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The Boys of '98

The Boys of '98

by Dale L. Walker

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Spur Awardwinning author Dale Walker tells the colourful story of Americas most memorable fighting force, the volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders. From its members, and their slapdash training in Texas and Florida, to its battles at Las Gusimas and San Juan Hill under the command of Theodore Roosevelt, who kept riding, some say, into the White House.


Spur Awardwinning author Dale Walker tells the colourful story of Americas most memorable fighting force, the volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders. From its members, and their slapdash training in Texas and Florida, to its battles at Las Gusimas and San Juan Hill under the command of Theodore Roosevelt, who kept riding, some say, into the White House.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Officially known as the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the Rough Riders are synonymous with the Spanish-American War. Their flamboyant colonel, Theodore Roosevelt, was larger than life and generated substantial publicity for his men. Walker (Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West) has written a lucid account of the history of this volunteer cavalry regiment. He sets the stage by chronicling the troubled history of Cuba and its Spanish rulers, and of U.S. involvement in the island's affairs. After the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine in February 1898, war was inevitable, given America's outrage over the affair. Roosevelt left his post in the Navy Department and, with Leonard Wood, put together a unique assemblage of men to form the only volunteer cavalry to see action in the subsequent brief war. The regiment's soldiers came from all walks of lifecowboys, ranchers, men from Harvard and Yale, athletes, soldiers of fortune, policemen and many more. The regiment fought in the skirmish at Las Guasimas and took a much-publicized role in the successful assault on San Juan Heights. Battle casualties totaled over a hundred men. Using a combination of memoirs and secondary studies, Walker has produced a human-oriented picture of the regiment, its camp life, battles and struggle with disease in Cuba's tropical climate. Thumbnail biographical sketches provide useful information about the key players in the drama (which incorporates information that Walker garnered nearly 30 years ago while interviewing the then last three surviving Rough Riders). For those interested in the stirring events of a hundred years ago, his study is sure to please. (May)
Library Journal
On this centennial of the Spanish-American War, a number of publications are scheduled. This volume concentrates on the tumultuous creation and short, thrilling campaign of the volunteer regiment raised by then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt. Walker sets the scene with some background but zeroes in on the regiment of "woolly" adventurerscowboys, frontier lawmen, New York club loungers, Harvard graduates, journalists, and wanderers whose virtue, according to Roosevelt, was their ferocity, energy, courage, and manliness. The regiment was raised in April, trained in June, fought in July, and disbanded in September, having sustained 37 percent casualties. Roosevelt declined command in favor of his friend Capt. Leonard Wood, but the personality of the future president was so strong that in the popular eye it was his glory alone. Walker (Rough Rider: Buckey O'Neill of Arizona, Univ. of Nebraska, 1997) has assembled a thoroughly researched popular history that can be enjoyed by lay readers. Recommended for subject collections. (Maps and pictures not seen.)Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS
Kirkus Reviews
The adventures of the famed volunteer cavalry regiment led by the ebullient, romantic, and charismatic Teddy Roosevelt in 1898. Walker (Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West, 1997) observes the 100th anniversary of the Spanish- American War by retelling the story of Rooseveltþs Rough Riders, an unlikely collection of tough cowboys, western sheriffs, ranchers, hunters, veterans of the Civil and Indian wars, foreign adventurers, Indians, Mexican rebels, retired West Point graduates, wealthy college athletes and playboys, New York policemen, and even a German band. They flocked to the flag looking for adventure and stirred by the war propaganda of American newspapers and the public jingoism of such figures as Teddy Roosevelt. The US was, as usual, woefully unprepared for war. The overwhelmed army issued woolen uniforms to men headed for a tropical climate and couldnþt assemble enough ships to transport the troops. The Rough Riders, Roosevelt's brainchild and a unit meant to serve as calvary, embarked for Cuba without their horses because of lack of space. Some 500 Rough Riders took part in hot battles in very difficult jungle terrain (against better-armed Spanish troops), culminating in their remarkable charge up San Juan Hill, following an ebullient Roosevelt into and over enemy positions. More American troops, however, were felled by disease (mostly malaria or yellow fever) than by enemy bullets. The war was a short one and the life of the regiment, whose men did not take kindly to professional military discipline, lasted only four months. The campaign, and more particularly the charge up San Juan Hill, helped to eventually carry Roosevelt to the WhiteHouse. This lively and carefully detailed narrative of one of the more unlikely military units and of a short, savage war, celebrates some gallant men and catches their nation at the moment it emerged as a world power.

Product Details

Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.36(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Boys of '98




"It is the most beautiful land that ever eyes beheld."

He sailed south from Ragged Island in the Grand Bahama bank commanding three small caravels carrying ninety men and marineros—apprentice seamen—in the loftily named "La Armada de India." On October 27, 1492, the Genoese captain-general Cristoforo Colombo sighted the shimmering emerald hills off the bow of the Santa María. He signaled his ships to follow and his little fleet tentatively scouted the coast of the new land, finding many pristine, natural harbors, inlets and coves ringed by wide beaches of white sand backed by a loud wall of palms, flowers and foliage gorgeous beyond description.

On the 29th the Santa María, the Niña and Pinta found an anchorage at a place he called Puerto Gibara and the crew landed to fill water casks. Columbus and his men spent twelve days at Gibara before moving on to explore the coast to the east. He wrote exultantly of what he saw: "Everything is green as April in Andalusia. The singing of the birds is such that it seems as if one would never desire to depart. There are flocks of parrots that obscurethe sun. There are trees of a thousand species, each having its particular fruit, and all of marvelous flavor."

But amidst this lush splendor, the captain-general had reason to be discouraged. He had fully expected to be greeted at some point along the coast by a fleet of junks carrying delegates from the Great Khan. The native Taino Indians called their big island "Colba," but Columbus was certain he had reached Mangi, the name Marco Polo gave to South China.

He was 13,000 miles from the fabled Indies.

As he sailed east toward the Windward Passage and Hispaniola, he watched from the stern of the Santa María as the land he had named Isla de Juana (after the Prince of Castile) disappeared in the mist. "It is the most beautiful land that ever eyes beheld," he wrote.


"Oh, the pity of it ..."

The Spanish Empire in the New World broke up after 1808 but Cuba remained loyal to the Crown, survived many revolutions and came to be known as one (Puerto Rico the other) of "the Ever-faithful Isles" and "the Pearl of the Antilles." The resplendence of the island, its limitless resources, strategic location and great shipping port at Havana were for a century the subject of intermittant debate ninety miles north across the Florida Straits.

During the negotiations for what would become the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson had advanced the idea that Spain might "with difficulty" relinquish Cuba. If attained by the United States, he suggested a column be erected on the southernmost edge of the island inscribed with the words "Ne Plus Ultra" to signify the utmost point of American expansion in the West Indies.

John Quincy Adams wrote of Cuba and Puerto Rico as "natural appendages of the North American continent."

In the mid-1840s, in the time of that fierce flexing of expansionist muscle which a New York editor called the nation's "manifest destiny," Americans were on the march to the Halls of Montezuma and the shores of Mexico's province of California. As if that were not enough, President James K. Polk, eyes darting around a map of the hemisphere, tendered an offer to Spain to buy Cuba for $100 million. The offer was declined, but Polk's successor, Franklin Pierce, renewed it in 1854, calling for a conference of ministers to be held in Ostend, Belgium, toward the view of "acquiring" Cuba. Pierce's successor, James Buchanan, was one of the signers of the Ostend Manifesto.

During the Polk administration, during the apex of the dizzying era of Manifest Destiny, New York City became the locus of the Cuban freedom movement in the United States. This was heralded by the arrival in the city, in the summer of 1848, of General Narcisco López, a once loyal officer of the army of Spain who became a passionate rebel after being sent to Cuba as a reward for a lifetime of service to the Crown. López could not have timed his advent more impeccably. He found Americans energized by the successes in the Mexican War and still hungry for conquest as he began recruiting followers and making his plans to invade the Pearl of the Antilles.

After a failed foray to the island with a small band of ne'er-do-well American followers in May 1850, López moved his operation to the south where his ideas of bringing Cuba into the Union as a slave state found more enthusiasm. In August 1851, after gathering a force of 300—many of them Americans—he sailed from New Orleans in the steamer Pampero to "liberate" the island. His second-in-command, W. S. Crittenden, was a twenty-eight-year-old West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran.

Spanish authorities learned their every move, dooming the mission before it began. López landed his men at Bahia Honda, west of Havana, and marched inland as Crittenden remained on the coast with a small force. The American and his fifty would-beinsurgents, after fleeing in open boats, were captured at sea and following the failure of an appeal to the U.S. consul in Havana, all were executed by firing squad. López subsequently surrendered and was condemned to death by garrote in Havana. Forty-nine of his followers were shot and 106 chained and shipped to Spain and Africa for imprisonment. The others presumably escaped.

The failure of the expedition caused a riot in New Orleans and the sacking of the Spanish consulate.

In his message to Congress that year, President Millard Fillmore expressed great disapproval of the entire adventure, especially its aftermath. But, beginning in 1850, above the offices of the New York Sun, the Cuban flag, five bars and a single star, snapped in the wind, a signal that the issue of Cuba under the "Spanish yoke" would not be forgotten.


The Civil War diverted attention from governmental talk about buying or annexing the island but the insurgency there continued unabated, aided by numerous filibustering and gunrunning expeditions, many of them launched from New Orleans, Key West and eastern seaboard ports of the United States.

Cuban patriots proclaimed a revolution in October 1868, demanding freedom from Spanish rule and establishing a revolutionary "republic" in the hotbed eastern provinces of the island. It is estimated that two hundred thousand Spaniards and Cubans died in the Ten Years' War which followed the grito (cry) for independence, but the Spanish military held on to Havana and thus controlled most of the wealth of the island. Even so, the revolt was sustained by brilliant rebel leaders—Máximo Gómez, Calixto Garcia, and Antonio Maceo among them—whose names would become even more familiar to Americans in the decades to come.

While the United States did not intervene in the Ten Years' War, one episode in it outraged the nation and solidified sympathy for the insurrectos and their cause.

The incident involved the Virginius, a sail-and-steam side-wheel vessel, and its captain, former Confederate officer Joseph Fry, a forty-seven-year-old native Floridian.

On October 31, 1878, Fry's Virginius steamed out of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, toward the Cuban coast carrying a damning cargo: five hundred Remington rifles and four hundred handguns, plus sabers, explosives and medical supplies, clearly intended for the revolutionary armies around Santiago, Manzanillo and Bayamo. Moreover, he had on board four insurgent officers and a hundred rebel soldiers.

In the Cayman Trench between Jamaica and the south Cuban coast, a Spanish gunboat spotted the Virginius, an American flag flapping from its topmast, and gave chase. Fry's crew, most of them Americans, tried to jettison the cargo but the ship was outrun, forced to surrender and follow the gunboat into Santiago Harbor.

Fry denied running guns, lamely claiming that he was heading for Costa Rica and that his capture in international waters was an unlawful act. The Spanish authorities were unmoved and on November 4, after a quick trial, the four rebel generals, one of them a Canadian, were shot, then beheaded, their heads placed on pikes for public display. Three days later, Fry and his men were tried and sentenced to death. He and fifty-two crewmen of the Virginius were executed by firing squad.

(Twenty years later an American army would fight a battle within walking distance of the place of execution.)

President Grant gave some thought to an "intervention" in Cuba over the Virginius imbroglio but settled for the strongly worded messages and veiled threats dispatched to Madrid by his secretary of state, Hamilton Fish.

There were no major battles in the Ten Years' War, only hit-and-run jungle skirmishes, cane-field burnings and similar guerrilla depredations. The war slogged on this way until 1878 when a treaty was signed in which Spain promised certain reforms. Slaverywas abolished on the island in 1886, but the other promises were forgotten.

Veteran newspaperman Murat Halstead, once editor of the Cincinnati Commercial Appeal, who had served as correspondent in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, went to Cuba in the mid-1890s and found Spanish rule of the island fatally repressive. "Spain is stumbling down a dark and bloody road to her doom," he wrote. "Persistent, long continued injustice, and indifference or bitter hostility to all entreaties and demands for redress, have caused the Cubans to become conspirators, revolutionists, enemies and destroyers, all for self-government."

Halstead was saddened by what he witnessed in the provinces—squalor, starvation, a grinding hopelessness—and observed, "It would have paid Spain well to have been occasionally gracious, for the Cubans have suffered long every form of humiliation before they were incensed to fury, and goaded into a consummate purpose for redemption and vengeance."

Five hundred years of rule, Halstead said, had taught the rulers nothing. "The Spaniard's fault is that he has not been able to escape from his own system. He is its slave as Cuba is its victim. Oh, the pity of it, the disaster of it!"

Others saw the pity of it, too. By 1895, the "plight of Cuba" had an international renown. It may have seemed to be an issue exclusively American—American newspaper coverage of the island's revolutions gave that impression—but it was not.


"Here I might leave my bones ..."

"What this country needs is a war," Theodore Roosevelt told Senator Lodge in 1895 and another who felt that way about his country was a young subaltern in the Fourth Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment of Her Majesty Queen Victoria's army.

He was a puny, freckled, delicate boy with wide-awake blue eyes, reddish hair and a matching ruddy complexion. He spoke with a faint lisp but animately and with a coiled-spring intensity. A descendent of the duke of Marlborough and the son of a peer of the realm, he affected some of the regimental airs of the day such as standing with his hands positioned on his hips under his gold-frogged uniform coat, elbows akimbo in a defiant posture, and he was known for asking too many questions of his superiors.

He had graduated from the Sandhurst Royal Military Training College and now, in November 1895, at age twenty, was suffering from his country's unusual peaceableness. There was no fighting to speak of anywhere, not even in the Sudan as yet, or the northwest frontier of India. He was restless, eager, had five months' winter leave on his hands and nothing to do.

"From early youth I had brooded about soldiers and war," he later wrote, "and often I had imagined in dreams and day-dreams the sensations attendant upon being for the first time under fire. It seemed to my youthful mind that it must be a thrilling and immense experience to hear the whistle of bullets all around and to play at hazard from moment to moment with death and wounds."

He searched the newspapers and consulted the maps. There had to be a war of some kind going on somewhere.

He found one, a tiny insurrection on the Caribbean island of Cuba, the ideal kind of thing in which a colonial soldier could experience his baptism of fire.

Rebel leaders with such names as Jose Marti, Maximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo were leading a revolt against Spanish rule; the commander of Spanish forces there, General Martinez de Campos, had occupied the principal towns and confined the guerrillas to the outlands and jungles far to the east of Havana.

That was enough to know for the present and the young officer wrote a letter to General de Campos, then requested permission from his superiors to spend his winter leave with the Spanish army in Cuba. The commander-in-chief of the British army, LordWolseley, a veteran of wars from Burma to the Crimea, granted the request. He too, after all, had been an ambitious subaltern forty years ago.

The hussar next visited the London offices of the Daily Graphic and left with a commission to write reports, at five guineas each, on the rebel rising in Cuba. Then, on November 2, 1895, he sailed from Liverpool with a regimental friend and arrived in New York on the tenth. He put up in an apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, took in the sights, and after a few days boarded a train to Key West, Florida, where he embarked for Havana on the steamer Olivette.

"When first in the dim light of early morning I saw the shores of Cuba rise and define themselves from dark-blue horizons, I felt as if I had sailed with Captain Silver and first gazed on Treasure Island," he would later write. "Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones."

On November 20, he stepped off the gangplank in the teeming Cuban capital and spent a day at the Gran Hotel Inglaterra before "setting out for the front," carrying copies of the letter he had written to General de Campos and his leave papers signed by Lord Wolseley.

The Spanish general met him at Santa Clara, 150 miles east of Havana, and sent him forty miles southeast to Sancti Spiritus, a town "beset by rebels" and decimated by yellow fever and smallpox. In the jungly village he met de Campos's officer-in-charge of the region, General Suárez Valdez, who supplied the Englishman with horses and servants and invited him to accompany the Spanish troops in the field.

General Valdez, with four battalions of infantry, two squadrons of cavalry and a mule-drawn gun battery, marched out of Sancti Spiritus in pursuit of a rebel band led by Antonio Maceo, a handsome,scholarly subordinate of Máximo Gómez, the iron-willed Dominican professional soldier whose history of guerrilla fighting dated back to the Ten Years' War of the 1870s.

On November 30, his twenty-first birthday, the hussar got his fondest wish: He heard the pop of rifle fire and the buzz of bullets about his head when Maceo's rebel snipers opened fire as he ate a skimpy breakfast with some Spanish officers. For four days thereafter he followed Suárez Valdez's force through the thick jungle until, on December 3, at a machete-cleared place in the thick brush called La Reforma, the general led an attack against the Maceo rearguard, two thousand Spaniards killing thirty or forty rebels and taking an insignificant hill.

In a bylined story from Havana that appeared in the New York World on December 5, the Englishman wrote of the skirmish at La Reforma and how the rebels turned and fled when the Spaniards were within shooting distance. In subsequent articles in the Daily Graphic after he returned to England in January 1896, he sympathized with the oppressed Cubans and pontificated on the corruption among Spanish administrators of the island. He said the revolt was justifiable.

For his services with the Spanish army at the "battle" of La Reforma, Second Lieutenant Winston Spencer Churchill of the Fourth "Queen's Own" Hussars received a medal, the Cruz Roja, for gallantry.

Copyright © 1998 by Dale L. Walker

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