Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill, by Mark Lee Gardner, William Morrow, New York, 2016, $26.99
This book is far from another glorified tale of Theodore Roosevelt and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, aka “Rough Riders.” In a refreshing reversal from the often silly 1997 TNT miniseries about the unit, Gardner’s book delivers an accurate portrayal of Roosevelt, his men and the action in Cuba, replete with instances of anguish, grit and inconspicuous valor.
Drawing on a wealth of primary-source accounts, Gardner renders an especially authentic portrait of the common soldier. He also reveals lesser-known chapters of the oft-told Rough Rider narrative, including details of the ambush at Las Guasimas, the Americans’ growing disdain for their Cuban allies, and the impact of illness and malnourishment on the unit.
Roosevelt comes across, both on and off the battlefield, as the epitome of the Victorian-era hero. That the colonel survived his engagements in Cuba is remarkable in itself, as he often disregarded his own safety, recklessly exposing himself to Spanish fire to steady his inexperienced soldiers. Away from the fight he shared in the hardships of his men and took extra care to ensure their welfare, in some cases covering expenses for provisions out of his own pocket. Such selflessness makes for compelling reading, and Gardner’s book serves as an excellent primer about Roosevelt the soldier, the Rough Riders and the reality of their service in the Spanish-American War.