The New York Times Book Review
The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and Warby Edward J. Renehan Jr.
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The Lion's Pride vividly depicts the idealism and reckless bravery that Theodore Roosevelt both embodied and bequeathed to his children, and the tragic fulfillment of that legacy in World War I. All four of Roosevelt's sons rushed to battle, just as their father had at San Juan Hill. Two of the boys were seriously wounded and one, the youngest, was killed. America's involvement in the war--for which TR had lobbied furiously--brought home a grief that broke his heart. Roosevelt was buried only months after his youngest child. Filled with the intimate and intelligent voices of the entire Roosevelt clan, this book is a riveting portrait of a great American family.
The New York Times Book Review
"An elegant, compelling history of Theodore Roosevelt and his four sons, brimming with patriotism and pathos. A family saga of the most extraordinary nature." Douglas Brinkley, University of New Orleans, author of The Magic Bus: An American Odyssey and editor of The Portable Theodore Roosevelt
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At one o'clock in the afternoon of 1 July 1898, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders in two daring charges up Kettle Hill and the adjacent San Juan Ridge, just outside the city of Santiago, Cuba, in a pivotal battle of the Spanish-American War. Their object was to dislodge the Spanish from these two heavily defended positions, and thus pave the way for the capture of Santiago. The only mounted officer in the battle, the bespectacled 39-year-old Roosevelt seemed an easy target for the Spanish guns firing from the top of each promontory. "Are you afraid to stand up when I am on horseback?" he shouted at the start of the first charge, rallying his troopers to run behind him as he turned, at a gallop, toward the Spanish. "No man," wrote journalist Richard Harding Davis, "who saw Roosevelt take that ride expected he would finish it alive." Davis said it was the bravest thing he'd ever seen, and the most foolhardy.
In the evening, Roosevelt stalked happily back and forth across the brow of San Juan Hill, the highest peak of the San Juan Ridge. The trenches below him were filled to capacity with cadavers. Roosevelt seemed to take a grim satisfaction in contemplating the day's carnage. As his close friend and fellow Rough Rider, Bob Ferguson, wrote, "no hunting trip so far has equalled it in Theodore's eyes.... T. was just revelling in victory and gore."
Throughout the evening he stood high on the crest of the ridge in range of firing Spanish guns, just so he could get a good view back at all the "damned Spanish dead." At one point a shell landed so close it singed him. The same shell killed several men standing nearby. At least one observer commented that Roosevelt seemed to think himself invulnerable. The only time he bent low was to collect spent cartridges he thought his young sons would like as souvenirs.
Roosevelt personally brought down one Spaniard that day--the first and only time he ever killed a man. The events at the San Juan Ridge made him a celebrity and primed his political career to take off like a rocket upon his return to the States. Yet, as he told one of his closest confidants, the most important thing about his charge at San Juan was that it would serve forever for his children "as an apology for my having existed ... should the worst come to the worst I am quite content to go now and to leave my children at least an honorable name." To another friend he wrote that the war against Spain was his "one chance to cut my little notch in the stick that stands as a measuring rod in every family. I know now that I would have turned from my wife's death bed to answer that call."
All the children of Theodore Roosevelt--most especially his four boys--grew up in the light of his great martial example. Each came of age sharing Roosevelt's Kiplingesque view of the battlefield as a place of honor, fulfillment, and robust democracy. All of them realized that their father had found a political fortune in his dashing charge up the battle-scarred slopes of the San Juan Ridge. And each was forever infused with Roosevelt's passion for righteous battle. Yet they also saw that romantic vision of armed conflict tarnished by the first great war they encountered as adults, and the tragedies it inflicted on their family.
"Quentin's death is always going to be the greatest thing in any of our lives...." Theodore Roosevelt Jr. wrote his sister Ethel in 1918, not long after the youngest of the family was blown from the sky in aerial combat over Chamery, France. Ethel, who had seen the painful results of battle close-up when she served with her husband in a Paris military hospital, perceived clearly that the European war experience she and Teddy had undergone would forever separate the happiness of their youth from the sad longing and retrospection of their maturities. "I sometimes just cannot believe," she wrote, "that all this has come to us and that never again will we be happy and young as we were, and that always there will be the pain beneath the laughter." Alice Roosevelt Longworth--the eldest of Theodore Roosevelt's brood--spoke not only for herself but for her sister and brothers when she wrote: "All our lives before and after have just been bookends for the heroic, tragic volume of the Great War."
Heroic and tragic indeed. By the time of the Armistice (11 November 1918), Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (the eldest of Theodore Roosevelt's four boys) and Archie Roosevelt (the second-youngest) were both gravely wounded, and Archie showed disturbing signs of the profound mental depression that was to haunt him, on and off, till the end of his life. Quentin, the baby of the family, was dead. So too was the Roosevelts' good friend--Quentin's fellow aviator and boon companion from Groton and Harvard--Hamilton Coolidge, who was shot down near the Argonne Forest on Theodore Roosevelt's sixtieth (and last) birthday, within weeks of the Armistice. Among Theodore Roosevelt's immediate family, his second-oldest son, Kermit, was the only uniformed male to survive the war relatively unscathed.
For all their losses, family members expressed few regrets. Instead they assured one another that as a clan they'd done what was necessary in their time. "You are drifting into a family," Archie had written Quentin's fiancee in 1917, "that is doing the right thing as well as it knows how, and you will never have to make any excuses for any of your future in-laws not sacrificing themselves for the cause."
The Roosevelt who came closest to expressing regret was the one among them who was most free to do so. "To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death, has a pretty serious side for a father," Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Quentin. However, he did not publicly question the usefulness of the losses suffered by his and so many other families. How could he? He had, after all, been the high priest of American interventionism since early 1915. The war in which his youngest son died and his other sons suffered was one for which he'd lobbied with a vengeance. "Honor, highest honor," the sickly and dispirited ex-President editorialized after Quentin's last flight, "to those who fearlessly face death for a good cause; no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death. Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country, ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism."
The family clung to this credo after Roosevelt himself died on 6 January 1919. In the decades that followed, they commemorated the sad events of the war years with the same gusto as they had the happier moments in their shared history. At Sagamore Hill, the home on Long Island where Quentin Roosevelt was once a boy and Theodore Roosevelt a robust young father, the mementoes and memorabilia of their deaths took equal places beside the mementoes and memorabilia of the family's joyous life together before the war. Trophies of great victories and accomplishments rested side by side with symbols--artifacts--of mortal pain bravely borne, which were themselves taken as tokens of more subtle victories and accomplishments.
In the North Room, which was Theodore Roosevelt's trophy room, the heads of beasts slain in Kenya, the Far West, and Maine gazed dumbly at visitors. Beside these were hung Roosevelt's Nobel Prize medal and his hat and sword from Rough Riders days. Then there was his death mask. Among moose and bear and buffalo, the startled guest came across the white plaster face of the hunter, with closed eyes, as he'd looked at his death. On another wall of the same room hung the twisted, mutilated axle of the Nieuport plane in which Quentin Roosevelt died in 1918.
After Quentin was killed, German photographs of his battered corpse mysteriously found their way to Sagamore Hill. The anonymous sender was probably malicious. There was most likely a wish to offend, wound, or horrify. But the photographs did not offend. They were instead cherished as further evidence of Quentin's gallant ending. Prints were placed in family scrapbooks, copies sent to relatives. Nearly thirty years later, after Quentin's body had been exhumed from the field at Chamery and taken to an American military cemetery at Normandy, his Chamery headstone was carried to Sagamore and installed in a place of honor beneath the flagpole. Here his elderly mother--Edith, widow of Theodore Roosevelt--could see it and be daily reminded of her youngest child's brave sacrifice.
Both Ted Jr. and Kermit died in uniform during World War II, though not from enemy fire. Their mother, Edith, died in 1948. Sagamore Hill was opened to the public five years later. The tourists swarmed in. Among them--anonymous and silent--was Archie, Theodore Roosevelt's lone surviving son, who lived only a few miles away. In line with the other sightseers, he would stand behind the ropes and stare into all the rooms he remembered so well from childhood.
He was annoyed, on one such visit, to see both the death mask and the axle gone from the North Room. The items, he learned, had been placed in storage in the basement vault. Under stern questioning, a nervous National Park Service guide explained that the pieces were thought too disturbing for some of the sightseers who came through the house--so many of them young children. The removal, complained Archie, was the act of people who "do not understand the Roosevelts and do not understand what we did in the war, who we were before the war, or who we were after." His mother, he was sure, would want the relics left where she had kept them for nearly thirty years and where they remained on the day she died. It was, after all, her home.
In his charming yet guarded memoir All in the Family, Ted Jr. said Sagamore Hill was a product of the years "as surely as is a reef of coral." Each room and niche, each table and chair seemed to be associated with some choice bit of family lore. Every item was a keepsake, such as the footstool of the children's great-grandfather Roosevelt. To understand a family, said Ted, it was important to understand the stories held in the items that made up the furnishings and decorations of their house.
There are marvelous stories contained in Sagamore Hill's cherished trophies of World War I. The stories go a long way toward helping us, paraphrasing Archie, to understand the Roosevelts, what they did in the war, why they did it, who they were before the war, and who they were after. But the stories do not begin with the war. In fact, they long predate the period when the six remarkable Roosevelt children--particularly the four sons who served in the fighting ranks--were sent to encounter the destiny at which they'd been aimed, like bullets shot by an expert marksman, since birth.
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Meet the Author
Edward J. Renehan, Jr., is the author of The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown and John Burroughs: An American Naturalist. He lives in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, with his wife and two children.
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