The Rough Riders
When USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, having been appointed to the post by President William McKinley. He worked under Secretary of the Navy John Long, a man of uncertain health who gave Roosevelt free rein in making decisions and establishing policy. Roosevelt was of the opinion that Spain was responsible for the destruction of USS Maine, and even if they weren’t he wanted to see the Spanish ejected from Cuba. Roosevelt on his own initiative ordered the squadrons in the Caribbean and the Asiatic fleet to be ready for action.
Once war became official in the spring of 1898, Roosevelt resigned as Assistant Secretary and with Colonel Leonard Wood formed a volunteer unit of cavalry, the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. The press began calling them the Rough Riders, more because of the condition and diverse nature of the unit than their riding ability. The Rough Riders served in a division commanded by Joseph Wheeler, who had served the Confederate States of America more than thirty years earlier, and it consisted of what would be in a later day called a motley crew. They deployed in Cuba in late June 1898, and when Wood was promoted to command a brigade Roosevelt assumed command.
The Rough Riders are famous for their charge up San Juan Hill. It was actually Kettle Hill, just over one week after their arrival in Cuba, and though they were called Rough Riders the assault on the hill was made on foot. Roosevelt was the only mounted member of the unit, which was ordered up the hill in support of infantry. The order came from Roosevelt, he had no higher authority and by the time he reached the summit he too was on foot, after his horse failed to successfully negotiate a barbed wire emplacement.
Spanish forces in Cuba surrendered in July 1898 with the United States declaring a total victory, both in Cuba and in the Philippines, where the insurrectionists there were soon at war with the Americans who had driven out the Spanish. Before the summer was over most of the volunteer units which had supplemented the US Army and Marines were clamoring to be sent home, having volunteered for action and adventure, and having no desire to sit idle as occupation troops. For the United States the Spanish-American War had been a rousing victory.
Soon a march was composed by James W. Casey entitled Charge of the Rough Riders and dedicated to “Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.” Roosevelt was nominated for the Medal of Honor but Army officials were loath to award it to a mere volunteer and not until 2001 was it awarded. Roosevelt found the title of “Colonel” to be particularly pleasing, for the rest of his life he preferred that style of address, even considering it to be a higher honor than “Mr. President.” Returning to New York and bolstered by his fame in the press he was asked by party officials to run for governor. Charge of the Rough Riders was soon his campaign song.