(The following is a guest post by Barbara Bair, historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.)
While life posed many setbacks for Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919), he proved himself a man who met challenges and seized his opportunities. When it came to the Spanish American War in 1898, Roosevelt carefully devised public acclaim as a manly military leader of the First Volunteer Cavalry. He rode that reputation all the way to the governorship of New York and then the White House. Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, meanwhile, evolved from actual soldiers participating in warfare into heroic status in the American popular imagination (and Wild West shows) as a rabble-rousing courageous band of westerners and easterners who triumphed at San Juan Hill.
A letter recently acquired by the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division sheds light on some of the details behind the Rough Riders’ story. Modern historians continue to look backward and debate the military prowess of the regiment. Roosevelt himself noted the general confusions and lack of preparedness of the United States War Department in his diary. The letter shows that Roosevelt felt moved to personally respond to aspersions being cast specifically against his men. He wrote to defend their honor at a time when they were fresh from the victory that brought them fame.
The two-page letter, marked “(Private and not for publication),” was composed on a typewriter at headquarters camp for the 2nd Brigade, Cavalry Division, near Santiago de Cuba on Aug. 4, 1898. It was signed by Roosevelt and edited in his hand. It was directed with characteristic Roosevelt energy to Col. William C. Church, founder and editor of the Army and Navy Journal.
Roosevelt wrote to contest certain allegations that were being aired in military circles claiming that the Rough Riders’ performance had been less than stellar. Among the charges that Roosevelt termed “baseless slander” were the ideas that the Rough Riders had been ambushed, engaged in ill-advised fame-seeking from which they required rescue or were guilty of friendly fire. Roosevelt proclaims these rumors to be “absurd falsehoods” and attributes them to envy on the part of members of a rival volunteer unit from the 71st New York.
At issue was, in part, who to believe about the chaotic happenings of war. Roosevelt questions Church’s failure to fact check the reports with a correspondent in the field and lends his own account of what happened in the unit’s two major encounters.
Excerpts from Theodore Roosevelt to Colonel Church, August 5, 1898. Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress:
“The Rough Riders, as I think any regular will tell you, were the only volunteers who deserved to rank with the regulars in point of fighting capacity . . . . As for being influenced by love of notoriety, that is an accusation I shan’t answer . . . . At the fight of July first we led the three assaults in which we were engaged, none but regulars being with us, and at the end of the day I was in the extreme front and the men under me were nearer the enemy than any other part of our line …”
Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy when the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898. Roosevelt strongly favored American military intervention against Spain in the Cuban insurgency, especially after the sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in February. Eager to participate first-hand in military combat, he resigned his administrative post to help recruit a volunteer unit that would combine the two social worlds of most interest to him: cowboys from the West and adventuresome Ivy League athletes from the East.
Arriving in Cuba in June, the volunteers, who had trained in San Antonio, Texas, and traveled via Tampa, Fla., saw their first battle on June 24 against Spanish fortifications in mountainous jungle terrain at Las Guásimas. Eye-witness correspondent Richard Harding Davis termed the fighting in the difficult surroundings more hot and hasty than he could ever have imagined. Their renown came on July 1 with the battle of San Juan Heights, in which Roosevelt pressed to the forefront as senior in command and led the infantry charge on Kettle Hill. The Spanish were meanwhile challenged by sea as well as by land. The U.S. Navy won the decisive naval battle at Santiago harbor on July 3, and the city was surrendered on July 17. While some had their qualms about both the virtue and the conduct of the conflict and of the United States’ reach into Imperialism, many Americans responded like Secretary of State John Hay, who termed the conflict “a splendid little war.” Roosevelt soon codified his own heroics in his 1899 war memoir, “The Rough Riders,” and in copious coverage in the popular press.