Led by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, "the Rough Riders," joined other U.S. Army regiments in attacking entrenched and well-armed Spanish forces in Cuba on July 1, 1898. In The Rough Riders, his gripping account of the genuinely heroic performance of his regiment during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt observed proudly from the vantage point of the immediate aftermath of that ferocious and decisive battle: "In less than sixty days the regiment had been raised, organized, armed, equipped, drilled, mounted, dismounted, kept for a fortnight on transports, and put through two victorious, aggressive fights in very difficult country, the loss in killed and wounded amounting to a quarter of those engaged." Roosevelt had commanded his troops with remarkable energy and poise and courage. Shrapnel had struck his wrist; a bullet had "nicked" his elbow; all around him men had been killed or seriously wounded. He would never cease to remember the day he helped drive the Spanish Army from the San Juan Heights as his "crowded hour," as "the great day of my life."*****
Theodore Roosevelt, the second of four children, was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, had six children of his own (one with his first wife Alice, who passed away at a young age, and five with his second wife Edith), and died at Sagamore Hill, his permanent home in Oyster Bay, New York, on January 6, 1919. During this sixty-year lifespan, Roosevelt wrote prolifically, producing over fifty volumes in a wide array of fields, most notably history, natural science, and political and social advocacy. One scholar, writing in 1980, has labeled Roosevelt "perhaps theoutstanding generalist of his era." Prior to publishing The Rough Riders in 1899, Roosevelt had authored important works of history - most impressively The Naval War of 1812 (1882) and a classic four-volume narrative study of the American frontier, The Winning of the West (1889-1896) - and three books centered on his own experiences during the mid-1880s as a rancher and hunter in the Dakota Badlands. Thus, The Rough Riders, both a revealing personal memoir and a compelling historical narrative, exhibits the talents of a seasoned historian-memoirist.
Roosevelt kept a pocket diary, in which he entered sparse jottings, during his months as a military officer in 1898. Under the editorship of Wallace Finley Dailey, the full contents have recently been published in Pocket Diary 1898. As a sample, the entry for July 28 reads in its entirety as follows: "Crockett; the wound; the coffee; rescue by Russell. The parson Morrison. How he ground coffee." In combination with his exceptional memory, this diary enabled Roosevelt to craft The Rough Riders.
Roosevelt's diary is replete with candid references to the War Department's (and President William McKinley's) "utter confusion," "blunders," "maladministration," "folly," and "mismanagement." In The Rough Riders, Roosevelt was naturally more circumspect on this subject; nonetheless, he did address it pointedly, as when he referred to "a campaign in which the blunders that had been committed [by the War Department] had been retrieved only by the valor and splendid soldierly qualities of the officers and enlisted men." More consequentially, in early August 1898 - with the Rough Riders and other U.S. forces languishing in Cuba in extremely unhealthful conditions more than two weeks after the surrender of Santiago - Roosevelt took the lead in a common effort among the officers to induce a withdrawal order. He sent a letter of his own to Major-General William Shafter, the commander of the expedition, and joined other high-ranking officers in a circular letter to Shafter, who wholeheartedly supported their stance. Both of these carefully worded yet powerfully unambiguous letters (see Appendix C) were made public via the press, embarrassing authorities in Washington and prompting an order for the troops to return to the United States. Back home with his regiment, at Montauk on Long Island, Roosevelt then wrote a lengthy and frank report to Secretary of War Russell Alger about the Rough Riders' wartime experiences (see Appendix B).
As an ill-suited cabinet official who was subsequently compelled to resign due to incompetence, Alger apparently developed a grudge against Roosevelt. In recognition of Roosevelt's leadership and bravery on July 1, the entire U.S. chain of command in Cuba recommended the colonel for the Congressional Medal of Honor (see Appendix E). But this recommendation was rejected, and Roosevelt was denied the award. In The Rough Riders, Roosevelt characterized the Medal of Honor as "that most coveted of distinctions" - and he did indeed covet it.
Nearly a century later, in 1996, for reasons unrelated to the Roosevelt matter, Congress repealed the statute of limitations pertaining to military decorations. This action sparked a campaign to rectify, however belatedly, the injustice suffered by Roosevelt. Representatives Paul McHale, Rick Lazio, and Steve Buyer and Senator Kent Conrad played leading roles, securing the unanimous passage of favorable legislation by both houses of Congress in October 1998 and, in Conrad's case, meeting personally with President Bill Clinton to encourage a positive decision. Also directly engaged was the Theodore Roosevelt Association, represented most actively by Executive Director John Gable (upon whose published account this paragraph is largely based) and, especially, Tweed Roosevelt, Theodore's great-grandson. In an initiative coordinated by Edward Renehan, a group of fifteen recognized authorities, including a number of prominent historians, weighed in with a jointly signed letter to President Clinton and the secretaries of defense and the army; it was time "to right a century-old wrong," they declared in conclusion. Finally, in response to an army panel's recommendation, as well as to the congressional bills and Conrad's personal representation, on January 16, 2001, Clinton - correcting, in his own words, "a significant historical error" - awarded the Medal of Honor to Roosevelt posthumously, presenting it to the Rough Rider's family in a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Over the next twenty months, Roosevelt's medal was displayed publicly at various sites across the United States. Then, on September 16, 2002, it was delivered by Tweed Roosevelt to President George W. Bush in another Roosevelt Room ceremony, thereby becoming a part of the permanent collection of the White House.
The Rough Riders not only is an excellent work of history; it also recounts events that - soon after they occurred - would have a profound impact on history. Accomplished author and military hero though he was, it was in public service that Theodore Roosevelt made by far his greatest mark. And it was his time with the Rough Riders that created the opportunity for him to rise to the highest levels of American government. It is a reflection of sound historical as well as artistic judgment on the part of David Grubin, producer and director of the four-hour 1996 PBS video TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt, that he begins by identifying July 1, 1898, as the day that made Roosevelt "one of the most famous men in America and would catapult him into the presidency."
Roosevelt returned from Cuba a national hero. (The serial publication of The Rough Riders in Scribner's Magazine during the first half of 1899, followed by three printings of the book by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1899 and twelve additional printings during Roosevelt's lifetime, would play a considerable part in spreading and sustaining that image.) Roosevelt had previously held, and performed with distinction in, several positions in local, state, and national government - most recently as assistant secretary of the navy, the post from which he resigned to take up arms against Spain - but new horizons were now open to him. Right away he was handed the Republican nomination for governor of New York by a scandal-ridden party leadership - that leadership's desire for victory took precedence over its uneasiness about the colonel's independence - and he defeated his Democratic opponent by a narrow margin. As governor in 1899 and 1900, Roosevelt achieved a very admirable reform record, often acting in defiance of the wishes of Thomas Platt, the state party boss. Platt proceeded to push successfully for Roosevelt's selection as William McKinley's running mate in 1900, hoping that vice presidential obscurity would befall the Rough Rider. But when McKinley died from an assassin's bullet on September 14, 1901, Roosevelt suddenly became the youngest-ever (then or since) U.S. president. Clearly the crucial first link in this fascinating chain of events was Roosevelt's heroism in Cuba. Without it there would have been no governorship, no vice presidency, no presidency.
Of course, if Roosevelt had been a status quo president in the mold of McKinley and of McKinley's predecessors of the 1880s and 1890s - or even if he had been a failure as a reformer and as a statesman - far less historical significance would attach to the story of the Rough Riders. Roosevelt, however, proved to be a dynamic, farseeing, and politically effective chief executive - a self-styled and authentic "practical idealist" - who left an indelible imprint on the history of the United States and the world.
President Roosevelt's policies on corporations, labor unions, and the American citizenry in general came to be known as the Square Deal. Roosevelt believed firmly in the relative efficiency of large-scale enterprise, but he believed just as firmly that the national government needed to be empowered to supervise and regulate big corporations in the public interest, and that trade unions and the countervailing power they represented were a modern necessity as well. Despite his high-profile, successful antitrust actions against the Northern Securities Company, the Standard Oil Company, and other large corporations, Roosevelt was fundamentally more a regulator than a trust-buster. Such landmark laws as the Hepburn railroad bill, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act were the first major contributions to the system of federal regulation of business on behalf of the citizenry that became and remains an important aspect of modern American life.
Theodore Roosevelt was also the foremost environmentalist president in U.S. history. His conservation policies provided a vivid demonstration of the Rooseveltian concept of stewardship, according to which a primary duty of the president is to act for the benefit of the American people as a whole, future generations emphatically included. The two principles at the heart of Roosevelt's conservation policies were controlled utilization and preservation, both of which he implemented with enormous determination and vigor right up to the end of his second term in March 1909. The results were more than 150 million acres of new forest reserves, the first twenty-four federal irrigation projects, the first four national game preserves, the first fifty-one federal bird reservations, the first eighteen national monuments, five new national parks, the appointment of four major conservation commissions, and, during the final year of Roosevelt's presidency, the convening of three major conservation conferences. This was truly a breathtaking record - a record that by itself would be sufficient to mark Roosevelt's presidency as a very beneficial and important one.
President Roosevelt's accomplishments in the arena of diplomacy also were extraordinary. Indeed, as a hands-on diplomatist of great discretion, acumen, and vision, Roosevelt may have been the greatest practitioner of statecraft in twentieth-century U.S. history. Having been an avid and articulate proponent of strengthening America's military capacity long before his presidency, Roosevelt fully grasped the complex and far-reaching implications of the United States' recent emergence as a great power (a process in which the Spanish-American War had been a watershed event). He sharply increased the size and the efficiency of the American navy, secured permanent U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone, began building the canal, and established U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. He adroitly cultivated a special relationship between Great Britain and the United States (an undertaking in which his close friendship with the Briton Arthur Lee, the origins of which can be found in The Rough Riders, was a substantial asset), while at the same time maintaining amicable relations with Germany and Japan, the two powers he viewed as America's most formidable potential enemies. His skillful mediation brought an end to the Russo-Japanese War (and won him a Nobel Peace Prize), and his deft behind-the-scenes diplomacy facilitated a peaceful resolution of the highly dangerous Franco-German crisis over Morocco. Overall, the twenty-sixth president was almost uniformly successful both in dealing with specific foreign policy challenges and in advancing his broader objectives. Moreover, his statesmanship significantly enhanced the United States' image in the world. It is worthy of note that the perspicacious Roosevelt based his foreign policy on sophisticated versions of the very principles - global U.S. interests, credible deterrent power, and an Anglo-American partnership - that would guide later American presidents to victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. And, to date, the forceful U.S. response to the ongoing threat posed by terrorists and rogue regimes also can readily be characterized as Rooseveltian.
In summation, The Rough Riders stands as a classic and thrilling work in the field of military history. Additionally, from a broader perspective, it recounts a true story that made possible one of the most dynamic and most constructive presidencies in the history of the United States.
William N. Tilchin teaches history in the College of General Studies at Boston University. He is the author of Theodore Roosevelt and the British Empire: A Study in Presidential Statecraft (St. Martin's Press, 1997) and numerous essays on Roosevelt's presidency and related topics.