The Rough Riders is the name bestowed on the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, one of three such regiments raised in 1898 for the Spanish-American War and the only one of the three to see action. The United States Army was weakened and left with little manpower after the American Civil War roughly thirty years prior. As a result, President William McKinley called upon 1,250 volunteers to assist in the war efforts. It was also called "Wood's Weary Walkers" after its first commander, Colonel Leonard Wood, as an acknowledgment of the fact that despite being a cavalry unit they ended up fighting on foot as infantry. Wood's second in command was former assistant secretary of the United States Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, a man who had pushed for American involvement in Cuban independence. When Colonel Wood became commander of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, the Rough Riders then became "Roosevelt's Rough Riders." That term was familiar in 1898, from Buffalo Bill who called his famous western show "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World." The Rough Riders were mostly made of college athletes, cowboys, and ranchers.
The volunteers were gathered in four areas: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. They were gathered mainly from the southwest because the hot climate region that the men were used to was similar to that of Cuba where they would be fighting. "The difficulty in organizing was not in selecting, but in rejecting men." The allowed limit set for the volunteer cavalry men was promptly met. They gathered a diverse bunch of men consisting of cowboys, gold or mining prospectors, hunters, gamblers, Native Americans and college boys; all of whom were able-bodied and capable on horseback and in shooting. Among these men were also police officers and military veterans who wished to see action again. Men who had served in the regular army during campaigns against Indians or served in the Civil War had been gathered to serve as higher ranking officers in the cavalry. In this regard they possessed the knowledge and experience to lead and train the men well. As a whole, the unit would not be entirely inexperienced. Leonard Wood, a doctor who served as the medical adviser for both the President and secretary of war, was appointed the position of Colonel of The Rough Riders with Roosevelt serving as Lieutenant Colonel. One particularly famous spot where volunteers were gathered was in San Antonio, Texas, at the Menger Hotel Bar. The bar is still open and serves as a tribute to the Rough Riders, containing much of their, and Theodore Roosevelt's, uniforms and memorabilia.
Before training began, Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt used his political influence gained as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to ensure that his volunteer cavalry regiment would be properly equipped to serve as any regular unit of the U.S. Army. For private soldiers and non commissioned officers, this meant the M1892/98 Springfield (Krag) bolt action rifle in .30 Army (.30-40) caliber: "They succeeded in getting their cartridges, revolvers (Colt .45), clothing, shelter-tents, and horse gear ... and in getting the regiment armed with the Krag-Jorgensen carbine used by the regular cavalry." Officers of the regiment each received a new lever-action M1895 Winchester rifle, also in .30 Army. The Rough Riders also used Bowie Hunter knives. A last minute gift from a wealthy donor were a pair of modern tripod mounted, gas-operated M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns in 7mm Mauser caliber.
In contrast, the uniforms of the regiment were designed to set the unit apart: "The Rough Rider uniform was a slouch hat, blue flannel shirt, brown trousers, leggings, and boots, with handkerchiefs knotted loosely around their necks. They looked exactly as a body of cowboy cavalry should look." It was the 'rough and tumble' appearance and charisma that contributed to earning them the title of The Rough Riders.
Training was very standard, even for a cavalry unit. They worked on basic military drills, protocol, and habits involving conduct, obedience and etiquette. The men proved to be eager to learn what was necessary and the training went smoothly. It was decided that the men would not be trained to use the saber as other cavalries often used, because they had no prior experience with that combat skill. Instead, they chose to have the men stick to the use of their carbines and revolvers as primary and secondary weapons. Although the men, for the most part, were already experienced horsemen, the officers refined their techniques in riding, shooting from horseback, and practicing in formations and in skirmishes. Along with this the high-ranking men heavily studied books filled with tactics and drills to better themselves in leading the others. During times which physical drills could not be run, either because of confinement on board the train, ship, or during times where space was inadequate, there were some books that were read further as to leave no time wasted in preparation for war. The competent training that the volunteer men received prepared them best as possible for their duty. They were not simply handed weapons and given vague directions to engage in a disorderly brawl.
On May 29, 1,060 Rough Riders and 1,258 of their horses and mules made their way to the Southern Pacific railroad to travel to Tampa, Florida where they would set off for Cuba. The lot awaited orders for departure from Major General William Rufus Shafter. Under heavy prompting from Washington D.C., General Shafter gave the order to dispatch the troops early before sufficient traveling storage was available. Due to this problem, only eight of the twelve companies of The Rough Riders were permitted to leave Tampa to engage in the war, and many of the horses and mules were left behind. Aside from Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt's first hand mention of deep, heartfelt sorrow from the men left behind, this situation resulted in a premature weakening of the men. Approximately one fourth of them who received training had already been lost, most dying of malaria and yellow fever. This sent the remaining troops into Cuba with a significant loss in men and morale.
Upon arrival on Cuban shores on June 23 the men promptly unloaded themselves and the small amount of equipment they carried with them. Camp was set up nearby and the men were to remain there until further orders had been given to advance. Further supplies were unloaded from the ships over the next day including the very few horses that were allowed on the journey. "The great shortcoming throughout the campaign was the utterly inadequate transportation. If they had been allowed to take our mule-train, they could have kept the whole cavalry division supplied." Each man was only able to carry a few days worth of food which had to last them longer and fuel their bodies for rigorous tasks. Even after only seventy-five percent of the total number of cavalry men was allowed to embark into Cuba they were still without most all of the horses that they had so heavily been trained and accustomed to using. They were not trained as infantry and were not conditioned to doing heavy marching, especially long distance in hot, humid, and dense jungle conditions. This ultimately served as a severe disadvantage to the men who had yet to see combat.
Within another day of camp being established, men were sent forward into the jungle for reconnaissance purposes, and before too long they returned with news of a Spanish outpost, Las Guasimas. By afternoon, The Rough Riders were given the command to begin marching towards Las Guasimas, to eliminate opposition and secure the area which stood in the path of further military advance. Upon arrival at their relative destination, the men slept through the night in a crude encampment nearby the Spanish outpost they would attack early the next morning.
The enemy held an advantage over the Americans by knowing their way through the complicated trails in the area of combat. They predicted where the Americans would be traveling on foot and exactly what positions to fire on. They also were able to use the land and cover in such a way that they were difficult to spot. Along with this, their guns used smokeless powder which did not give away their immediate position upon firing as other gunpowders would have. This increased the difficulty of finding the opposition for the U.S. soldiers. In some locations the jungle was too thick to see very far.
General Young, who was in command of the regulars and cavalry, began the attack in the early morning. Using long-range, large-caliber Hotchkiss guns he fired at the opposition, who were reportedly concealed along trenches, roads, ridges, and jungle cover. Colonel Wood's men, accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt, were not yet in the same vicinity as the other men at the start of the battle. They had a more difficult path to travel around the time the battle began, and at first they had to make their way up a very steep hill. "Many of the men, footsore and weary from their march of the preceding day, found the pace up this hill too hard, and either dropped their bundles or fell out of line, with the result that we went into action with less than five hundred men." Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt became aware that there were countless opportunities for any man to fall out of formation and resign from battle without notice as the jungle was often too thick in places to see through. This was yet another event that left the group with fewer men than they had at the start. Regardless, The Rough Riders pushed forward towards the outpost along with the regulars. Using careful observation, the officers were able to locate where the opposition was hidden in the brush and entrenchments and they were able to target their men properly to overcome them. Towards the end of the battle, Edward Marshall, a newspaper writer, was inspired by the men around him in the heat of battle to pick up a rifle and begin fighting alongside them. When he suffered a gunshot wound in the spine from one of the Spaniards another soldier mistook him as Colonel Wood from afar and ran back from the front line to report his death. Due to this misconception, Roosevelt temporarily took command as Colonel and gathered the troops together with his leadership charisma. The battle lasted an hour and a half from beginning to end with The Rough Riders suffering 8 dead and 31 wounded, including Captain Allyn K. Capron, Jr. Roosevelt came across Colonel Wood in full health after the battle finished and stepped down from his position to Lieutenant Colonel.
The United States had full control of this Spanish outpost on the road to Santiago by the end of the battle. General Shafter had the men hold position for six days while additional supplies were brought ashore. During this time The Rough Riders ate, slept, cared for the wounded, and buried the dead from both sides. During the six day encampment, some men died from fever. Among those stricken by illness was General Joseph Wheeler. Brigadier General Samuel Sumner assumed command of the cavalry and Wood took the second brigade as Brigadier General. This left Roosevelt as Colonel of The Rough Riders.
The order was given for the men to march the eight miles along the road to Santiago from the outpost they had been holding. Originally, Colonel Roosevelt had no specific orders for himself and his men. They were simply to march to San Juan Heights where over one-thousand Spanish soldiers held the area and hold position. It was decided that Brigadier General Henry Lawton's division would be the main fighters in the battle while taking El Caney, a Spanish stronghold, a few miles away. The cavalry was to simply serve as a distraction while artillery and battery struck the Spanish from afar. Lawton's infantry would begin the battle and The Rough Riders were to march and meet with them mid-battle. In this way, The Rough Riders were not seen as a critical tool to the United States Army in this battle.
San Juan Hill and another hill were separated by a small valley and pond; the river ran near the foot of both. Together, this geography formed San Juan Heights. Colonel Roosevelt and The Rough Riders made their way to the foot of what was dubbed Kettle Hill because of the old sugar refinement cauldrons that lay along it. The battle of San Juan Heights began with the firing of the artillery and battery at the enemy location. Soon after battery-fire was returned and The Rough Riders, standing at the position of the friendly artillery, had to promptly move to avoid shells. The men moved down from their position and began making their way through and along the San Juan River towards the base of Kettle Hill. There they took cover along the riverbank and in the tall grass to avoid sniper and artillery fire that was being directed towards their position, however they were left vulnerable and pinned down. The Spanish rifles were able to discharge eight rounds in the twenty seconds it took for the United States rifles to fire one round. In this way they had a strong advantage over the Americans. The rounds they fired were 7mm Mauser bullets which moved at a high velocity and inflicted small, clean wounds. Some of the men were hit, but few were mortally wounded or killed.
Colonel Roosevelt, deeply dissatisfied with General Shafter's inaction with sending men out for reconnaissance and failure to issue more direct orders, became uneasy with the idea of leaving himself and his men sitting in the line of fire. He sent messengers to seek out one of the generals to try to coax orders from them to advance from their position. Finally, the Rough Riders received orders to assist the regulars in their assault on the hill's front. Roosevelt, riding on horseback, got his men onto their feet and into position to begin making their way up the hill. He claimed that he wished to fight on foot as he did at Las Guasimas; however he would have found it difficult to move up and down the hill to supervise his men in a quick and efficient manner on foot. He also recognized that he could see his men better from the elevated horseback, and they could see him better as well. Roosevelt chided his own men to not leave him alone in a charge up the hill, and drawing his sidearm promised nearby black soldiers separated from their own units that he would fire at them if they turned back, warning them he kept his promises. His Rough Riders chanted (likely in jest) "Oh he always does, he always does!" The soldiers, laughing, fell in with the volunteers to prepare for the assault.
As the troops of the various units began slowly creeping up the hill, firing their rifles at the opposition as they climbed, Roosevelt went to the captain of the platoons in back and had a word with him. He stated that it was his opinion that they could not effectively take the hill due to an insufficient ability to effectively return fire, and that the solution was to charge it full-on. The captain reiterated his colonel's orders to hold position. Roosevelt, recognizing the absence of the other Colonel, declared himself the ranking officer and ordered a charge up Kettle Hill. The captain stood hesitant, and Colonel Roosevelt rode off on his horse, Texas, leading his own men uphill while waving his hat in the air and cheering. The Rough Riders followed him with enthusiasm and obedience without hesitation. By then, the other men from the different units on the hill became stirred by this event and began bolting up the hill alongside their countrymen. The 'charge' was actually a series of short rushes by mixed groups of regulars and Rough Riders. Within twenty minutes Kettle Hill was taken, though casualties were heavy. The rest of San Juan Heights was taken within the hour following.
The Rough Riders' charge on Kettle Hill was facilitated by a hail of covering fire from three Gatling Guns commanded by Lt. John H. Parker, which fired some 18,000 .30 Army rounds into the Spanish trenches atop the crest of both hills. Col. Roosevelt noted that the hammering sound of the Gatling guns visibly raised the spirits of his men: "There suddenly smote on our ears a peculiar drumming sound. One or two of the men cried out, "The Spanish machine guns!" but, after listening a moment, I leaped to my feet and called, "Itâ€™s the Gatlings, men! Our Gatlings" Immediately the troopers began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring."
Trooper Jesse D. Langdon of the 1st Volunteer Infantry, who accompanied Col. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in their assault on Kettle Hill, reported: "We were exposed to the Spanish fire, but there was very little because just before we started, why, the Gatling guns opened up at the bottom of the hill, and everybody yelled, "The Gatlings! The Gatlings!" and away we went. The Gatlings just enfiladed the top of those trenches. We'd never have been able to take Kettle Hill if it hadn't been for Parker's Gatling guns."
A Spanish counterattack on Kettle Hill by some 600 infantry was quickly decimated by one of Lt. Parker's Gatling guns recently emplaced on the summit of San Juan Hill, which killed all but forty of the attackers before they had closed to within 250 yards of the Americans on Kettle Hill. Col. Roosevelt was so impressed by the actions of Lt. Parker and his men that he placed his regiment's two 7mm Colt-Browning machine guns and the volunteers manning them under Parker, who immediately emplaced them - along with 10,000 rounds of captured 7mm Mauser ammunition - at tactical firing points in the American line.
Colonel Roosevelt's example of valor and fearlessness in the face of danger served as motivation to his men to promptly follow his command and spring into the fray. Had it been another leader with less charisma and spunk, the order to charge may not have been given and the cavalry may not have had the same enthusiasm in their charge uphill. As for Roosevelt himself, he gave most of the credit to Lt. Parker and his Gatling Gun Detachment: "I think Parker deserved rather more credit than any other one man in the entire campaign... he had the rare good judgment and foresight to see the possibilities of the machine-guns. He then, by his own exertions, got it to the front and proved that it could do invaluable work on the field of battle, as much in attack as in defense."
Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders played a key role in the outcome of the Spanish-American war by serving as the catalyst with other American units on constricting the ring around the city of Santiago. The ultimate goal of capturing the San Juan Heights (also known as Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill) was from that strategic position to move downhill and take Santiago de Cuba, a strong point for the Spanish army. The Spanish had a fleet of their cruisers in port. By taking areas around Santiago and consequently moving in on the city from many sides, the United States hoped to scare the Spanish cruisers into leaving port out to sea where they would encounter the United States Navy. This, in fact, was the exact result. Only a couple of days after the battle on San Juan Heights, the Spanish cruiser fleet was quickly sunk. This took a tremendous toll on the Spanish army due to the fact that a large portion of a nation's military power lies upon their naval capabilities.
However, the sinking of the Spanish cruisers did not mean the end of the war. Battles continued in and around Santiago. By July 17 the Spanish forces in Santiago surrendered to General Shafter and the United States military. Various battles in the region continued on and the United States was continuously victorious. On August 12 the Spanish Government surrendered to the United States and agreed to an armistice that relinquished their control of Cuba. The armistice also gained the United States the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. This was an enormous turning point for America which had been wounded by civil war for over thirty years. Gaining such a large mass of land all at once brought the United States up on the ladder of world powers. The Spanish-American War also began a trend of United States intervention in foreign affairs which has lasted to present day.
On August 14 the Rough Riders landed at Montauk Point in Long Island, New York. There, they met up with the other four companies that had been unfortunately left behind in Tampa. Colonel Roosevelt made note of how very many of the men who were left behind felt guilty for not serving in Cuba with the others. However, he also stated that "those who stayed had done their duty precisely as did those who went, for the question of glory was not to be considered in comparison to the faithful performance of whatever was ordered." During the first portion of the month that the men stayed in Montauk they received hospital care. Many of the men were stricken with Malarial fever (described at the time as "Cuban fever") and died in Cuba, while some were brought back to the United States on board the ship in makeshift quarantine. "One of the distressing features of the Malaria which had been ravaging the troops was that it was recurrent and persistent. Some of the men died after reaching home, and many were very sick." Aside from malaria, there were cases of yellow fever, dysentery and other illnesses. Many of the men suffered from general exhaustion and were in poor condition upon returning home, some twenty pounds lighter. Everyone received fresh food and most were nourished back to their normal health.
The rest of the month in Montauk, New York was spent in celebration of victory among the troops. The regiment was presented with three different mascots that represented the Rough Riders: a mountain lion by the name of Josephine that was brought to Tampa by some troops from Arizona, a war eagle named in Colonel Roosevelt's honor brought in by some New Mexican troops, and lastly a small dog by the name of Cuba who had been brought along on the journey overseas. Accompanying the presented mascots was a young boy who had stowed away on the ship before it embarked to Cuba. He was discovered with a rifle and boxes of ammunition and was, of course, sent ashore before departure from the United States. He was taken in by the regiment that was left behind, given a small Rough Riders uniform, and made an honorary member. The men also made sure to honor their colonel in return for his stellar leadership and service. They presented him with a small bronze statue of Remington's "The Bronco-buster" which portrayed a cowboy riding a violently bucking horse. "There could have been no more appropriate gift from such a regiment ... most of them looked upon the bronze with the critical eyes of professionals. I doubt if there was any regiment in the world which contained so large a number of men able to ride the wildest and most dangerous horses." After the turning over of their gift, each and every man in the regiment walked by and shook Colonel Roosevelt's hand and bid him a good-bye.
On the morning of September 15 the regimental property including all equipment, firearms and horses were turned back over to the United States government. The soldiers said one last good-bye to each other and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, Roosevelt's Rough Riders, was disbanded at last. Before they all returned to their respective homes across the country, Colonel Roosevelt gave them a short speech that commended their efforts in the war, expressed his profound pride and reminded them that, although heroes, they would have to integrate back into normal society and work as hard as everyone else. Many of the men were unable to gain their jobs back from when they lost them before leaving for war. Some, due to illness or injury, were unable to work for a long time. Money was donated by a number of wealthier supporters of the regiment and used to supplement the wellbeing of the needy veterans, many of whom were too proud to accept the help.
A first reunion of the Rough Riders was held in the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1899. Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, attended this event. In 1948, fifty years after the Rough Riders disbandment, the U.S. Post office issued a commemorative stamp in their honor and memory. The stamp depicts Captain William Owen "Bucky" O'Neill, who was killed in action while leading A Troop at the Battle of San Juan Hill, July 1, 1898. The Rough Riders continued to have annual reunions in Las Vegas until 1967, when the sole veteran to attend was Jess Langdon. He died in 1975.
The last two surviving veterans of the regiment were Frank C. Brito and Jesse Langdon. Brito, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, whose father was a Yaqui Indian stagecoach operator, was 21 when he enlisted with his brother in May 1898. He never made it to Cuba, having been a member of H Troop, one of the four left behind in Tampa. He later became a mining engineer and lawman. He died April 22, 1973, at the age of 96. Langdon, born 1881 in what is now North Dakota, "hoboed" his way to Washington, D.C., and called on Roosevelt at the Navy Department, reminding him that his father, a veterinarian, had treated Roosevelt's cattle at his Dakota ranch during his ranching days. Roosevelt arranged a railroad ticket for him to San Antonio, where Langdon enlisted in the Rough Riders at age 16. He was the last surviving member of the regiment and the only one to attend the final two reunions, in 1967 and 1968. He died June 29, 1975 at the age of 94, twenty-six months after Brito.