Share This Article
One of Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite reporters wrote the definitive account back in the 1920s, but his memoir of the episode was never published—until now.

In April 1898, two months after a mysterious explosion sank the USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, carrying 260 American seamen to their deaths, President William McKinley bowed to public pressure and sent the United States to war against Spain, which was widely blamed for the battleship’s sinking. Many Americans were eager to go to war, but perhaps none more so than Theodore Roosevelt, the 39-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, who had grown increasingly distraught with the administration’s reluctance to intervene militarily. “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair,” Roosevelt complained to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, a friend. To another friend he said, “I would give anything if President McKinley would order the fleet to Havana tomorrow.”

All the while Roosevelt had been talking up war, off the record, with Richard V. Oulahan of the New York Evening Sun and other Washington-based reporters. But McKinley’s decision to go to war freed Roosevelt to chart his own course in the public eye. In short order he would quit his desk job at the Navy Department, secure a commission in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel, and set up a training ground in San Antonio, Texas, for his ragtag regiment of Ivy League football players and other standout athletes, Texas rangers, ranchers, cowboys, Indians, and assorted roughnecks from the West. And, on his own account, he telegrammed Brooks Brothers for an “ordinary cavalry lieutenant-colonel’s uniform in blue Cravenette.”

Soon photographers and journalists descended on the training camp in San Antonio’s Riverside Park, where a sign on the gate said, “All Civilians, Except Reporters, Prohibited from Camp.” To be sure, Teddy Roosevelt loved the press—or at least saw that he could use the press to help transform himself from a politician with no combat experience into a full-fledged war hero. When Roosevelt’s regiment arrived in Tampa, Florida, before its departure for Cuba, a crew from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was there to film the “Rough Riders” during their drills.

By then Roosevelt had already given up insisting that his regiment be called by its official name: the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. “This was the official title of the regiment, but for some reason or other the public promptly christened us the ‘Rough Riders,’ ” Roosevelt would write a year later. “At first we fought against the use of the term, but to no purpose; and when finally the Generals of Division and Brigade began to write in formal communications about our regiment as the ‘Rough Riders,’ we adopted the term ourselves.”

Richard Oulahan. (Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)

The “for some reason,” it turned out, was Richard Oulahan—the reporter Roosevelt liked to call “Dickie.” Oulahan was close enough to Roosevelt that he could playfully emphasize TR’s distinctive pronunciation of the word “delighted” by spelling it “dee-lighted” in some of his stories. And when Roosevelt became president in 1901, following McKinley’s assassination, he invited Oulahan and other favored correspondents to interview him during his daily shave—although he insisted that they not quote him without his consent.

Oulahan was widely credited with coining the name “Rough Riders,” though in fact he merely repeated, in his very first story about the regiment-in-formation, what Roosevelt had told him. “He said casually that he intended to organize a regiment of rough riders,” Oulahan recalled while speaking to a group of student journalists more than 20 years later. “That was a slip, but upon my journalistic mind the alliterative allurement of ‘Roosevelt’s Rough Riders’ took deep hold, and my imagination pictured it in the headlines.”

Richard Oulahan became the chief of the New York Times’s Washington bureau in 1912, and until his death in 1932 he was often referred to as the dean of the Washington press corps. In 1944 a Liberty ship named after him—the SS Richard V. Oulahan—was built under
a U.S. Maritime Commission contract for use during World War II.

Oulahan wrote two books that were never published, including one that he titled White House and the Press. Oulahan’s draft manuscript of the book is among his papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. One of its chapters is his account of how the Rough Riders got their name and is published here, for the first time, nearly 100 years after Oulahan wrote it.

Colonel Roosevelt objected to the term Rough Riders, applied to the regiment he commanded in the Spanish War, but, as he said in his history of this famous organization, it became popular and was adopted ultimately by the regiment. He died, I think, in ignorance of how this descriptive appellation, which did so much to attract attention to his command, came to find its way into our American nomenclature. I often had in mind to tell him but neglected to do so. Its initial use was without this thought that it might be in any way distasteful to Colonel Roosevelt.

When the United States became involved in the conflict with Spain, Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, talked frequently with me about his desire to see active service in the war, and in one conversation he confided to me that General [Russell A.] Alger, the Secretary of War, had offered him the command of the first of three regiments of volunteer cavalry that were to be authorized by a bill pending in Congress. President McKinley, he said, had given General Alger the privilege of choosing the field officers of these regiments. Colonel Roosevelt, or Mr. Roosevelt, as he then was, explained to me that on account of his lack of military knowledge, he preferred to take a subordinate rank and had proposed to Secretary Alger that his friend Captain Leonard Wood, an assistant surgeon in the Medical Corps of the Army, who had line experience in the campaign against Geronimo, be given the colonelcy, with Roosevelt as lieutenant colonel, a position which he thought would give him the opportunity to observe and learn the military art. This proposal was ultimately but rather reluctantly adopted by Secretary Alger, who had a personal fondness for Roosevelt.

In the course of several conversations with me Roosevelt had explained that his wish was to raise a regiment of men who could shoot and ride. He used the expression “a regiment of rough riders” several times. All that he told me was in confidence; I was not to publish his plans until formal announcement was made of his appointment as lieutenant-­colonel of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry—that was to be the official designation of the regiment.

In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt was itching to go to war. He suited up for combat in Cuba with the help of Brooks Brothers. (Corbis/Getty Images)

As it happened, the announcement was made unexpectedly one morning by Secretary Alger. When I heard it, within a few minutes after the Secretary had given the news to the press, I wrote immediately a dispatch to the afternoon edition of the newspaper I represented in which I embodied a brief description of the plans Colonel Roosevelt had outlined to me. The term “rough riders,” which Roosevelt had used, naturally appealed to my imagination, and I suggested in the dispatch that “although Mr. Roosevelt will have second place, the regiment will probably be known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.” Roosevelt already had a national reputation; Wood was practically unknown.

The dispatch was printed the same day in the New York Evening Sun:

Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy to fight with Cowboys.

WASHINGTON, April 25.—Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to-day accepted the Lieutenant-­Colonelcy of a regiment of rough riders to be perfected under his supervision. 

He told the Secretary that he did not feel competent to take command of a cavalry regiment on account of his unfamiliarity with military tactics, and asked that the command be given to Capt. Leonard G. Wood, a surgeon of the army, and a great personal friend of Mr. Roosevelt.

Capt. Wood is the physician detailed to attend the families of army officers in Washington. He is also the physician of President McKinley and Secretary Alger. Although not of the fighting branch of the military service, he has had experience as an active participant in Indian campaigns, and won a medal of honor for gallantry in action against the Apaches.

Mr. Roosevelt had a consultation with Secretary Alger this morning and Mr. Alger consented to Mr. Roosevelt’s suggestion that Capt. Wood be made Colonel and himself Lieutenant Colonel of the rough riders. The regiment will be composed of cowboys, many of whom were associated with Mr. Roosevelt during his ranch life in the West.

It was said at the War Department to-day that although Mr. Roosevelt will have second place, the regiment will probably be known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

The term “rough riders” was mentioned three times.

Late that afternoon Mr. Roosevelt gave me further illuminating information of his plans for his new role of soldier. He spoke of the prospective command as a regiment of mounted riflemen. When I suggested rough riders, he asked me not to stress that term. Mounted riflemen, he said, better expressed the character of the regiment. It was my impression for many years that as Roosevelt had shown such sensitiveness over “rough riders” I had not employed that designation in the dispatch which I wrote that night for The Sun. Our Washington Bureau supplied news to both the morning and evening newspapers published by The Sun Printing and Publishing Association. Recently I took occasion to look up my dispatch as printed in The Sun and found that my recollection was wrong, for the headlines read:

Roosevelt Accepts a Command.

Lieutenant-Colonel of a Regiment of Rough Riders to be Recruited in the West.

The information in this dispatch was practically similar to that contained in the original dispatch published in the Evening Sun, with a few additional details obtained in my conversation with Mr. Roosevelt after the original dispatch had been telegraphed.

While “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” was not repeated in the dispatch printed the next morning in The Sun, the term “rough riders” appeared several times and it was mentioned that at Roosevelt’s request Secretary Alger had decided to appoint Captain Wood “to the command of the Rough Riders.”

Through what was known as The Laffan News Bureau, the news of The Sun and The Evening Sun was distributed to a large number of clients. By that means my dispatches to the twin Suns obtained a large distribution.The alliterative designation which I had used in my dispatches proved as alluring to the public as it had been to me, and the term written immediately after Secretary Alger’s announcement had country wide circulation.The American people, their normal imagination stimulated by a romantic appeal to their patriotic spirit, seized on “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” with avidity, and Roosevelt became a popular idol.

In his “Theodore Roosevelt and His Time,” the authorized biography, Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Roosevelt’s intimate friend and chosen literary executor, says: “Its official name was the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, but because it was largely composed of Western ranchmen, it was promptly nicknamed Rough Riders and under that picturesque title passed through the war and into history.”

I think that it has never been published before that it was Colonel Roosevelt himself who first applied the term to the regiment he was organizing, unconscious of the impression it made on the mind of his journalistic confidant whose dispatch on the subject gripped the imagination of a people filled with patriotic fervor and eager to expand its mood for hero-worship to those who showed their willingness to risk all in the nation’s cause. MHQ


This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: How the Rough Riders Got Their Name