In Command: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Military

In Command: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Military

by Matthew Oyos
In Command: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Military

In Command: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Military

by Matthew Oyos


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2019 Theodore Roosevelt Association Book Prize

Although Theodore Roosevelt was not a wartime president, he took his role as commander in chief very seriously. In Command explores Roosevelt’s efforts to modernize the American military before, during, and after his presidency (1901–9). Matthew Oyos examines the evolution of Roosevelt’s ideas about military force in the age of industry and explores his drive to promote new institutions of command: technological innovations, militia reform, and international military missions. Oyos places these developments into broader themes of Progressive Era reform, civil-military tensions, and Roosevelt’s ideas of national cultural vitality and civic duty.

In Command focuses on Roosevelt’s career-long commitment to transforming the military institutions of the United States. Roosevelt’s promotion of innovative military technologies, his desire to inject the officer corps with fresh vigor, and his role in building new institutions for command changed the American military landscape. His attempt to modernize the military while struggling with the changing nature of warfare during his time resonates with and provides unique insight into the challenges presented by today’s rapidly changing strategic environment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640120167
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 456
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Matthew Oyos is a professor of history at Radford University. He has published articles on Theodore Roosevelt in the Journal of Military History, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
Matthew Oyos is a professor of history at Radford University. He has published articles on Theodore Roosevelt in the Journal of Military History, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Read an Excerpt



On 22 September 1901 Theodore Roosevelt spent his first day in the White House after William McKinley's assassination. He worked signing papers that day. Roosevelt, however, did not work alone. He felt the presence of a man long dead, his father, the man for whom he was named, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. The younger Roosevelt, now president of the United States, took comfort from the feeling and confessed that evening to his sisters, "I feel as if my father's hand were on my shoulder, and as if there were a special blessing over the life I am to lead here."

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. had died in 1878 at age forty-six from an intestinal tumor. Alive or dead, he loomed over his son's life. From the elder Roosevelt stemmed many of T.R.'s dominant personality traits and his moral code. In his Autobiography Roosevelt praised his father as a man who "combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness." Theodore Senior, he claimed, refused to tolerate "selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness" in his children. He also produced a unique feeling in his son: "He was the only man of whom I was ever really afraid." This paragon was also hardworking in business and a dedicated philanthropist. He aligned himself with the Republican Party and gained a solid reputation as a political reformer. From Theodore Senior, the lines ran directly to his son's elevated sense of righteousness, high moral code, work ethic, devotion to public service, reformist credentials, and Republican partisanship. A physically active man, the elder Roosevelt inspired his son to overcome asthma and other illnesses and embrace strenuous living. Reputedly, when the man whom he idolized told him that he would have to make his body, a young T.R. threw back his head and determined to meet the summons as if it were his first call to arms. Thus, from the name on down, Theodore Roosevelt was his father's son, and his later behavior was, in many ways, a product of his father's example.

Individuals at any given point in their lives represent the sum of many influences. Theodore Roosevelt expressed volumes, sometimes literally, on so many of the intellectual, cultural, political, and racial ideas of the time that he has become a window for scholars to analyze the values of his era. Although understanding the larger forces at work on, or through, a prominent individual can help to make sense of the past, for Roosevelt and the people of his day, the formula was much simpler. They were the heirs of Victorianism, and, for them, character explained people and their behavior. Roosevelt was perceptive enough to recognize that he was the product of the values of his immediate family, and these early personal influences had a profound impact on his later attitudes and actions in military affairs. Such an exploration is useful for comprehending his world as he would have understood it. But the later war hero and commander in chief also embodied, appropriately, a composite of his father's and mother's sides of the family.

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. imparted more than a strict moral code, a devotion to physical activity, and a duty to serve. His work ethic preserved a family fortune made in Manhattan real estate and promised his offspring a comfortable existence and considerable freedom to indulge in leisurely and intellectual pursuits. More important, "Thee" Roosevelt's example through philanthropy taught a lesson that well-intentioned individuals could improve society. The older Roosevelt played significant roles as a financial contributor and advocate in organizationsdesigned to foster good character. In New York City he promoted the Young Men's Christian Association, and he was so deeply involved in the Children's Aid Society and the Newsboys' Lodging House that during his deathwatch newsboys and orphans gathered outside the Roosevelt home. The fact that Roosevelt Senior kept the family home in New York City had an equally important influence. City life exposed the Roosevelt children to the leading developments of nineteenth-century civilization. The technology needed to make a budding metropolis function perhaps contributed to Theodore Junior's later fascination with devices of all sorts, and the city's rise as a media center may help to explain the importance that Roosevelt later placed on the press as a political instrument. Moreover, his father's attention to the other half of society, despite the Roosevelt fortune, provided an example of how the rich could make a connection to the poor, which could advance charity but also serve as a practical political lesson about how to reach beyond one's social class.

The upright character of Theodore Senior did contain one major gap, at least as far as his eldest son was concerned. Thee had failed to answer the call of his country during the Civil War. In 1861 Roosevelt Senior was twenty-nine, yet he declined to don a Union uniform out of consideration for his wife and her southern brothers, who took up the Confederate cause. A man of conscience, he could not let the two substitutes he hired be the extent of his service. Rather, shamed, he enlisted in a home guard cavalry unit to defend New York City, but, of more consequence, he became an allotment commissioner and traveled to encampments to convince soldiers to commit part of their wages for the support of their families. The younger Theodore never commented on his father's choice. Although he did not express his feelings, Roosevelt's actions as an adult were revealing. The bellicose tones, the love of all things military, and his frantic efforts to secure a military position in 1898 all suggest that at some level he was compensating, if not overcompensating, for his father's refusal to fight. In a crisis, Thee, the model of manhood to his son, had used wealth and privilege to evade his masculine duty.

Although much of Theodore Senior lived on in the future president, his mother's southern heritage played a primary role in shaping Roosevelt's affinity for martial affairs. In his Autobiography Roosevelt describes his mother as the archetype for the southern belle. "My mother, Martha Bulloch, was a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody. She was entirely 'unreconstructed' to the day of her death." She had grown up in Georgia until swept up by a traveling Theodore Senior, and her ties to the region remained strong during the Civil War. Her brothers, James and Irvine Bulloch, both served the Confederate States Navy, and tales of their exploits — rather than his father's — would thrill a young Theodore. Uncle "Jimmy" had helped to build the commerce raider Alabama, which destroyed millions of dollars of Union commerce on the high seas, while Irvine served aboard the vessel and took credit for firing the last shot in the Alabama's final fight with the USS Kearsarge. The Bullochs thus provided a romanticized image of war. For a boy insulated from war's reality, the stories of uncles Jimmy and Irvine read like something from the hand of Sir Walter Scott, whose popular volumes romanticized the medieval knight. But no matter the period, for young Theodore Roosevelt war consisted of courageous men performing feats of derring-do amid great danger.

The Bulloch uncles added to their legendary status by remaining in England after 1865. Their involvement with the commerce raider Alabama had made them exiles. These Prince Valiants came alive for Theodore during a Roosevelt family tour of the continent in 1869. He met his famous relatives at Liverpool, and although James, the more prominent of the two, talked little of his wartime deeds, the meeting furthered his nephew's association of war with adventure. Standing before him were the objects of the stories of his earliest years. The connection would not end when the Roosevelts returned home, for his uncles would later assist T.R.'s writing on the naval war of 1812.

More than just his uncles, the Civil War itself shaped young Theodore Roosevelt. Born in October 1858, Roosevelt naturally possessed only a child's recognition of the conflict. He would have been six years old when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865, so he was likely much older when the full weight of his father's failure to serve hit him. He did demonstrate awareness that a conflict was occurring despite his sheltered existence, and he also sensed the North-South split between his parents. At age three, as Aunt Annie Bulloch tried to fit him with a Zouave's outfit, Roosevelt reportedly beamed as he asked, "Are me a soldier laddie?" Not too much should be read into such boyhood comments to explain Roosevelt's future fascination with war, but as he grew he demonstrated his awareness of the depth of feeling generated by the conflict. Looking back on these early years, he recalled, "Towards the close of the Civil War, although a very small boy, I grew to have partial but alert understanding of the fact that the family were not one in their views about that conflict, ... and once, when I felt that I had been wronged by maternal discipline during the day, I attempted a partial vengeance by praying with loud fervor for the success of the Union arms, when we all came to say our prayers before my mother in the evening." This episode might have been one of the first times, but certainly not the last, in which he invoked military affairs to make a point. Finally, the Union victory left an impression. In later years he would praise Lincoln's active and resolute leadership and call the sixteenth president "one of the two greatest of all Americans" (Washington being the other). Roosevelt worshiped the idea that the Union sense of moral justice, along with material strength, had led to victory.

His admiration for strength and power grew from another conflict — Roosevelt's struggles with his own body. He may have had the good fortune to be born into one of Manhattan's richest families, but a variety of physical maladies plagued him. He suffered nausea, coughs, fevers, and diarrhea, but asthma afflicted him the worst of all. As a boy, Roosevelt tried to live the active life that his father wished, but crippling attacks often left him confined indoors and sometimes bedridden. His health grew only worse with age, and at twelve he reportedly became so thin and frail that he resembled a stork in appearance. His eyesight weakened at the same time, and he endured the humiliation of relying on his younger brother Elliott for protection from other boys. Ashamed at his helplessness, he answered his father's call to "make" his body with relentless determination.

Roosevelt overcame his boyhood weakness through gymnasium workouts, boxing, hiking, and a host of other physical activities. His asthma never entirely disappeared, but it no longer controlled his life. This physical accomplishment did not occur without affecting his character. He accentuated physical power and appreciated the effect of force on people. The once-scrawny Roosevelt never again yielded to bullying, especially after becoming a formidable lightweight boxer at Harvard. From this experience Roosevelt decided that strength could win respect and freedom from coercion. He would apply this principle on a national level as president when he pushed for military preparedness.

Roosevelt's struggle against physical frailty did encourage a negative quality. He exhibited contempt for people who chose not to develop or display their "muscular" or "primitive" sides. Such an attitude contributed to rhetorical excesses as he pounded the drum for war in the 1890s and later lambasted President Woodrow Wilson over the lack of Americanpreparedness before entry into World War I. In 1896 he disparaged "unintelligent, cowardly chatter for 'peace at any price.'" And in 1915 he assailed Wilson, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, and their supporters as "shivering apostles of the gospel of national abjectness" for refusing to embrace military readiness. Such pronouncements still lay ahead for a young Roosevelt as he worked on his physique. By the time he left home and entered college in 1876, he could boast of a fine body.

Becoming His Own Man

On 12 February 1878 a sixteen-carriage funeral train carried the body of Theodore Roosevelt Sr. to the family plot at Greenwood Cemetery in New York City. His nineteen-year-old namesake grieved along with the many New York dignitaries who attended the services. Although he felt the guidance of his father's example for the rest of his days, Theodore Roosevelt was coming into his own even at the time of Thee's death. In the late 1870s Roosevelt attended Harvard College and upon graduation would return to New York City in the early 1880s, where he began to establish a political career. During these years when he started to distinguish himself, he commenced, as well, to expound on national military policy, and he would experience his first taste of military service.

The stories about his seagoing uncles likely informed Roosevelt's choice of a topic for his senior thesis at Harvard. He researched naval actions between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812. The subject proved so compelling that he continued on it after graduation and published the manuscript in 1882, two years after he left Harvard. The Naval War of 1812 represented a remarkable achievement. Roosevelt's careful research and an appreciation for historical interpretation made for an authoritative account of the British and American naval contest. The publication of The Naval War led him to consider a career as a historical writer, and, although he never chose history as his vocation, this book launched him on a series of historical projects. Roosevelt had demonstrated not only his competence as a historian with The Naval War but also the rapid development of his thought about American military policy. He previewed many of the positions in naval affairs for which he later became well known.

Roosevelt published this first book just at the start of an American naval renaissance. Traditional thinking and tight budgets since the Civil War had dictated reliance on wooden hulls and sails even as the industrial revolution was beginning to transform sea warfare. Innovations in steam propulsion, armor, steel construction, and gun design bypassed the American navy, and European officers reportedly regarded the vessels of their American counterparts as little more than museum pieces. Meanwhile, the iron monitors of the Civil War rusted from disuse and, in any event, were impractical on the open sea because of their low profile. During the presidency of Chester Arthur, Congress authorized four steel-hulled cruisers, which marked the beginning of the "new navy." Roosevelt crafted the preface of The Naval War to support naval modernization, and, in the fashion of so many of his coming public pronouncements, he pulled no punches. "At present," he wrote, "people are beginning to realize that it is folly for the great English-speaking Republic to rely for defence upon a navy composed partly of antiquated hulks, and partly of new vessels rather more worthless than the old." In condemning "new vessels," he was not blasting the steel cruiser program but, instead, likely targeting the wooden ships cobbled together for the Civil War or the decaying monitors. The text went on to point out the value of preparedness in securing American victories in single-ship encounters during the War of 1812 and stressed again the need to replace obsolete technology. In his summary Roosevelt also speculated about the impact that a few ships of the line would have had in the contest with Britain, given the generally capable performance of American frigates and smaller vessels. His observations revealed an appreciation of the power of capital ships and anticipated his later advocacy of a large battleship fleet.

The Naval War of 1812 also demonstrated an awareness of the relationship between world events, American national interests, and military power. Roosevelt showed that he and other Americans had started to contemplate the navy's part in a growing role for the United States in international affairs. Eight years hence these navalists would find their prophet in Capt. Alfred T. Mahan. In The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Mahan codified their thoughts into a full-blown geopolitical formula for achieving national greatness through sea power.

Roosevelt's book exposed more than his navalism. It also revealed that he had developed a distinct philosophy of government during his Harvard years. If he had not stood in Alexander Hamilton's camp before he wrote The Naval War, then he resided there by the time he published the book. Roosevelt's study of the struggle with Britain convinced him of the importance of a strong central authority, especially to ensure proper military preparedness. In The Naval War he took particular aim at Thomas Jefferson's naval policy of small, dispersed gunboats rather than a force of large seagoing vessels. He labeled the gunboats "very worthless" and disparaged the whole scheme as "about on a par with some of that statesman's political and military theories." Already, the historical lessons were clear for Roosevelt: decentralized force led to reverse and humiliation in battle and thus threatened national safety.


Excerpted from "In Command"
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Copyright © 2018 Matthew Oyos.
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Table of Contents

1. Beginnings,
2. In the Arena,
3. The New Hand on the Helm,
4. Arms and the Men,
5. The Institutions of Command,
6. In the Fullness of It All,
7. Battles without Blood,
8. Looking beyond the White House,
9. The Last Crusade,

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