was a remarkable spectacle, this flocking to a man not yet forty years old, whose chief work up to that time had been in the supposed commonplace position of a Civil Service Commissioner and of a New York Police Commissioner! But Roosevelt’s name was already known throughout the country: it excited great admiration in many, grave doubts in many, and curiosity in all. His friends urged him not to go. It seemed to some of us almost wantonly reckless that he should put his life, which had been so valuable and evidently held the promise of still higher achievement, at the risk of a Spanish bullet, or of yellow fever in Cuba, for the sake of a cause which did not concern the safety of his country. But he never considered risks or chances. He felt it as a duty that we must free Cuba, and that every one who recognized this duty should do his share in performing it. No doubt the excitement and the noble side of our war attracted him. No doubt, also, that he remembered that the reputation of a successful soldier had often proved a ladder to political promotion in our Republic. Every reader of our history, though he were the dullest, understood that. But that was not the chief reason, or even an important one, in shaping his decision. He went to San Antonio in May, and worked without respite in learning the rudiments of war and in teaching them to his motley volunteers, who were already called by the public, and will be known in history, as the “Rough Riders.” He felt relieved when “Teddy’s Terrors,” one of the nicknames proposed, did not stick to them. At the end of the month the regiment proceeded to Tampa, Florida, whence part of it sailed for Cuba on the transport Yucatan. It sufficiently indicates the state of chaos which then reigned in our Army preparations, that half the regiment and all the horses and mules were left behind. Arrived in Cuba,, the first troops, accustomed only to the saddle, had to hobble along as best they could, on foot, so that some wag rechristened them “Wood’s Weary Walkers.” The rest of the regiment, with the mounts, came a little later, and at Las Guasimas they had their first skirmish with the Spaniards. Eight of them were killed, and they were buried in one grave. Afterward, in writing the history of the Rough Riders, Roosevelt said: “There could be no more honorable burial than that of these men in a common grave—Indian and cowboy, miner, packer, and college athlete—the man of unknown ancestry from the lonely Western plains, and the man who carried on his watch the crests of the Stuyvesants and the Fishes, one in the way they had met death, just as during life they had been one in their daring and their loyalty.” 1   20
  I shall not attempt to follow in detail the story of the Rough Riders, but shall touch only on those matters which refer to Roosevelt himself. Wood, having been promoted to Brigadier-General, in command of a larger unit, Theodore became Colonel of the regiment. On July 1 and 2 he commanded the Rough Riders in their attack on and capture of San Juan Hill, in connection with some colored troops. In this engagement, their nearest approach to a battle, the Rough Riders, who had less than five hundred men in action, lost eighty-nine in killed and wounded. Then followed a dreary life in the trenches until Santiago surrendered; and then a still more terrible experience while they waited for Spain to give up the war. Under a killing tropical sun, receiving irregular and often damaged food, without tent or other protection from the heat or from the rain, the Rough Riders endured for weeks the ravages of fever, climate, and privation. To realize that their sufferings were directly owing to the blunders and incompetence of the War Department at home, brought no consolation, for the soldiers could see no reason why the Department should not go on blundering indefinitely. One of the Rough Riders told me that, when stricken with fever, he lay for days on the beach, and that anchored within the distance a tennis-ball could be thrown was a steamer loaded with medicines, but that no orders were given to bring them ashore!   21
  The Rough Riders were hard hit by disease, but not harder than the other regiments in the Army. Every one of their officers, except the Colonel and another, had yellow fever, and at one time more than half of the regiment was sick. A terrible depression weighed them down. They almost despaired, not only of being relieved, but of living. To face the entire Spanish Army would have been a great joy, compared with this sinking, melting away, against the invisible fever.   22
  The Administration at Washington, however, although it knew the condition of the Army in Cuba, seemed indifferent rather than anxious, and talked about moving the troops into the interior, to the high ground round San Luis. Thereupon, Roosevelt wrote to General Shafter, his commanding officer:
  To keep us here, in the opinion of every officer commanding a division or a brigade, will simply involve the destruction of thousands. There is no possible reason for not shipping practically the entire command North at once….
  All of us are certain, as soon as the authorities at Washington fully appreciate the conditions of the army, to be sent home. If we are kept here it will in all human probability mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die.
  This is not only terrible from the standpoint of the individual lives lost, but it means ruin from the standpoint of military efficiency of the flower of the American Army, for the great bulk of the regulars are here with you. The sick-list, large though it is, exceeding four thousand, affords but a faint index of the debilitation of the army. Not ten per cent are fit for active work.
  This letter General Shafter really desired to have written, but when Roosevelt handed it to him, he hesitated to receive it. Still Roosevelt persisted, left it in the General’s hands, and the General gave it to the correspondent of the Associated Press who was present. A few hours later it had been telegraphed to the United States. Shafter called a council of war of the division and brigade commanders, which he invited Roosevelt to attend, although his rank as Colonel did not entitle him to take part. When the Generals heard that the Army was to be kept in Cuba all summer and sent up into the hills, they agreed that Roosevelt’s protest must be supported, and they drew up the famous “Round Robin” in which they repeated Roosevelt’s warnings. Neither President McKinley nor the War Department could be deaf to such a statement as this: “This army must be moved at once or perish. As the army can be safely moved now, the persons responsible for preventing such a move will be responsible for the unnecessary loss of many thousands of lives.”   24
  This letter also was immediately published at home, and outcries of horror and indignation went up. A few sticklers for military etiquette professed to be astonished that any officer should be guilty of the insubordination which these letters implied, and, of course, the blame fell on Roosevelt. The truth is that Shafter, dismayed at the condition of the Fifth Army, and at his own inability to make the Government understand the frightful doom which was impending, deliberately chose Roosevelt to commit the insubordination; for, as he was a volunteer officer, soon to be discharged, the act could not harm his future, whereas the regular officers were not likely to be popular with the War Department after they had called the attention of the world to its maleficent incompetence.   25
  Washington heard the shot fired by the Colonel of the Rough Riders, and without loss of time ordered the Army home. The sick were transported by thousands to Montauk Point, at the eastern end of Long Island, where, in spite of the best medical care which could be improvised, large numbers of them died. But the Army knew, and the American public knew, that Roosevelt, by his “insubordination,” had saved multitudes of lives. At Montauk Point he was the most popular man in America.   26
  This concluded Roosevelt’s career as a soldier. The experience introduced to the public those virile qualities of his with which his friends were familiar. He had not endured the hardships of ranching and hunting in vain. If life on the Plains democratized him, life with the Rough Riders did also; indeed, without the former there would have been no Rough Riders and no Colonel Roosevelt. He learned not only how to lead a regiment according to the tactics of that day, but also—and this was far more important—he learned how disasters and the waste of lives, and treasure, and the ignominy of a disgracefully managed campaign, sprang directly from unpreparedness. This burned indelibly into his memory. It stimulated all his subsequent appeals to make the Army and Navy large enough for any probable sudden demand upon them. “America the Unready” had won the war against a decrepit, impoverished, third-rate power, but had paid for her victory hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives; what would the count have mounted to had she been pitted against a really formidable foe? Would she have won at all against any enemy fully prepared and of nearly equal strength? Many of us dismissed Roosevelt’s warnings then as the outpourings of a jingo, of one who loved war for war’s sake, and wished to graft onto the peaceful traditions and standards of our Republic the militarism of Europe. We misjudged him.   27

Note 1. The Rough Riders, 120. [ back ]



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