Who commanded the Rough Riders in 1898? Not Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt; he was second to Colonel Leonard Wood. Leonard Wood: Rough Rider, Surgeon, Architect of American Imperialism, by Jack McCallum (NYU Press, New York, 2005, $34.95), is this forgotten national figure’s first biography in 75 years, and it turns out to be an entertaining read.
After leaving Harvard Medical School, Wood joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Sent to Arizona Territory, he spent two years chasing Geronimo’s small but elusive Chiricahua Apache band, a grueling campaign that wore down so many officers Wood ended up commanding troops. He loved it—and earned the Medal of Honor for his efforts in 1886.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt with uncharacteristic modesty insisted that an experienced officer command his Rough Riders. Roosevelt remained in the limelight, so few complained that his choice was a captain in the Medical Corps. Wood had a good war, and as military governor of Cuba after Spain’s surrender, he cleaned up the cities, rebuilt the infrastructure, reformed corrupt courts and civil government, and began constructing schools and charitable facilities. He also set up a governmental electoral system that fell apart four years after American troops withdrew in 1902.
As governor, Wood fought for a definitive study of yellow fever and provided the necessary money. Walter Reed generally gets credit for conquering the deadly disease, but his experiments at the time only suggested that it was spread by mosquitoes; Wood went further. But even in that era of relaxed medical ethics, the experiments were widely denounced because they required infecting humans. When results confirmed Reed’s theories, Wood’s antimosquito campaign produced one of history’s greatest public health triumphs.
In 1902 Roosevelt, now president, sent Wood to the Philippines, where he dealt with the warlike Islamic Moros, still a thorn in the side of the Philippine government today. Drawing on his experience against the Apaches, Wood directed a brutal campaign that resulted in several atrocities which made headlines in the United States (see story, P. 58). During that period, his health deteriorated, the result of the brain tumor that killed him 20 years later. Although McCallum is a skilled historian, his profession is neurosurgery, so readers will learn perhaps more than they want to know about Wood’s health.
As Army chief of staff from 1910 to 1914, Wood tried to bring the tiny professional army into the 20th century. Like most peacetime military reforms that cost money, it failed. When World War I broke out, Wood spoke around the country about preparedness and made no secret of his contempt for President Woodrow Wilson’s disinterest in rearmament. This infuriated Wilson, so when the United States entered the war in April 1917, Wood spent it training troops in Kansas.
Roosevelt’s sudden death in 1919 left Wood the most popular Republican in the country, but he ran an amateurish presidential campaign from which fourthplace Warren G. Harding emerged as the nominee. Soon after the election, Harding appointed Wood governor general of the Philippines. Within a few years, Wood’s seizures and weakness worsened dramatically, and he died during a final operation on August 7, 1927.
Barely known today, Wood was either a friend or enemy of every important figure in American government for 30 years. In Leonard Wood, McCallum has done his homework to produce an insightful portrait of pre-WWI military and presidential politics written in lively, lucid prose.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.