"No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war."
Theodore Roosevelt quoted in Theodore Roosevelt: A Life.
American naval officer; 26th president of the United States
Theodore Roosevelt led a cavalry of volunteer soldiers in Cuba during the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898). Famous in the United States for their ferocity and bravery, the cavalry became known as the Rough Riders. For Roosevelt, who was thirty-nine at the time, the war fulfilled his strong desire to engage in military combat. Roosevelt's wartime performance made him popular in the United States and helped him become the twenty-sixth president of the United States (1901-1909).
Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, to Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and Martha (Bulloch) Roosevelt. The second of four children, Roosevelt grew up in great wealth but poor health. Roosevelt was a small, skinny child, and asthma made it difficult for him to breathe. As he grew older, Roosevelt responded to his poor health by exercising vigorously to make his body strong. Throughout his childhood, Roosevelt became an avid hunter, a voracious reader, and studied nature by spending time immersed in it.
Roosevelt was a child when the American Civil War (1861-65) began. Disturbed that his father had decided not to fight in the war, Roosevelt channeled his anger into a prayer to God that the Union Army would smash the Confederate soldiers to powder, according to a biographer. Later in life, Roosevelt would have a chance to prove himself on the battlefield, as his father had chosen not to do.
After graduating from Harvard College in 1880, Roosevelt married his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. The couple had a daughter named Alice. In his search for a profession, Roosevelt tried law school before deciding to become a writer. His first book, The Naval War of 1812; or, the History of the United States Navy During the Last War with Great Britain, showed Roosevelt's great interest in the U.S. Navy.
Always interested in politics, Roosevelt spent much of his spare time at the New York offices of the Republican Party. Shortly thereafter, in 1882, Roosevelt was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he earned a reputation as an enemy of corrupt government. On February 14, 1884, Roosevelt's wife and mother died just hours apart. (His father had died six years earlier.) Consumed with grief, Roosevelt tried to return to the assembly but soon left politics to live in the Dakota Territory on a ranch and to continue his writing career.
Roosevelt married his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow, in 1886, and fathered five children with her. Roosevelt's continued passion for politics, devotion to the Republican Party, and interest in reform led President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901; served 1889-1893) to appoint Roosevelt to the U.S. Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C., in 1889. Roosevelt's job was to make sure people got federal jobs based on their ability instead of through favoritism or political friendship. Back in New York City in 1895, Roosevelt worked as president of the Board of Police Commissioners. Both jobs allowed Roosevelt to fight the governmental corruption he despised.
Appointment to the Navy Department
In 1896, Roosevelt campaigned on behalf of William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry), a fellow Republican who was running for president of the United States. When McKinley won, Roosevelt sought the job of assistant secretary of the navy. He thought the United States had to build a strong navy in order to grow into a world power.
While Roosevelt was campaigning for McKinley, Cuban rebels were continuing to fight for independence from Spain in a revolution that had begun in 1895. Americans were horrified at the news reports that Spanish general Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930) had imprisoned Cuban civilians in camps to prevent them from helping the rebels. The Cuban revolution was hurting American businesses, which had invested $50 million in sugarcane plantations and other areas of the Cuban economy. When McKinley became president, many Americans wanted to declare war against Spain and drive the corrupt Spanish government out of Cuba. Roosevelt, a jingo—someone who wanted to wage war in order to expand the territory of the United States—agreed with them.
McKinley appointed Roosevelt to the Navy Department, after being assured that the younger man would not be too aggressive about waging war. Roosevelt, however, was too independent, passionate, and energetic to remain calm. In June 1897, after only three months in office, he gave a rousing speech at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Roosevelt said that preparing for war was the best way to have peace, and building a strong navy was the best way to prepare for war.
His boss, U.S. Navy secretary John D. Long (1838-1915), was less aggressive than Roosevelt, so the two often disagreed on matters of foreign policy. He did not share Roosevelt's opinions and was upset by his public comments. Roosevelt angered Long again at the end of September by persuading Senator Redfield Proctor (1831-1908; see entry in Primary Sources section) to help him appoint Commodore George Dewey (1837-1917; see entry), a friend of Roosevelt's, to command the navy's Asiatic Squadron. Annoyed by the politics that led to Dewey's appointment, Long sent Dewey to Asia as a commodore rather than promoting him to rear admiral as expected.
The road to war
On February 15, 1898, Americans became outraged when the U.S. warship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. More than 250 Americans lost their lives in the blast. The ship had been sent there to protect American interests on the island. In March, a naval investigation concluded that a mine had destroyed the ship but did not identify those responsible for setting off the mine. Roosevelt was convinced that Spain was responsible, however, and he called for war in Cuba.
McKinley was avoiding war, largely because the American business community feared disruption of its recovery from the economic depression of 1893. This policy angered Roosevelt. According to Nathan Miller in Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, Roosevelt wrote a letter to a friend in March 1898 in which he said:
In the name of humanity and of national self-interest alike, we should have interfered in Cuba three years ago.… The craven fear and brutal selfishness of the mere money-getters, have combined to prevent us from doing our duty. The blood of the Cubans, the blood of women and children who have perished by the hundred thousand in hideous misery lies at our door; and the blood of the murdered men of the Maine calls not for indemnity [payment] but for the full measure of atonement which can only come by driving the Spaniard from the New World.
Preparing to fight
The United States eventually declared war on April 25, and War Secretary Russell A. Alger (1836-1907) made plans to send an expedition to drive Spain from the colony. It was Roosevelt's chance to make up for his father's failure to serve in the American Civil War. Full of boyish energy and dreams of combat, Roosevelt resigned from the Navy Department to seek a fighting spot in the army.
Roosevelt became a lieutenant colonel under his friend, Colonel Leonard Wood (1860-1927), in the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. After purchasing a uniform from Brooks Brothers and stuffing it with twelve pairs of eyeglasses for his poor vision, Roosevelt headed for San Antonio, Texas, where his regiment would train. He arrived on May 15. Just two weeks earlier, on May 1, Roosevelt's friend Commodore Dewey had crushed Spain's squadron in the Philippines (an island chain in the Pacific Ocean south of China) without losing one sailor to enemy fire.
By the time Roosevelt got to San Antonio, his regiment of one thousand volunteers had been nicknamed the Rough Riders. His fellow soldiers were Native Americans, cowboys, gamblers, lawmen, outlaws, college students, actors, and musicians. The regiment trained by taking long rides on horseback in the sweltering Texan heat. At the end of May, they boarded a train for Tampa, Florida, where the Fifth Corps expedition (called the V Corps) was assembling to head for Cuba.
Roosevelt's men arrived in Tampa amidst disorganization and chaos, typical of the army's conduct during the war. Food and supplies were scarce. There were not enough ships to transport all the soldiers to Cuba; consequently, 440 of the Rough Riders had to stay in Florida, and only the officers could bring their horses on board with them. Afraid of being left behind, Roosevelt stormed up a gangplank to prevent regular army regiments from getting on the ship before him and his volunteers. Once on the ship, the Rough Riders and the V Corps suffered in sweaty, cramped conditions before arriving in Cuba on June 22, 1898.
The battle of Las Guásimas
The U.S. Atlantic Naval Squadron, commanded by Admiral William T. Sampson (1840-1902), had blockaded Spanish admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete (1839-1909; see entry) in the harbor at Santiago de Cuba at the southeastern end of the island. After consulting with Sampson and Cuban general Calixto García (1839-1898; see entry in Primary Sources section), U.S. Army general William R. Shafter (1835-1906; see entry) decided to land the V Corps at Daquirí and march his troops twelve miles along the coast to the Spanish stronghold at Santiago.
After landing in Cuba and sleeping for two nights amongst biting land crabs, the army headed for Santiago on the morning of June 24. General Joseph Wheeler (1836-1906) ordered Wood and Roosevelt to lead the Rough Riders along a narrow path. The Regular First and Tenth Cavalries marched on a wagon road that ran parallel to the path. Both roads converged at Las Guásimas, where the Americans joined forces to meet the Spaniards.
When the Spanish fired from hidden positions, the Rough Riders struggled to take cover in the thick jungle. Then they tried to advance, searching for their enemies, who were hard to find because they used rifles with smokeless gunpowder. According to Nathan Miller in Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, Roosevelt later admitted, "All the while I was thinking that I was the only man who did not know what I was about."
When the Rough Riders finally spotted the hats worn by some of the Spanish troops, they were able to fire their own weapons more effectively. This led to a series of Spanish retreats and American advances until the U.S. regiments had chased their opponents from Las Guásimas. Camping near a cool stream on the ridge they had captured, the Rough Riders rested for six days while the U.S. Army planned its next move.
The siege of San Juan
The village of El Caney and a series of hills called San Juan Heights were all that separated the U.S. Army from Santiago. On June 30, General Shafter finally came ashore and met with his senior officers to plan an attack. Colonel Wood was promoted to take over the brigade of a sick officer, so Roosevelt proudly found himself in command of his regiment. According to historians, Roosevelt rose early on the morning of July 1, shaved, ate bad bacon, drank black coffee, and prepared to fight.
The battle began when Captain Allyn K. Capron Sr.'s artillery unit shelled El Caney to clear the way for General H. W. Lawton (1843-1899), who attacked with his infantry division at 7:00 A . M . Shafter had expected Lawton to complete the siege in two hours. It took nine hours, however, and cost many lives.
Around 1:00 P.M., Roosevelt was waiting impatiently when he finally got the order to attack San Juan Heights. The Rough Riders marched toward Kettle Hill, which had gotten its name from an iron sugar refinery kettle that sat on top of it. African American soldiers from the Ninth Cavalry Regiment joined the Rough Riders for the attack. Together, they stormed up the hill, cutting through a barbed wire fence and forcing the Spaniards to retreat with the sheer strength of their surge.
Once atop Kettle Hill, the Rough Riders fired at the Spanish troops on San Juan Hill to help their fellow Americans there. Then they advanced, along with the Ninth Cavalry, to take a spur of San Juan Hill. According to historians, Roosevelt killed a Spanish soldier there with his pistol and later bragged about it in a letter to home.
The battle ended as the Spanish army retreated below San Juan Heights and into Santiago. Of the four hundred Rough Riders who fought that day, eighty-six were killed or wounded. It seemed like a miracle to those like Roosevelt who had survived uninjured. The man who had been small and sick as a child wrote in The Rough Riders that he felt as strong as a bull moose.
The Round-Robin Letter
Spain eventually surrendered at Santiago on July 17 and then agreed to a cease-fire on August 12. Roosevelt was already becoming a hero back home as people read reports of his accomplishments in newspapers. Republicans urged him to return to America to run for governor of New York, but Roosevelt said he could not leave his soldiers behind.
The situation was dire for the entire V Corps. Thousands of soldiers became sick with malaria or got yellow fever. War Secretary Alger did not want to bring infected troops home to spread disease in the United States; however, staying in Cuba's tropical environment meant almost certain death.
On August 3, Shafter and his officers in Cuba met to discuss the situation. With Shafter's permission, the officers decided to send a letter to Shafter, the officer in charge, suggesting that whoever failed to evacuate the V Corps out of Cuba would be responsible for the deaths to come. It came to be called the Round-Robin Letter because everyone at the meeting signed it before sending it to Shafter, who planned to forward it to Alger at the War Department. Roosevelt, who did not fear the military officials back home because he was technically a civilian, sent another letter of his own reiterating the concerns in the Round-Robin letter.
President McKinley read the letters in the newspapers as both were leaked to the press before Shafter sent them to Secretary Alger. McKinley and Alger were furious because they felt the written criticism weakened the United States' position as it was negotiating to end the war. Roosevelt's popularity protected him from official punishment, but Alger prevented Roosevelt from receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime service.
The governorship and the presidency
Roosevelt's fame and popularity launched him into the governor's office in New York in January 1899. From there, he became vice-president of the United States under McKinley in April 1901. Five months later, an assassin took McKinley's life, elevating Roosevelt to the presidency on September 14.
The Navy grew under the Roosevelt administration until it could assemble a battle fleet of sixteen ships. In 1906, Roosevelt ordered a military occupation of Cuba to squash a rebellion on the island. After leaving the White House in 1909, Roosevelt returned to hunting and writing. He tried unsuccessfully to return to the White House in the election of 1912. A favorite to get the Republican nomination for president in 1920, Roosevelt died in his sleep at his home in Oyster Bay, New York, on January 6, 1919. According to Gerald F. Linderman in The Mirror of War, Roosevelt concluded shortly before his death, "San Juan was the great day of my life."
For More Information
Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.
Fritz, Jean. Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons,1991.
Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1992.
Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
Samuels, Peggy. Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan: The Making of a President. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899.