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Roosevelt’s Rough Riders-1898

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint


The Spanish-American War of 1898 was short-lived and successful for those Americans in favor of a Cuba Libre, a free Cuba. Its famous battle cry was “Remember the Maine.” The war itself, however, had antecedents in the United States’ desire to widen its control of world markets and to dominate countries considered strategic to its defense.

In the early years of the 19th century many Latin American countries threw off the yoke of Spanish domination and assumed control of their own destinies. Neither Cuba nor the Philippines were among the list of revolutionaries. However, there were forces both within Cuba and the United States that made concerted efforts to instigate such a revolt. In 1895 insurrectionists in Cuba fought Spanish loyalists with arms and money funneled from the United States. However, up until 1898 such efforts failed.

On February 15, 1898, however, all that changed. The American ship, The Maine had been sent into Cuban waters on a “friendly visit” to protect American citizens and interests during Cuba's internal and violent struggles for control of the country. On that fateful day the ship blew up, killing 262 men. Even before a full investigation into the cause of the explosion could be conducted, the American press and Washington's hawks raised a hue and cry that this seeming act of Spanish aggression should be answered in the harshest terms possible. The Navy quickly concluded that a Spanish submarine had destroyed The Maine, but subsequent investigations in 1976 by Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that The Maine was destroyed by an internal explosion in a coal bunker.

One of the fiercest proponents of retaliation was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Under the cautious President McKinley, Roosevelt made preparations to attack both Cuba and the Philippines. He put Admiral George Dewey, stationed in the Far Pacific, on high alert and told him to be prepared to keep the Spanish fleet from leaving Manila Bay. Finally on April 21, 1898, McKinley succumbed to both Congressional and public pressure and authorized an act of war. At the time, the standing Army consisted of only 28,000 men, an insufficient number to fight the Spaniards on two fronts.

To offset this deficit Senator Warren of Iowa co-sponsored a bill in Congress, along with Senators Kyle and Carter, authorizing the formation of three volunteer regiments. These regiments were “to be composed exclusively of frontiersmen possessing exclusive qualifications as horsemen and marksmen” and were to be enlisted from the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and the Indian Territory. Judge Jay Torrey of Wyoming was the driving force behind this legislation and himself organized one of the regiments, which never reached Cuba.

The first regiment organized was the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry under President McKinley's chief medical adviser, Colonel Leonard Wood, and Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who had resigned his government post. As Roosevelt later wrote, the press was very interested in seeing whether all these wild Westerners could actually become a fighting force. Thus, much newspaper ink was used in recounting the exploits of this regiment, which had many sobriquets. Among them were, Teddy's Terrors, Teddy's Terriers, and the one that stuck, Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Theirs was a great story for the newspaper men who accompanied them because the “outfit amounted to a society page, a financial column, a sports section, and a Wild West show, all rolled into one.”

The first musters were held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Prescott, Arizona, Guthrie, Oklahoma and in Indian Territory. But with further Congressional authorization, the number of men swelled from 780 to 1000. In the end the regiment represented 42 states, 4 territories, and several foreign countries. In general terms, Troops A, B, and C were the 200 men from Arizona; Troop D had 83 men from Oklahoma; and, Troops E, F, G, H, and I were from New Mexico and was said to consist of 340 cowboys, although there were many other occupations represented. Troop K, known as the “Fifth Avenue Boys,” was composed of men, some personally known by Roosevelt, from Eastern colleges, private clubs, and Wall Street. Troops L and M came from Indian Territory, whose many of its 170 troopers were of Native American descent. Some enlisted under false names, either because of previous crimes or because they were underage, and still others went by colorful nicknames.

From the time of the declaration of war on April 21st to the gathering of the various troops in San Antonio, Texas on May 10th for rapid training, a mere 18 days intervened. Along with the troopers there were several reporters and photographers embedded with them, who kept the Rough Riders in the minds of Americans and helped create its romantic portrayal. The regiment's eventual place among American heroism can be credited to the likes of Edward Marshall of the New York Journal and Richard Harding Davis of the New York Herald and Scribner's.

Nineteen days after the Rough Riders arrived in San Antonio from all over the country, they left by train for Tampa, Florida, as a cohesive regiment. They were part of General Shafter's Fifth Corps, consisting of three divisions, amounting to 17,000 officers and men. There were eighteen regular army and two volunteer infantry regiments, ten regular and two volunteer cavalry regiments, a battalion of engineers, a Signal Corps detachment, an observation balloon detail, and various gun batteries.

To the deep disappointment of some of the Rough Riders, they were never to see action in Cuba, but were to suffer severe losses, waiting in Tampa for their marching orders and caring for most of the horses and mules that were never shipped to the troops. It was determined that only eight of the twelve troops of the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry could be transported and supplied in Cuba. Those left behind were Arizona Troop C under Joseph L.B. Alexander, New Mexico Troops H (commanded by George Curry, later governor of New Mexico) and I (under Schuyler A. McGinnis), and Indian Territory Troop M led by Robert H. Bruce.

With a naval blockade, the bombardment of Santiago, and the landing of the Marines at Guantánamo, Shafter's men were able to land safely at Daiquirí; on the southern Cuban coast on June 22nd. Two days later the Rough Riders fought their first Spaniards and took their first casualties at Las Guásimas. Four troops each of the 1st and 10th regular cavalry and all eight Rough Riders troops took part in this jungle skirmish. After two hours, it was over with the Rough Riders accounting for half the dead and 60% of the wounded. The first to die was Sergeant Hamilton Fish, the grandson of the Secretary of State under President Grant and a Princeton graduate. He had transferred to Captain Capron's troop when his own was left behind in Tampa. The first New Mexican killed was the 21 year-old farrier from Gallup, George V. Haefner and wounded was George Roland of Deming.

The next engagement became their most famous, creating their legend and place in history. On July 1st the Rough Riders were assigned to be the diversion while Brigadier General H.W. Lawton's infantry took the fortified town of El Caney. Under Roosevelt, the Rough Riders made their famous charge up what turned out to be Kettle Hill, rather than San Juan Hill, as reported. They did, in fact, reach San Juan Hill, but it was anticlimatic. Nevertheless, this action secured the heights overlooking Santiago, resulting in the eventual Spanish surrender on July 17th. There has continued a dispute as to which regiment reached the top of the hill first, the Rough Riders or the 9th Cavalry, made up of the famous “Buffalo Soldiers.” Most agree that the 9th was probably first, but in words, song and pictures, the Rough Riders get the credit. However, the New Mexico troops did plant the first guidons on top.

With Dewey's defeat of the Spanish fleet in the Philippines and Shafter's victory in Cuba, the 113-day Spanish-American war was over, leaving 369 American soldiers, 10 sailors, 6 marines counted dead in battle and 2000 dead from wounds and disease. However, the United States was now in possession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Wake Island, as well as having annexed the Hawaiian Islands.

The American troops spent 23 days in the Cuban campaign with a little over a week of fighting and two of negotiating, the rest consisting of resting and waiting. Battlefield conditions of intense heat, torrential downpours, mosquitoes, lack of food, shelter and rest, also took their toll on the men. Not only were men killed by Spanish bullets, but also by malaria, dysentery and typhoid. Of the Rough Riders who went to Cuba 37% were dead, wounded or stricken by disease. And of the men left behind in Florida, 100 died from the same diseases.

After much negotiation within the Army, the Rough Riders were allowed to leave Cuba and Tampa for Montauk, Long Island, New York and Camp Wykoff, named for Colonel Charles Wykoff, 13th Infantry, killed at San Juan Hill. The Florida group arrived by train on August 10th, first to Jersey City, New Jersey, thence to Montauk to greet their comrades arriving on the ship Miami, on August 14th. Here the men spent one month recuperating from their wounds and fevers before scattering to their respective homes. Some Rough Riders eventually toured the country as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, displaying their horsemanship and capitalizing on their reputation. Others returned to their usual professions, and still others drifted away.  But before they left Camp Wykoff they elected Major Alexander Brodie as president of a Rough Riders Association, with plans to meet in Las Vegas, New Mexico on the one year anniversary of the Las Guásimas battle.

True to their decision, about 600 former troopers and now New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt met in Las Vegas in June 1899. Over the years the Rough Riders met sporadically in various places, including Los Angeles, New York and Prescott, Arizona for the 50th anniversary. Between 1949 and 1968, the last reunion, Las Vegas hosted the surviving Rough Riders able to attend. The town feted them with parades, rodeos, and cookouts. In 1948 on their 50th anniversary there were 107 members still alive and on their 75th in 1973 there were three, Frank Brito, a Yaqui Indian living in Las Cruces, George Hamner from Santa Fe, both of whom died that year, and Jesse Langdon, the very last Rough Rider, who died two years later.

Who these Rough Riders were covers nearly all walks of life. Most of them were listed as cowboys (160), but there were 87 miners, 53 farmers, 44 clerks, and 44 ranchers, among many other occupations. Most had been born in Texas, followed by New Mexico and the Indian Territory. The Eastern men had been star athletes, socialites, financiers, and discharged regular Army officers and soldiers. About 149 different occupations were listed, from a cigar maker, horse dealer, IRS agent and weatherman to a few Congressmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters and blacksmiths.

New Mexico contributed its fair share of cowboys and miners, but also law enforcement men, craftsmen, transportation workers, and several classes of professionals. There were also sets of brothers who enlisted: the Reid and Camp brothers from Raton, the Waggoners from Roswell; Wynkoops, Brennans, and Arthur and William Griffin of Santa Fe; and, George and Henry Haefner of Gallup. The Llewellyns from Las Cruces were a father and son. Quite possibly Robert, John and James Brown from Gallup were related, as well as Denry and Robert Martin, and William and Daniel Moran.

The legacy of Roosevelt's Rough Riders lives on in the many songs telling of their exploits, in paintings by Remington, in Hollywood movies, in works of fiction and non-fiction, as well as in the American psyche. Their story helped to briefly unite the many disparate members of our society: the Native American with the cowboy and soldier, the Westerner with the Easterner, the poor with the privileged, and people of color with whites.

Sources Used:

City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection, Las Vegas, NM. The Rough Rider Memorial Collection.

Jones, Virgil Carrington. Roosevelt's Rough Riders. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.

Marshall, Edward. The Story of the Rough Riders, 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry: The Regiment in Camp and on the Battle Field. New York: G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. New York: The Modern Library, 1999.

Walker, Dale L. The Boys of '98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1998.