The Rough Riders served in the Spanish-American War. The unit consisted of men from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.
Theodore Roosevelt led the most celebrated military unit in the Spanish-American War. The unit, dubbed “Rough Riders”, consisted of volunteers and took its name from a popular phrase of the time. The Rough Riders came from all walks of life and represented America’s cultural diversity. The unit took some of the heaviest casualties of the war and became heroes after storming the Spanish at Kettle Hill.
The U.S. government ignored the military following the Civil War. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the army lacked bodies. President William McKinley called for volunteers. Men mustered at camps out west to incorporate into the volunteers. The military quickly made their recruiting quotas and had to reject many volunteers.
The Rough Riders
After the selection process, the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry represented a cross-section of America. It included westerners and easterners. The west provided cowboys, Indians, gold miners, and hunters. The east provided college students, aristocrats, and athletes. The Rough Riders also included some Buffalo Soldiers. These were black soldiers used to frontier duty.
Dr. Leonard Wood
Besides the Buffalo Soldiers, the Rough Riders included other experienced soldiers. Dr. Leonard Wood served as colonel. Wood joined the army in 1885 and later served as President McKinley’s personal physician. McKinley charged Wood with organizing the unit.
Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt
Prior to the war, Wood entered into a friendship with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt served as Wood’s lieutenant-colonel. The future president had footing in both worlds represented in the Rough Riders. He was a cowboy, rancher, and hunter. At the same time, Roosevelt was an intellectual. On a personal note, Roosevelt’s father avoided military service in the Civil War by paying a substitute to fight in his stead. This embarrassed his son and motivated him to make up for this family skeleton.
After standard training, Roosevelt and the Rough Riders traveled to Tampa, Florida for disembarkation to Cuba. Upon reaching their destination, the unit lacked landing craft. So, the Rough Riders and their horses swam to shore. Many horses went in the wrong direction and drowned. In the end, the cavalry unit lacked enough horses and became infantry.
Following an engagement at Las Guasimas, Leonard Wood received a promotion leaving Roosevelt in command. Roosevelt was ordered to march to San Juan Hill and wait. Over 1,000 Spanish soldiers held the heights. Eventually, the army wanted the Rough Riders to distract the Spanish. Instead, Roosevelt charged up the hill and took it.
San Juan Hill
During the battle, Roosevelt chewed his men out for not charging along with him. They understandably believed the assault suicidal. However, they did not count on Spanish shock. After being shamed into charging, the Rough Riders frightened the Spanish off. Instead of leading his men on a death march, Roosevelt became a hero.
The Battle of San Juan Hill, actually fought on Kettle Hill, demonstrated Spanish incompetence. The media of the time thought San Juan Hill sounded more Spanish and named the battle after that hill instead. The United States won the war in short order. The Rough Riders were heroes. Theodore Roosevelt’s charge catapulted him into national fame and the presidency. His heroism erased personal memories of his father’s alleged disgrace.
The Rough Riders represented America. Men of all races and backgrounds united to fight the Spanish. The war became an analogy for the unit and the country. The United States made short work of the Spanish. The Rough Riders lost 100 men killed out of 1400. The unit became heroes and their leader Theodore Roosevelt became president.
- Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. Quill/Morrow, New York: 1992.
- Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. The Modern Library, New York: 2001.
- Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default. Henry Holt and Company: 1998.