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Theodore Roosevelt
The Rough Rider
by Pearson, Edmund Lester

In 1897 the Republican Party came again into power; Mr. McKinley was inaugurated as President. Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and came with his family to Washington. The Secretary of the Navy was Mr. John D. Long.

America was within a year of getting into war, and as usual was not ready for it. There are men so foolish as to rejoice because we have never been ready for the wars in which we have taken part about every twenty or thirty years in our history. This simply means that they rejoice at the unnecessary deaths of thousands of other Americans who die from disease in camp, or are killed in the field through neglect to prepare in advance. Preparation for war is not wholly the matter of having weapons ready to fight the enemy. It also means healthy camps for our soldiers to live in, and readiness to furnish clothing, food and medical supplies. For lack of these, thousands of our friends and relatives die in every war we are in. A rebellion had been going on in Cuba for years. The cruel government of Spain had kept the Cubans in misery and in rebellion, and disturbed the friendship between Spain and the United States. It was our duty to see that Cuban expeditions did not sail from our coast to help their friends, and in this work a great many ships of our Navy were busy all the time. Nobody liked to have to do this for we naturally sympathized with the Cubans, who were making such a brave fight against stupid and tyrannical governors sent from Spain. One of the last of these was particularly bad. He herded the Cuban people into camps where they died of disease and starvation, and he had great numbers of them shot without mercy. We had justly revolted against the mis- government of King George III in 1776, but nothing that King George's governors and generals had done to us was as bad as the things the Spaniards were doing in Cuba, in 1896 and 1897.

Many of the men in Washington felt that war would come sooner or later. Roosevelt believed it and worked constantly to have the Navy ready. He had the support of the President and of Secretary Long in nearly everything that he proposed, and so was able to do some useful work. It is important to understand what Roosevelt thought about war, not only about this, but about all wars. Here it is in his own words.

I abhor unjust war. I abhor injustice and bullying by the strong at the expense of the weak, whether among nations or individuals, I abhor violence and bloodshed. I believe that war should never be resorted to when, or so long as, it is honorably possible to avoid it. I respect all men and women who from high motives and with sanity and self-respect do all they can to avert war. I advocate preparation for war in order to avert war; and I should never advocate war unless it were the only alternative to dishonor. [Footnote: "Autobiography," p. 226.]

You will be able to see from what he did while he was President, when he was in a position where he could have plunged the country into war half a dozen times, whether these words were true, or whether he was really the fire-eater which some of his enemies insisted he was.

He secured from Congress nearly a million dollars, to permit the Navy to engage in target-practice. To those who were alarmed at such "waste," he remarked that gun-powder was meant to be burned, and that sailors must learn to shoot, since in battle, the shots that hit are the only ones that count. There is nothing wonderful about such remarks. In looking back at them there seems to be nothing wonderful about many things that he said and did. They are merely examples of plain, common-sense, and it appears ridiculous that anybody should have had to make such remarks, or to fight hard to get such clearly necessary things done. Yet he did have to fight for them. It had to be driven into the heads of some of the men in Congress that it is not the proper use of gun-powder to keep it stored up, until war is declared, then bring it out, partly spoiled, and give it to soldiers and sailors, who for lack of practice, do not know how to shoot straight.

Roosevelt also was able to help in having appointed to command the Asiatic squadron, a naval officer named Commodore George Dewey.

On February 15, 1898, while affairs were at their worst between America and Spain, our battleship Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor. She had gone there on a friendly visit, but now was destroyed and sent to the bottom. Over two hundred and fifty of our men were killed. Almost every one knew that war was now certain. For weeks the country debated as to the cause of the explosion which sank the Maine, and the matter was investigated by naval officers assisted by divers. They found that the explosion had come from the outside. Somebody had set off a mine or torpedo beneath the ship. Nobody in America disputed this, except a few of the peace-at-any-price folk, who preferred to think that the carelessness of our own sailors had been the cause. These gentlemen always think the best of the people of other nations, which is a fine thing; but they are always ready to believe the worst of their own countrymen, which is, on the whole, rather a nasty trait.

Roosevelt worked at top-speed in the Navy Department, and began to lay plans for going to the war himself. He believed that it was right and necessary to fight Spain, and end the horrible suffering in Cuba. And he believed that it was the duty first and foremost of men like himself, who advised war, to take part in it. He was nearly forty years old, and had a family. Many other men in his place would have discovered that their services were most important in Washington. They would have stayed in their offices, and let other men (whom they called "jingoes") do the fighting for them. It was never Roosevelt's custom to act that way.

Later in February, while Mr. Long was away, and Roosevelt was Acting-Secretary of the Navy, he sent this cable message to Commodore Dewey:
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.

War against Spain was declared in April,--the month in our history which has also seen the beginning of our Revolution, our Civil War, and our entrance into the Great War against Germany. Congress arranged for three regiments of volunteer cavalry to be raised among the men in the Rockies and on the Great Plains who knew how to ride and shoot. Here Roosevelt saw his chance. He knew these men and longed to go to war in their company.

The Secretary of War offered to make him Colonel of one of these regiments. It is worth while to notice what his reply was. He knew how to manage a horse and a rifle, he had lived in the open and could take care of himself in the field. He had had three years in the National Guard in New York, rising to the rank of Captain. Many men in the Civil War without one half of his experience and knowledge, gayly accepted Brigadier-Generalships. Also, in the Spanish War, another public man, Mr. William J. Bryan, allowed himself to be made a Colonel, and took full command of a regiment, without one day's military experience. Yet Roosevelt declined the offer of a Colonel's commission and asked to be made Lieutenant- Colonel, with Leonard Wood, of the regular Army as his Colonel.

When you hear or read that Roosevelt was a conceited man, always pushing himself forward, it may be well to ask if that is the way a conceited man would have acted.

Colonel Wood was an army surgeon, who had been a fighting officer in the campaign against the Apaches. He had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration an American soldier can win for personal bravery.

The new regiment, the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, was promptly called, by some newspaper or by the public, the "Rough Riders," and by that name it is always known. Most of the men in it came from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and the Indian Territory, but it had members from nearly every State. Many Eastern college men were in it, including some famous foot-ball players, polo-players, tennis champions and oarsmen. The regiment trained at San Antonio, and landed in Cuba for the attack on Santiago on June 22. The troopers had to leave their horses behind, so they were to fight on foot after all. Roosevelt's Rough Riders, somebody said, had become Wood's Weary Walkers. The walking was not pleasant to some of the cow-boys, who never used to walk a step when there was a horse to ride.

Within a day or two they were in a fight at Las Guasimas. It was a confusing business, advancing through the jungle and fired at by an enemy they could not see. The Rough Riders lost eight men killed and thirty-four wounded. The Spaniards were using smokeless powder, then rather a new thing in war. Two of our regiments at Santiago were still using black powder rifles, and the artillery used black powder, which by its smoke showed the enemy just where they were. Our artillery was always silenced or driven off, because this country had been so neglectful of its Army and its men as to let poor, old backward Spain get better guns, and more modern ammunition than ours. That never should happen with a rich, progressive country like ours.

A few days later came the fight at San Juan. Colonel Wood had been put in command of the brigade, so Roosevelt led the regiment of Rough Riders. It was a fearfully hot day; many men dropped from exhaustion. The regular regiments of cavalry, together with the Rough Riders, all fighting on foot, moved forward against the low hills on which were the Spaniards in block-houses or trenches. For some while they were kept waiting in reserve, taking what shelter they could from the Mauser bullets, which came whirring through the tall jungle grass. This is the most trying part of a fight. It is all right when at last you can charge your enemy and come to close quarters with him, but to lie on the ground under fire, unable to see anybody to fire upon, is the worst strain upon the soldiers' nerves. As one after another is shot, the officers begin to watch the men closely to see how they are standing it. Roosevelt received a trifling wound from a shrapnel bullet at the beginning of the fight. Later his orderly had a sun-stroke, and when he called another orderly to take a message, this second man was killed as he stood near, pitching forward dead at Roosevelt's feet.

Finally came the order to charge. Roosevelt was the only mounted man in the regiment. He had intended to go into the fight on foot, as he had at Las Guasimas, but found that the heat was so bad that he could not run up and down the line and superintend things unless he was on horseback. When he was mounted he could see his own men better, and they could see him. So could the enemy see him better, and he had one or two narrow escapes because of being so conspicuous.

He started in the rear of the regiment, which is where the Colonel should be, according to the books, but soon rode through the lines and led the charge up "Kettle Hill,"--so-called by the Rough Riders because there were some sugar kettles on top of it. His horse was scraped by a couple of bullets, as he went up, and one of the bullets nicked his elbow. Members of the other cavalry regiments were mingled with the Rough Riders in the charge,--their officers had been waiting for orders, and were glad to join in the advance. The Spaniards were driven out and the Rough Riders planted their flags on the hill.

But there were other hills and other trenches full of Spaniards beyond, and again the Rough Riders, mixed with men of other regiments, went forward. In cleaning out the trenches Roosevelt and his orderly were suddenly fired on at less than ten yards by two Spaniards. Roosevelt killed one of them with his revolver. The Rough Riders had had eighty-eight killed and wounded out of less than five hundred men who were in the fight.

The American forces were now within sight of Santiago, but they had to dig in and hold the ground they had taken. There was a short period in the trenches, which seemed tedious to the riders from the plains, but was nothing to what men, years later, had to endure in the Great War against Germany. At last Santiago surrendered, on July 17.

The war ended within about a month. Commodore Dewey had beaten the Spanish Fleet at Manila and Admiral Sampson and his fleet had destroyed the Spanish cruisers which were forced out of Santiago Harbor on July 3rd, as a result of the Army getting within striking distance of the city. One other thing of importance was done by Roosevelt before the regiment was brought home to Montauk Point and mustered out. After the surrender of Santiago it was supposed that the war was going on and that there would be a campaign in the winter against Havana. But the American Army was full of yellow fever. Half the Rough Riders were sick at one time, and the condition of other regiments was as bad. The higher officers knew that unless the troops were taken to some healthier climate to recover, there would be nothing left of them. Over four thousand men were sick, and not ten per cent, of the Army was fit for active work. But the War Department would not listen to the suggestion that the army be sent for a while to a cooler climate.

What none of the regular Army officers could afford to do, Roosevelt did. He wrote a letter to General Shafter, the commander of the expedition, explaining the state of things, and setting out how important it was, if any of the army was to be kept alive, that they should be sent away from Cuba, until the sickly season was over. General Shafter really wished such a letter to be written, and he allowed the Associated Press reporter to have it as soon as it was handed to him.

Then, all the Generals joined with Roosevelt in a "Round Robin" to General Shafter, saying the same things. The Government at Washington began to take notice, and in a short time ordered the army home.

Roosevelt had taken a leading part in an act which caused him to be severely blamed by many, to be denounced by all who worship military etiquette, and charged with "insubordination" by men who would rather make a mess of things and do it according to the rules of the book, than succeed in something useful and do it by commonsense rules made up at the time. He had shocked the folks who like red tape, and he had helped save the lives of perhaps four thousand men.


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