Reviewed with 100 years of hindsight, Theodore Roosevelt’s account of war in Cuba remains a valuable document.
By Jon Guttman
Military history is replete with examples of the effect that commanders, good and bad, have on the outcomes of battles, campaigns and wars. Success can hinge on the right leader being in the right place at the right time.
Americans may have reason to be grateful that George Washington, rather than Theo-dore Roosevelt, was in command of the Continental Army in 1776. Although he was an inconsistent tactician at best, Washington proved to have an unerring grasp of grand strategy. It is doubtful that Roose-velt would have had the tenacious vision or the patience to survive as many defeats as Washington did and still see the American War of Independence through to its successful conclusion.
When Lt. Col. Roosevelt succeeded the newly promoted Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood to command the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, however, it proved to be a serendipitous twist of fate.
Given the weaponry and terrain on July 1, 1898, there was little that the U.S. Army’s forces could do to take San Juan and Kettle hills except charge in the face of withering fire from the positions of the outnumbered but well-dug-in Spanish defenders. To accomplish that task, the Rough Riders needed neither a grand strategist nor even a competent tactician–they needed a hard-charging hell-raiser who led by example. With Roosevelt, that’s just what they got.
Roosevelt’s own perspective on the war in Cuba has been made available to the public once more in a centennial reprinting of his book The Rough Riders (Taylor Publishing, Dallas, Texas, 1997, $29.95).
A living testimonial to mind–or will–over matter, Theodore Roosevelt had grown from a sickly child to an unlikely, bespectacled tamer of the West, a commissioner of police who personally rooted out corruption in the New York City force and, on April 1897, an assistant secretary of the Navy who unapologetically strove to carry the American concept of Manifest Destiny beyond its domestic borders and project it overseas. At one time or another, Roosevelt had advocated war with Chile, Britain, Germany, Mexico and Canada. “In strictest confidence,” he wrote a friend in 1897, “I should welcome any war. The country needs one.”
When the Spanish-American War broke out in April 1898, he was all for it. Unlike many other warmongers of the time, however, he was ready–indeed, eager–to participate in it. As one of his troopers, Sergeant Buck Taylor, stated during Roosevelt’s campaign for governor of New York in the autumn of 1898: “He told us we might meet wounds and death and we done it, but he was there in the midst of us, and when it came to the great day he led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter.”
“This hardly seemed a tribute to my military skill,” Roosevelt commented later, “but it delighted the crowd, and as far as I could tell did me nothing but good.”
Amid all the self-congratulatory literature in the United States that followed the war, Roosevelt contributed his own lively account of his experiences, The Rough Riders, which appeared in six installments in Scribner’s magazine in 1899 and subsequently was published in book form. Although critically acclaimed at the time for its masculine style and detailed treatment of the Cuban campaign, Roosevelt’s tendency to make himself the center of attention inevitably attracted barbs from critics. One of them was humorist Finley Peter Dunne, whose character “Mr. Dooley” suggested that Roosevelt’s book should be retitled Alone in Cuba. As able to take a joke as he was to lead men under fire, Roosevelt replied to Dunne, “I regret to state that my family and intimate friends are delighted with your review of my book.”
After almost a century, The Rough Riders, reprinted with additional text by Richard Bak, is still a rousing good read. It is also a valuable historical document, not only for the attention to detail with which Roosevelt described what he perceived around him during the war but also for the way he characterized the attitudes of his time.
Helping to put the book in its proper context is Bak’s accompanying biography of Roosevelt. Of equal interest are excerpts from a recently discovered Rough Rider diary and a number of sidebars that offer additional insights into the conflict, such as the role of black soldiers (called “smoked Yankees” by the Spanish) and the disturbing revelation that the Gatling guns, which supported the assault on San Juan Hill, struck many of the advancing American troops in the back. Both Bak’s overview and Roose-velt’s front-line narrative are enhanced by 175 illustrations, including an eight-page color section.
While the recent television miniseries loosely based on the book may have disappointed a lot of viewers, the original tale will not. As a historic mirror of its age and as a plain old adventure story that really happened, The Rough Riders still delivers.